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5 Ways to Prevent Inequities in Group Projects

Through research and experimentation, biology instructor Dr. Cristina Gheorghiu has discovered ways to encourage equitable student collaboration.


Cristina Gheorghiu, PhD

Instructor of Biology, Wilfrid Laurier University in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

PhD in Parasitology, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Cristina Gheorghiu was not always a group work supporter. Even with 20 years of teaching under her belt, this biology and health sciences instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University was extremely reluctant to try it. She was haunted by visions of frustrated students arguing with group members who failed to pull their weight. Then she realized that if she could muscle through her hesitation, she could help her students develop a host of skills that would support them throughout life—perhaps more than the classwork would.

“It was only when I taught Communication and Critical Thinking in Biology—a mandatory second-year course based on group work—that I realized that students, regardless of their future career path, will most likely be part of a team,” Gheorghiu explains. As a result, she says, she instituted cooperative team-based learning: Students work in small groups structured toward achieving positive interdependence (mutual goals and group rewards) and individual accountability (each student is responsible for doing their share of the work and for mastering all of the material).

“Although the coverage of course material is paramount, it is equally essential to teach students transferable skills that are relevant throughout their other studies and in their lives outside of the university,” she now asserts. These skills include respect for peers, accountability, time management, prioritization, conflict resolution, leadership, critical thinking, communication, and group dynamics. Especially for nonmajors, who may not reference her biology teachings often in the future, she realized that these types of lessons could strengthen her impact on students’ futures.

For Gheorghiu, the journey from doubter to devotee has required some skill building, too: persistence (through rounds of trial and error), receptiveness (to student feedback), and research (into methods of promoting equitable teamwork). Below, she offers five of her hard-won insights to others who want to believe that inequities are not inevitable in group work.

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“Like it or not and whether they are aware of it or not, students will always be a part of a group. For that reason, group work is very beneficial for their future career and life in general.”

— Cristina Gheorghiu, PhD

Course: HE431/BI416 Pathophysiology

Course description: Pathophysiology is the study of functional changes in cells, tissues, and organs as a result of disease and/or injury. Building upon the knowledge base acquired in undergraduate human physiology and/or comparative physiology courses, we will examine the underlying mechanisms of various disorders including the cardiovascular, respiratory, and immune systems. Examples of specific disorders to be addressed in lecture may include inflammation, anemia, hypertension, coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, asthma, as well as other multi-organ conditions arising from environmental stress (e.g., adaptive responses, pain).

Gheorghiu’s 5 tips for minimizing inequities in group projects

Today, Gheorghiu has found ways to embed group work and collaboration into all of her courses. For example, much of the group work she assigns involves case studies. (See “Gheorghiu’s Sample Case Studies” for two examples.) These realistic scenarios are designed to allow students to apply theoretical knowledge gained from lectures and textbooks, which gives them the opportunity to think like a trained professional. “It excites them greatly to be involved in solving these ‘puzzles,’ and in the process they truly learn instead of simply memorizing the covered material,” Gheorghiu explains.

To prepare for a case study activity, she allows students to divide into groups of their choosing. “I provide each group half of a case study to read at home, then distribute the second half during the following class period,” Gheorghiu says. Each group must submit a written assignment based on what they read at home; that serves as a starting point for in-class discussion. In class, students then brainstorm with their own group, followed by a general class discussion in which they attempt to collaboratively solve the case.

Below are five steps she always uses in group work to help keep the peace.

1. Add terms such as conflict resolution to the curriculum

Gheorghiu does not expect students to figure out how to work together productively all on their own. “I give students instruction on things like how to be a good group member, how to establish the dynamics of the group, how to approach conflict resolution, and even how to show each other respect,” she explains.

“Most students already have a good understanding of group dynamics and efficient work ethics,” she adds. “I encourage [them] to take ownership of their own work and to be accountable for their contribution to the team effort. When conflict occurs, I prioritize acting as a mediator rather than an arbitrator, as I consider that they also need to learn how to successfully resolve conflict on their own.”

