Monday, April 29, 2019

When Half of a Group Has Disappeared

I had a chance to sit in on a class recently that featured student presentations.  They were assigned to groups of four or five, with each group having a different topic.  The group I saw had been reduced to two over the course of the semester, due to other students dropping.

The two students carried on valiantly, but it brought me back to a dilemma I never really resolved when I taught.  What’s the appropriate response to grading group projects when members of the group disappear?

Grading group projects is sticky on a good day.  Some students carry more of the weight than others, and it can be difficult from the outside to determine who did what.  If the group is larger than two, there’s a non-trivial chance that at least one member was free-riding on the work of the others.  The strongest member of the group may feel effectively penalized by the weaker performances of the others. Those are well-known issues, and any experienced professor who favors group projects has seen them.

The trickier question, which is probably more salient at community colleges than elsewhere, is what to do when attrition reduces a group’s ranks towards the end.  

Admittedly, in the age of group chat apps, it’s easier for group members to communicate with each other in off-hours than it used to be.  But conflating the availability of technology with the availability of time is a mistake. When attrition is motivated by a crisis in someone’s personal life, which is often the case, they may or may not be comfortable (or attuned to) telling their peers.  They may just ghost. If that happens, then the remaining members are left to pick up the pieces. Depending on how late in the game that happens -- or how late the other team members realize it -- the remaining members may have to do some serious scrambling.

In cohort-based programs, some cohesion tends to develop naturally over the semesters.  By the time you get into the advanced courses, the students have bonded and know they can count on each other.  (I’m thinking here of a program like Nursing.) But in a gen ed class, comprised of students who didn’t know each other before and who may never work together again, you can’t necessarily count on that level of bonding.  That’s particularly true at a commuter campus.

Presentations are particularly difficult, in that the rest of the class sees them.  Assuming that part of the point is to educate the rest of the class, you’d want any presentation to be coherent and passably whole.  If it’s broken into discrete chunks and a middle chunk goes missing, the presentation as a whole might not make much sense.

An experienced professor might advise students early on to make contingency plans in case someone vanishes.  That’s well and good, but students can still be blindsided. It isn’t always easy to tell who might not come back.  

Ideally, of course, we’ll get so good at retention that the problem will fade away on its own.  And we’re making progress. But I’d be lying if I said that everything was solved.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who teach, how do you handle student attrition down the stretch when grading group projects?