Monday, July 24, 2006


Group Presentations

What’s the best way to handle group presentations when not all members of the group show up?

In my faculty days, I never found an elegant way around this. I was partial to group debates in some of my classes, and when they worked, they worked well. But there wasn’t enough class time to do one-on-one debates and include everybody, so they were usually three-on-three. And at least once in the sequence (and sometimes more), a team would be pressed into playing shorthanded.

I wasn’t happy with that, since it seemed to me to put undue pressure on the students who actually did what they were supposed to do, but aside from giving the absentee a zero, I wasn’t sure what else to do. We didn’t have time in the semester for makeups, and I didn’t want to reward absenteeism with extra preparation time. It also would have thrown the sequence of topics in the course out of whack, and with some students barely hanging on as it was, any added confusion was to be avoided.

In a perfect world, student peer pressure and the threat of shaming would be enough to cow even the most devoted slacker into putting in at least a token effort. At some small, residential colleges, that might actually suffice. But at commuter colleges with some students who are, um, let’s go with ‘easily distracted,’ it’s pretty much a given that some kids will simply flake.

Since plenty of academic bloggers have used exercises like these, I’ll try to tap into the electronic brain. Has anyone out there found an elegant solution to the problem of absenteeism on group presentation days?

What's wrong with just simply giving the absent student a "ZERO" for the presentation? Make it quite clear in the syllabus, from day one, that absences for in-class work would result in a zero for that assignment--to include exams!

Of course, allow for leniency when documented evidence of death in the family (your 6th grandma died??) or bona fide doctor's notes (yes--call the doctor's office to confirm, if you must!).

I have found that a clear, and declared, policy up front does wonders for attendance. Especially if you have stated that there will be random quizzes given. I actually let them know it's not quite "random." The quizzes will be given at the end of class, on those days when I believe attendance has dropped below my arbitrary threshold... (arbitrary, and ad hoc.)

Of course, this hasn't dealt with the other big issue--the student who is there for the presentation, but has not participated in any of the preparation. I have heard that the "group self evaluation" approach works well. Each student evaluates the others in the group. I haven't tried this yet, although my wife has, with success.
As TP suggested might work, I give two grades; one for the preparation and one for delivery.

It seems to work fairly well and isn't overly complicated to administer.

If you're not there for delivery; zero for you on that.

Group self-evaulation for the preparation. Some variation on, "Rate each of your group members from 1-10 on the following: "

Or, "You have 100 points to distribute among the members of your group based on the following criteria..."

I've found at both HS and college levels that the kids are reasonably good about assigning the right level of points to each group member.
Yeah -- I use the, "if you aren't here, you fail the assignment" thing. It helps.
I make the stakes high enough that they can't pass the class with a 0 on a major assignment. I also have an alternative assignment that is much more difficult than doing the group presentation -- so that those who really hate doing them have a way to pass the class.

This year the alternative is a 20 page research paper on a contemporary moral problem AND a poster-board presentation for the class... my guess is that we won't have any of them, hmmmm.

I've used peer evaluations and group feedback and will continue to use them. What seems to have worked last year was a very explicit contract among the group at the beginning of the project.... so that they agree in advance about the number of independent meetings and the consequences of missing meetings etc...

My problem has actually been determining when someone has actually stopped coming to CLASS -- i.e. when I can expect that they won't be back, and thus the group needing to change their presentation in light of the drop-out's absence. This year I'm waiting to form groups until after the first exam. This will give them less time to work as a group, but more stable groups to work with.
I tried class debates this past year (at a small, residential college). For the last debate -- the last week of class -- two of three group members for one debate dropped the class. There was no notice or warning (one probably would have had an A had she stuck it out), so I couldn't rearrage teams or offer extra credit to join the lone person. The remaining person was a remarkably good sport about it, and I graded him more leniently than I would have otherwise.

For these debates, I had the class grade the debates, which I averaged and gave them (but assigned my own grade). In other group projects, I have had students grade their group members, and made that worth 40 % of their grade. The other 60 % is a group grade -- i.e., everyone gets the same grade. Typically they take it seriously.
I'm happy to give the absent student a zero. However, there's still the problem of not ruining the presentation/debate for those who do show up. I have each group member submit a written outline of her presentation/main arguments/etc in the class before the presentation. If someone doesn't show up, the other group members can use the written materials to help fill in the gaps. It also leads to a better product. p
I allow my students to vote team members off the island. THey can come to me during office hours to report the slacker (they need specifics..not gernalizations) and then the student is assigned his or her own group.
What to do with no-shows on group presentation day? Is crucifixion illegal? Flogging? Seriously, when this has happened I've given the student a zero on the whol project AND I've made them apologize to their group.

I'm finding more and more that chronic, widespread absenteeism is making it damned hard to plan classes.
I have used peer evaluation too, but with a twist I haven't seen here. Each student gets 10 points to distribute amongst his group, but he can't give the same score to two people. This keeps the group from making a pact that "everyone gives everyone 2 points." It requires students to rank each other.

It really helps motivate the student who slacks off on preparation.
Before recently retiring I used to teach argumentation and Debate. One of the strategies that I found worked as well as any other is the followings which appeared in my syllabus on the first day of class:

It is imperative that all students understand that is course requires the following:

"Ability to work in a team environment
Ability to work in a team environment
Ability to work in a team environment

If you cannot or will not work in a team environment you should immediately drop this course. This will require that each of you meet with team members outside of the class environment while researching and preparing for the debate sessions.

This course is intensive and highly participatory and does include more activities than formal debates. Students are expected to actively involve themselves in criticism of other’s debates. We learn by observation and intelligent criticism as well as presentations, therefore it must be understood that call attendance is not optional. Having said that I recognize that there are emergencies that arise and may prevent you from a presentation. Should this occur, and your instructor agrees that this is a legitimate excuse; you will be assigned a second “brief” which researches in depth a topic of the instructor’s choice. This brief will be presented by you and defended against hostile attacks by hand picked questioners whose task it is to challenge your evidence, reasoning, logic, etc., This is not the preferred route to participation in your team’s debate. If you miss a second debate, you will fail the course, and may be allowed to withdraw provided you have unimpeachable excuses for both missed debates."
I love Dad of Dean Dad's defend a brief idea -- I'm going to use it in my debate class this semester.
In my MBA classes, in which group presentations are a large part of the course, the students take it really seriously. Those whose jobs keep them away generally video tape (or record on a DVD) their share of the presentation, for example. Again, this happend because the students take it seriously.
I have to say I don't usually have this problem...I did have one team member get into a minor accident on his way to class but he called his team mates and they asked me if their team could make their presentation at the end of class that day and he was able to show up by then. I have also had a student on the football team have to miss due to an out of town game and we let him videotape his part.
Setting expectations re attendance during the first day of class is key!
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