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Improve Group Project Accountability with a Guidebook

Working together is essential in science labs (and life). This biology professor’s guide defines group project roles—and encourages everyone to join in.

Educator

Lourdes Guidicelli-Gadea, MPH

Adjunct Professor of Biology and Microbiology Laboratories, Christopher Newport University

MPH (Master of Public Health), BS in Biology/Biological Sciences

Lourdes Guidicelli-Gadea, MPH, confesses that she does not know how to sit still. In addition to teaching three science classes at Christopher Newport University, she also manages to draw, paint, sew, cook, and go for a run almost every day—often using social media to share photos of things that catch her fancy along the way.

Guidicelli-Gadea’s appreciation of the many things the world has to offer is evident in her choice of subject matter, too: biology and microbiology. As she says, “Science is ever changing. Nothing is static. This is what attracts me. It’s never boring, never the same. You can do the same experiment with the same variants and something always changes.”

She channels this same passion for change into her teaching, as is evidenced by the zeal with which she modified her approach to group project assignments when she noticed some students taking a passive role. Today, her Laboratory Groupwork Guide gives her classes the guidelines and tools they need to participate equally—and excitedly. As a bonus, she adds that there are far fewer complaints about people not pulling their weight.

Challenge: An imbalance in participation in group projects

Back when she was a student participating in group projects, Guidicelli-Gadea says, “There was always this fear that someone is not going to help.” As a professor, her goal is to make sure everyone is doing a job, and that everyone is learning and connecting with everyone else throughout the project.

What she observed in her classes, however, was that not all students knew how to work well within a group. She saw that some students would be passive, just sitting back and waiting for someone else to take charge. It frustrated her to see students unable to learn by taking part in the lesson.

“Science is about working in groups,” she says. “And I want them to realize that whatever they’re doing is going to affect the person next to them. [Becoming better at participating in group projects] enlightens them, and they can see things from a different perspective.”

Guidicelli-Gadea believes that the more active a role her students play in class, the more they learn. Also, the better able they are to understand the viewpoint of others, the more effectively they will be able to interact in any group, whether at work or in our global society.

Innovation: Creating clear guidelines to boost student participation

Early in her studies, Guidicelli-Gadea learned that some professors have a way of motivating their classes. “There was one person in particular who influenced and inspired me. I loved how she taught labs and lectures; I would stand around and watch her. She went out of her way to engage the students, and she always made sure they knew what they were doing. The students loved her because they could go to her at any time.”

Perhaps this is one reason why, when Guidicelli-Gadea saw that some students in her lab classes were not engaged in group projects, this professor was motivated to do something about it. Perhaps most notable is her Laboratory Groupwork Guide, which goes into great detail about how students should interact within a group project—in this case a lab—by delineating specific roles and having students create a contract in which they promise to be accountable for the jobs they volunteer to undertake. The handbook has resulted in some unexpected benefits, she adds.

“I started [this guidebook] more for the passive students—to pull them in—but what I have found is that it helps everyone,” she says. “Because the students are all participating, this makes them focus on their tasks. Each person has a job, and they work on that, then they start to help each other.” And that may be the best outcome of all.

Context

Course: BIOL 301L Microbiology Laboratory
Frequency: One 3–4-hour class meeting per week for 14 weeks
Class size: 24
Description: Microbiology Laboratory is designed so that [students] will become proficient in culturing microbes, serial dilutions, and using light microscopy to view stained microbes and to identify and classify them according to their chemical and physical characteristics.
In her words: “Microbiology studies the little things—what you don’t see. It’s the knowledge of these organisms that live inside of us. Some are helpful, and others make us sick. In microbiology, we learn how to grow them in [an] environment so they can flourish. We study them and then also learn how you can keep them at bay.”

BIOL 301L Microbiology Laboratory

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Lesson: Ensuring student participation with a Laboratory Groupwork Guide

For educators looking to improve the dynamics within their students’ group projects, Guidicelli-Gadea offers these strategies:

Begin with a getting-to-know you exercise

On the first day of lab, Guidicelli-Gadea makes time for introductions—about 10 to 15 minutes. She asks her students to share their names and exchange whatever information they would like with each other. “[At first,] everyone sits by their friends. No one wants to work with people they don’t know. Introductions are a good way to break the ice.”