Another important dimension of group work that students need help with is time management. “Everyone in a group has their own schedule with their own respective deadlines, whether related to my assignment or other classes [or their jobs or home life],” says Gheorghiu. “So I teach them how to prioritize and how to negotiate deadlines and division of labor.”

2. Let students choose their own roles in the group

Gheorghiu lets students decide who will be the group leader and who will act in other specific roles within the group. “I realized some of the students are very keen to become leaders and others are more shy,” she says. “I see that in the group work and in the individual assessments of each group member’s contribution to the project, as well as in the reflection papers.”

She believes it is an essential experience for students to think critically about their strengths and to choose their own roles, because they will inevitably be a part of one group or another throughout their adult lives. Abilities to resolve conflicts, delegate authority, and communicate with others all will be necessary.

Gheorghiu’s Sample Case Studies

Here are two of the case studies that Gheorghiu uses in two different courses.

Course: Fundamentals of Parasitology (BI484)

Case study: You are a member of the Ontario Health Ministry and you must give advice to travelers in West Africa about ways to protect themselves against waterborne parasites. Indicate the parasitic waterborne species endemic to the area. For each species, specify: (1) their hosts and life cycles, (2) the role humans play in the life cycle, (3) all the potential ways of contamination, (4) the symptomatology they cause in humans, and (5) the prevention methods one needs to be aware of in order to avoid getting infected.

Course: Vertebrate Biodiversity and Conservation (BI458)

Case study: Imagine that the only population of a rare and declining flamingo species lives along the shore of an isolated lake. This lake has numerous unique species of fish, crayfish, and insects. The lake and its shores are owned by a logging company that is planning to build a paper mill on the shore where the flamingos nest. The mill will seriously pollute the lake and threatens to destroy the flamingo’s food source. You have $1 million to spend on conservation in the area. The company is willing to sell the lake and its shores for $1 million. An effective flamingo management program involving captive breeding, release of new individuals into the population, habitat improvement, and natural history studies would cost $750,000. Is it better to buy the land and not devote resources to managing and researching the flamingo? Or would it be better to manage the flamingo and allow the lake to be destroyed? Can you suggest other alternatives or possibilities? Explain your choice using the concepts taught in this course.

3. Have students annotate group projects to identify individual work

Educators may worry about unequal member contributions when students work in groups. Not knowing who contributed what to a collaborative project makes it harder to assess students accurately. It can also mean that some students get away with doing less—and end up learning less—while one or two students do the bulk of the work and end up overburdened, frustrated, and resentful.

Gheorghiu overcomes this challenge by having students submit annotated group work, showing each person’s individual contributions. “Everyone indicates exactly where they contributed to a group effort by inserting their names in brackets after each section,” she says. “I can also see the quality of each person’s work.”

4. Ask students to rank their fellow group members based on effort

Gheorghiu asks students to submit confidential, individual assessments in which they rank themselves and their peers on their respective contributions to the team effort (a rank of 1 indicates the highest contribution; a 5 in a 5-member team indicates the lowest contribution). “If the effort is not even, this will be reflected in their marks, even in a group activity,” says Gheorghiu. Aside from the individual rankings, each student also needs to indicate each teammate’s contribution (including their own) for all these activities. Team members who were not in class should get a rank of zero for the in-class ranking, since they did not participate in the group effort.

These techniques have paid off, she adds. “I needed to ensure that all team members put in equal effort for their group work. These techniques allowed me to better orient myself in the final marking for both the written and in-class activities, especially for groups with an uneven split of effort,” says Gheorghiu. More importantly, when students receive their marks for the first case study, they realize their grade is a realistic representation of their effort regardless of the overall group mark. As a result, they not only are more confident that their contribution has been accurately assessed but they become more motivated to participate as best they can to the following group activities.

5. Use reflection papers to help students see the perks of group work

Gheorghiu gains further insight on each student’s effort by asking each of them to submit an individual reflection paper in which they describe the how the project improved their understanding of the course content. Students also must detail the transferable skills that they used during the project, then consider how those skills can be leveraged outside of her classroom.

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