Should Students Be Able to Fire Teammates in A Class Project? (Part 3 of 3)

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In the previous two posts in this series, I talked about steps I take to set teams up for success in group class projects.

The first post looked at group contracts. The second post looked at peer evaluations of one’s team.

In this final post, let’s look at the more dramatic tool that I use to set teams up for success in group class projects: The ability to fire teammates from a group.

Photo CC by Sean MacEntee
Photo CC by Sean MacEntee

As I said in my first post in this series, you may be thinking that this letting students fire teammates is fraught with danger. Some of you may think it is too harsh. Others of you may be thinking this is only natural, as being fired is a real possibility for failure to do one’s work in any job.

I understand all of these sentiments. My approach is that students should have the right to expect great work from their peers. They should be empowered to hold their peers accountable and that one should be accountable to their peers. By learning these lessons as young adults, students are learning to advocate for their interests in a professional manner when the actions of others adversely affect them in a work environment.

I recently received an email from a faculty member wanting to know more about the firing process, as I had mentioned it in passing in a blog post a while back.  So, there may be more people out there that are curious about what it means to let our students fire each other.

The purpose of this post is to explain to you how and why I choose to use this tool. I’ll also explain a minor modification I’ve made since then.

How Firing Works and Some Safeguards:

Students cannot fire a teammate at any time or for any reason.

As I said, the reasons that a team could fire a member are derived from the group contract, discussed in post #1. Of course, there are other circumstances where one could warrant firing a teammate even thought teams might have failed to put it on the contract. But, I try to stick with the contract as much as possible.

In terms of timing, getting fired at the end of the semester before a major project is due would be a major blow to a student’s grade. So, a few safeguards are in place.

At the start of the semester, I briefly explain the process of how to fire a teammate which I will outline below. The documents discussed below are on the course website where students would download them and fill them out. The documents themselves provide the instructions students would need, if they forgot.

First, I set a deadline in the semester that students have to first issue someone an official warning by before they can fire the person. Another way to do this, is simply tell students that they have to give someone a warning, say, 2 weeks before they can fire them.

What is a warning? A warning is simply a written complaint that a team files with me that makes a complaint against an accused student. It serves to officially put that student on notice that if he/she does not change their behavior, then he/she will likely be fired.

The reason I believe in the warning first, is that it usually solves the problem without the drastic measure of firing the student, because it gives the accused a chance to right the ship. I find that, just like in most conflicts, people often just want the other person to know how they feel. The grievance has been aired and everyone in the group is aware that the warning exists. I keep a copy of the warning and give a copy to the accused.

In order for a team to be able to issue a warning, the majority of the remaining teammates must agree to issue the warning. So, if there are 4 students in a group, 2 of the remaining 3 students would have to vote in favor of issuing the warning.

Here is a copy of the Issue a Team Member a Warning document.

Requiring the majority of teammates agree to a warning helps reduce ‘he said, she said’ scenarios where two people are simply not getting along and one is using the group as an outlet for what is really an interpersonal conflict. However, it could result in a student feeling ganged up on.

Once a warning has been issued, if the team decides that the accused hasn’t changed, then they can file a Petition to Fire A Team Member. The process is similar to what is used in the warning. The majority has to vote for the firing. A specific reason has to be given as to why they are electing to fire this teammate. I make the final decision to ensure the cause is justifiable.

Here is the Petition to Fire A Team Member sheet

How Does This Affect The Person Who Got Fired?

In short, if the person gets fired, he/she keeps all grades that their team earned during the time they were a part of that group. The student’s choice going forward is to, either find a new group (time permitting and assuming another group will take them in) to work on any remaining assignments, work alone on the project, or fail the remaining assignments.

Some Thoughts

The process seems a bit litigious. But, it makes firing a teammate procedural and takes some of the emotion, potential for perceived favoritism, and conflict out of it. And, because it is a bit of work to fire someone, teammates are not firing one another left and right. Said another way, the process protects teammates from each other.

It isn’t so much that students can fire one another that is empowering so much as it is the knowledge that they have the right to fire someone who is not doing their work.

In fact, what I’ve noticed is that students often don’t want to fire another student, at least in our department because it is small. So, they know that they will see this student in another course and that would be awkward.

As such, I have since added the ability to come to me as a group and request that a student does not receive credit, or receives only partial credit on a team assignment, but is not fired for the rest of the semester.  I’ve noticed our students tend to feel better about doing this. They aren’t casting a fellow student off the island, but they’re also aren’t allowing any freeloaders. I don’t have an official form for this. But, I make it known on the syllabus and group contract form on post #1.

Summary:

In summary, there are 4 tools students have to control outcomes in their group and ensure everyone is getting credit or not for their group involvement. They are:

1) The group contract – setting norms & expectations from the group (see post #1 in this series).
2) Team evaluations – which I range in value from 12-18% of their final grade, depending on how much group work there is (see post #2 in this series).
3) Ability to fire a team member (after a warning) – this is the most drastic step.
4) Ability to request that a team member’s grade be reduced or that the student doesn’t receive any credit on an assignment that the student didn’t do any or sufficient work on. This is the middle ground.

How Often Do People Get Fired?

It happens only in the most drastic of circumstances. I’ve seen #4 done twice last year and once this year since I introduced it. I’ve seen #3 done one time in my 3.5 years here at Shepherd and twice in the two years before that.

I hope this series of posts provides some insight in how I seek to set up my classroom for success in group projects. It is not a perfect model.  There are still some people who slack off and others who are frustrated by their teammates. And I will continue to tweak with an effort to reduce these issues and maximize group effectiveness.

How do you empower students to take control of their teams and build success?

 

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