This initial interaction also paves the way for working together later. As she says, “You can’t work with someone if you don’t know their name. [Making introductions] gets them talking to one another, and then when it’s time to work in groups, they are not as shy [because] they have already introduced themselves.”

Start each class with an engaging exercise

Guidicelli-Gadea bans electronic devices from her classes, which is for student safety as well as engagement, but she does use technology to catch students’ attention. Specifically, she starts each lab session with a 15-minute slide presentation, calling on different students to read each of the slides.

“If they have to read, they are paying attention. And these are title slides, so they [include minimal information. Students] have to fill it in; they have to ask questions,” she says. “If they get the answers from the beginning, they don’t grasp the material. I like them to be able to apply the information into different areas, so I want them asking questions.”

Assign roles with specific responsibilities

To ensure that each group member has a defined role, Guidicelli-Gadea passes out a Laboratory Groupwork Guide to her students. In it, she outlines the various roles for each group experiment, which include:

  • Reader, who verifies the steps to follow, the correct name of the organism, and the materials needed
  • Technician A, who gathers materials, disposes of used materials, and returns unused materials to their proper place
  • Technician B, who ensures that test tubes and plates are properly labeled, collects finished experiment materials and stores them properly, and cleans up afterward
  • Recorder, who uses a notebook to write down the experiment’s purpose, steps, expected result, and any changes done to the procedure or organisms
  • Reporter, who reads experiment guidelines, reads and interprets results, and reports only what is seen

Students can change the role they take on for each group project.

Have students create a participation contract

For specific group reports, Guidicelli-Gadea asks her students to create contracts, in which each group agrees to divide up the work among themselves for each project, using the roles listed above. They also divide up the writing of the final lab report itself, with one student summarizing the results and conclusion and another completing the introduction and discussion portions, for example.

“They decide who is going to do the research, who is going to do the notes, who is going to do the writing, who is going to do the spell check,” she says. “[By creating a contract,] each person has a job and knows what they have to do.”

Sometimes she encourages groups to switch things up from one project to another, so they can learn about all the different aspects of a lab report. But most of the time she leaves it up to the students. Either way, the point is clear: They know their jobs and they are expected to do them.

Make sure the project itself is engaging

It is helpful for each student to feel individually invested in and interested in the subject matter, says Guidicelli-Gadea. For this reason, she sets up her lab experiments so that there is active learning on every level. For example, students learn how to grow organisms, they learn how to count organisms, and they learn how to create reports on what they observe. The entire process is very hands-on, just as it will be for students who enter a career in the sciences.

One assignment she particularly likes involves students obtaining a sample of bacteria from commonly touched items, such as a door or a cell phone. “They think the phone seems clean, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, my god,’ when they look at it under the microscope,” she says. “So what they learn in lectures, they put in practice. Everything is interrelated.”

Have students assess the report partnership

Because students select their own role in the group projects, they tend to choose something that plays to their strengths—which can help avoid tension around group performance. At the end of the semester, Guidicelli-Gadea asks students to fill out a detailed questionnaire evaluating how well the group members worked together—and how well the professor’s approach facilitated that. Students evaluate statements such as, “Your report partnership meetings are compelling and not boring,” and, “Your report partnership is deeply concerned about the prospect of letting down their peers.” It also measures the depth of student relationships developed in the partnerships with statements such as, “Your report partnership knows about one another’s personal lives and are comfortable discussing them.” The rating system was adapted from Successful Strategies for Teams: Team Member Handbook, by Frances A. Kennedy and Linda B. Nilson (2008). It helps Guidicelli-Gadea adjust her teaching style to better facilitate the development of strong, cohesive work groups in future classes.

Outcomes

The outcomes of increased group participation are improved student engagement, better assignment completion, more interaction between students, and a happier class overall, says Guidicelli-Gadea.

“The contracts and the jobs they have—it all makes them more accountable to one another,” she adds. “And it ensures that whatever is assigned is done right.”

Student feedback

Guidicelli-Gadea says that she has used this groupwork guide for three semesters and has only had two students offer negative feedback. The overall student response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When students see the order to what they are doing, they enjoy it more,” she says. “They know, ‘Oh, this is my job.’ [And they become better at] working in groups.”

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