Group Projects: creating an environment for collaboration. Interview with Tom Ewing.

July 14, 2015, 7:11 pm

Every time I talk with students about doing group work there is a moan of displeasure. Most of them prefer to work alone despite the push for more collaborative learning.

Ewing Photo Almaty 2008I wanted to get some faculty perspective. [Originally I planned to make this an ongoing series talking with faculty from different disciplines, but since this blog ends tomorrow -- this is it.] I spoke with Tom Ewing (Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, Research, and Diversity in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech) regarding group work.

Tom told me about a course he taught where we added a collaborative project. Along with tests and a final paper, groups worked together to develop a research poster.

He admitted that the project was challenging because there is very little published about the topic: the Russian-American telegraph. Each team explored different themes such as the commercial business, technology, politics & diplomacy, and the ethnography of the indigenous population in Russia.

Every two weeks class time was set aside to work on the posters. Tom met with each group to offer guidance. Several times he brought them into the Library’s SCALE-UP classroom – but he found that the room did very little to stimulate collaboration. For the most part students just worked alone while sitting together. There was very little conversation.

Tom said that while it was difficult to find sources, he wanted to challenge them create something for a public audience. He also shared that collaboration is not generally part of the history discipline — people typically work alone finding sources and writing. His course reviews were mixed: some liked the project, while others thought it was “stupid.”

russian posters

Student research posters related to Imperial Russia.


Russian_American_Telegraph_Flyer_Dec2014_Page_2I asked Tom about leadership—did the teams select a chair? Nope. He said that while he coached them, he let them handle the logistics themselves. In the group that did the best someone took on a lead role and was able to delegate and make sure things were done effectively. This makes me wonder about teaching project management and group dynamics for the social sciences and other solo-author disciplines?

Why do students struggle with group assignments?
Tom and I spoke about this a bit. Some fragments from our conversation:

  • Most students (particularly in History) are accustomed to working alone: grades are an individual effort.
  • Students are comfortable with writing papers—designing something was a completely different experience.
  • There is a sense of imbalance—one person ends up doing most of the work.
  • There is fear of showing what you don’t know.
  • Students are very comfortable with study groups but working together on a graded assignment introduced different dynamics. Perhaps there is some trust building (and maturity) that they have not developed yet?

Trying Something Different

Tom didn’t give up on group work. He pulled together an undergraduate research opportunity – no tests, no papers, no assigned readings—just eight students working together on one topic: the history of tuberculosis in Virginia. Five if them were history majors and the other three were related to biology or health. This dynamic proved helpful because they could delegate efforts based on knowledge domains: some knew a lot about Virginia history, others knew a lot about biochemistry.

The group met twice a week and worked on creating a database of victims, a poster exhibit (displayed in various locations around the Commonwealth) and writing blog posts.

Tom observed that during the first meetings we had to do most of the talking but that over time, through brainstorming and other activities, they became more conversational with each other.


Patrick Tomlin (Libraries) working with the students on visual literacy design.

Perhaps because it wasn’t a regular course, where the emphasis is typically on individual assignments, the students were able to develop more collegiality and a genuine sense of partnership?


You can see some of their work here: That Dred Disease

See also: Big-Data Project on 1918 Flu Reflects Key Role of Humanists


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