March 23, 2018

Taking the Sting from Group Projects | Peer to Peer Review

I hated group projects when I was a library-school student. Oh, did I hate them! Slackers going unpunished, poor communication, floundering, missed deadlines causing panic, what’s not to hate?

Now that I’m teaching library school, I assign group projects anyway. A terrible hypocrite am I.

The logistics are compelling enough. SLIS’s introductory library-technology course seats 40, and regularly fills to within one or two seats of capacity. Part of my final assignment for this course is a hands-on technology implementation—a library-tailored Linux or Drupal installation, a from-scratch Omeka collection, an epub ebook, an EAD finding aid — and I can’t possibly schedule nearly 40 project demos in a week, not when several of my students have full-time jobs and straitened schedules. The other half of the final project is an extensive project plan for a fairly major technology-related problem in a fictional library or archives, and the thought of grading 40 of those on top of 40 demos makes me cringe.

What’s more, I can assign bigger projects to groups than I can to individuals. I can’t imagine asking students in an introductory technology course to tackle Drupal installation and customization individually. Not only would many founder and fail, the experience would be so terrifying and discouraging that they’d be alienated from computers forever, which would be a disastrous outcome for them and for librarianship. A group of them, on the other hand, can and do combine their skills, teach each other, and help each other past the inevitable blind alleys and setbacks. Nothing about this course is more gratifying than students showing me their end-of-semester work with beaming smiles and assurances that they never thought they could accomplish something so technologically involved, but now that they’ve done it they’ve gained confidence in their ability to tackle tough technology jobs.

Beyond logistics, though, I remember well my own rude awakening concerning just how much library work is accomplished by teams, committees, and task forces. I was asked to lead my first task force barely a few months into my first professional position; gobsmacked and terrified, I hastened to the business stacks to read up on running meetings and keeping committees functional. Because I know my students will likewise have to lead work groups as well as serve worthily on them, my syllabus warns:

The idea that group projects are uniquely designed to torture library school students is a snare and a delusion. Librarianship includes immense amounts of collaborative work, from local committees and task forces to involvement in national professional organizations and everything in between. None of the obstacles to working in groups—scheduling, free riders, personality conflicts—disappears when you receive your degree. If you are not good at working in a team, now is the time to learn!

That helped the penny drop for many of my students, but I found that it wasn’t quite enough. Just telling students “work well in groups!” gives them neither tools nor incentive to do so. Last fall, then, I added an explicit (though lightweight) project-management framework and an end-of-semester “360 evaluation” to the final project.

Each project group must choose a project manager, who is responsible for all communication between the group and me, and also has authority (granted in the syllabus) to set expectations, solve problems, and approach me privately for advice on serious group-dynamics issues. I also insist upon a written project plan with timeline and individual group-member assignments by the fourth week of class, and a mid-semester check-in.

The 360 evaluation is super-simple: just a private email from every student to me listing every group member (including the project manager!) and characterizing their contributions to the project. These are a snap to review, since I’m only skimming for problems.

Final projects in this class have always been outstanding, but last semester I noted a drop nearly to zero in students coming to me to complain (politely) about their group, or worry about its progress or their grade. Project managers proved hyper-responsible, groups avoided last-minute end-of-semester scrambles thanks to the agreed-upon project schedule, and the 360 evaluations kept students from fretting that one bad apple would destroy the entire group’s grade.

Do my students now love group projects? Well, no; I teach library school, not utopia. Group projects are still logistically and psychologically challenging, just as they are in the work world. I found myself thoroughly gratified at how much these uncomplicated interventions seemed to help, though, and I write an entire column about them because I do believe that similarly simple interventions would help a great many librarians accomplish more in groups. I’m even hearing that some of my students are taking project-management techniques they learned in my class to projects in other classes. That gives me hope that when they are asked to lead their first task forces as new professionals, they’ll smile and dive confidently and knowledgeably in.

Dorothea Salo About Dorothea Salo

Dorothea Salo is a Faculty Associate in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches digital curation, database design, XML and linked data, and organization of information.

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