Three dreaded words, from middle school classroom through graduate school: “Group project required.” Most of those who dislike group projects have typically done the majority of the work in past collective efforts. Slackers in group projects are slackers everywhere else, so for them, a group project is simply an opportunity to let someone else carry the load while they get the credit. Whether you are doing a social studies project on the original 13 colonies in seventh grade or you are on faculty planning curriculum, it’s all about group projects. It’s wise to help Latino students quell anxiety and build skill in managing collective efforts well. Those skills are transferable to home and work, too, so student competence in those areas helps prevent future angst for many.
Predictably, a Hispanic student’s ability to work well with others stems from early experiences with family. If parents have taught children how to get along respectfully, work cooperatively, communicate openly and share the reward with family, group projects are an opportunity to do the same with friends or strangers. If the experience at home has been competitive and unsupportive with volatile arguments or people walking away from conflict, students will feel far less confident about completing the group assignment. Too often, teachers at all levels assign group projects to inexperienced or unskilled students but fail to provide adequate structure and support for helping students understand the process of working in a group. If left without guidance about process, students will typically play out their family dynamics in the classroom group. Those who are responsible take charge and try to pull the group together, and those who are slackers slack.
Two key skill sets are required for Latinos to effectively complete work that requires a collective effort: structuring the task and diplomatically working with others through that structure. Instructors can reduce the stress and improve academic quality by helping students become a team first, articulating and walking through the essential group process skills before starting the group project itself. Forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning – all critical phases of group development – are crucial for students to understand first so they can effectively complete group projects later. Students then consciously understand the process and are prevented from sinking or swimming in a sea of panic, confusion or resentment.
Diplomacy also greases the group process skids. Teaching Latino students to become acquainted with others, knowing the difference between communicating information and conveying emotion, listening effectively, offering helpful criticism, using feedback objectively for improvement and dealing with conflict are the interpersonal skills that can make the difference in a student’s experience and success in group projects.
Structuring the work is the second skill set Latino students need for effectively completing group projects. Defining the task, identifying the group’s goal, clarifying expectations and roles, breaking the assignment into tasks and assigning group members to complete them, developing timelines and monitoring progress are all concrete steps in the project management process that students need to know. If they can manage a group science project at age 12, they can run a laboratory successfully at 40. Given the concrete training in handling people, understanding the technical aspects of the work and knowing the steps of project management, Latino students can succeed more easily. Instruction in both process and content assures that students will have the skills needed to do the group work, instead of assuming they will magically learn them simply because the group project was assigned.
Finally, continual feedback from and periodic, ongoing consultation with the instructor helps assure that the group-related skills have taken root and that the process and project itself are graded objectively and fairly.