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CEL Fellow David Buck studies impact and best practices for collaborative projects.

Each spring, the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL), and the Center for Research on Global Engagement (CRGE) come together to present projects scholarship-oriented scholarship for teaching and learning. (SoTL). Follow along this week by sharing research from Elon researchers on innovative teaching practices through a series of Today at Elon articles.

Love them or hate them, group projects are an integral part of many college courses. Many instructors assign them, sometimes out of necessity to facilitate in-depth projects in large classes and sometimes in an effort to teach students important collaboration skills. Any collaborative project is going to bring a lot of complexity and many questions for the instructors to solve: how to divide the groups, how to guide the students as they work together, how to evaluate the projects.

David Buck, Elon’s associate professor and researcher at the Center for Engaged Learning, takes a close look at the evidence for the impact of collaborative projects and recommendations on how to implement them well. Collaborative assignments and projects are one of 11 high-impact practices identified by higher education researchers as experiences that contribute to positive student outcomes. Buck teaches a psychology research methods course, in which he created a semester-long group research project for the class. This was a large project, and because of its scope and because scientific research is often the product of collaboration, it made sense for it to be a group project.

“Anyone who’s been a student and worked on group projects has had the experience of them not going well,” Buck says. “And I know that can be incredibly frustrating, and the frustration could, in some cases, be counterproductive to learning.”

For his CEL Scholar research project, Buck delves deep into the literature of collaborative assignments to identify best practices. And what he finds is that the evidence is not as conclusive as we might assume that collaborative projects support learning. “Much of the research I’ve seen focuses on comparing products produced by groups of students with those produced by individual students, and I think we need to be careful about what we infer from these comparisons. “, says Buck.

Celebrate SoTL: Teaching and Learning FellowshipResearch clearly shows that when five people work together, their end product is likely to be better than if one person finished it. But does this mean that students—all students—really learned more? Assessing student learning and perceptions of learning is complex, and we still have much to study about how students learn through group projects.

When asked to briefly share his top tips for instructors doing group projects, he touched on two issues: teaching for collaboration and group selection. A key learning outcome for a collaborative project should be learning to collaborate!

“A big part of the impact of these projects is teaching people how to collaborate, so if you have a group that’s not working well, that’s still not necessarily a problem, because it will happen in life, and as long as students learn to navigate conflict effectively, that’s a good thing,” Buck says.

However, as teachers, we must understand our role for this to happen. In the same way that you wouldn’t want to sit a student in front of a piano for the first time and just say “play, and I’ll rate your performance,” you shouldn’t put students in a group and just say “collaborate.” To realize the potential of a project to help students learn to collaborate, you need to prepare them, provide them with guidance, and discuss strategies that might help them work together effectively. In other words, collaboration needs to be part of the study programme.

His other advice is to think carefully about how the groups are set up. It can be difficult to strike a balance between giving students a choice while ensuring that you don’t “create scenarios of being picked last for dodgeball”. His current preferred method is to ask students if they have any peers they would like to work with (or would NOT work with), but also to assign groups based on logistics (usually planning availability for group meetings). You can read a much more in-depth discussion of these two issues, as well as many other aspects of collaborative projects, on Buck’s posts on the Center for Engaged Learning blog.

This SoTL research is a natural extension of Buck’s disciplinary research: as a social psychologist, Buck studies how people interact with others and their environment, “and how people collaborate and how groups function is integral to what made my domain”.

He enjoys how the CEL Fellow position offers him time and space to explore the intersection of his discipline and teaching and learning. “Doing SoTL is very much aligned with Elon’s teacher-scholar-mentor model, the fusion of teaching and scholarship,” Buck says. “Because evidence-based pedagogy is such a big part of my teaching philosophy, doing this type of research is an important part of teaching development for me.

During a two-year appointment, CEL Fellows develop expertise in a specific aspect of engaged learning and create resources on that topic to share through the CEL website and other research venues. The CEL Fellow position is an opportunity for an Elon faculty member to develop and deepen a professional development trajectory that includes scholarly activity on high-impact practice or other engaged learning topics. Learn more about the CEL Scholars program.

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