Group Contracts #SOL18

March 28, 2018

Yesterday, I put my students into groups and had them work up their group contracts, which is what I want to talk about in my post. But before I get into that, I just want to share this absolutely brilliant moment that happened in class today.

So, I had my students do a self-annotation exercise, which involved many things, and one of them was double checking their Works Cited page. Two of the students in one of the groups had been absent the day we went over how to do the page, and another one had taken very good notes. Two of them had this exchange:

Girl: Why do you have a comma there? That can’t be right.
Boy: Yes, it is. And you’re supposed to be put a period there.
Girl: Are you sure? That doesn’t look right.
Him: I know it’s right because I did everything exactly like she [me!] said.

My actual reaction (in my heart and mind):

If only they would all listen to me. Just imagine that world.

Okay, on to the groups!

As previously mentioned, I set up my groups by giving them a questionnaire in order to try to match their work styles and schedules. (I will try to give them at least an hour per class to work in their groups, but I still wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to meet up outside of class if they think it necessary.) Yesterday, I basically followed everything Matt Kushin has here to establish group contracts. However, I did make a few tweaks, so I want to share what I did differently and how my students responded.

My students are doing one group project this semester. (Well, two, but they don’t know about the second one yet. Also, it will be set up a little differently. But, as usual, I digress.) I only mention that because Kushin talks specifically about semester-long groups, so I want to clarify my purpose here. I still followed his steps: put them in groups, do icebreaker, build contract.

Since they’re doing their project on Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (a post-apocalyptic novel), I wanted to keep the icebreaker in line with that, so I asked them to come up with three celebrities (dead or alive) they would want to help them rebuild after the apocalypse.

Once they did that and shared their answers with the class, I had them do an individual response in their notebooks. The prompt was very straightforward: “What are the biggest frustrations you’ve encountered doing group work?”

Then, I had them share their frustrations with their group. Yep, that’s right. A good old airing of grievances.

Of course, this was what they had encountered with past groups. The second part, though, was to come up with possible solutions to their frustrations.

Once that was done, I gave them these two prompts to complete as a group:

  • Make a list of 4-5 rules for successfully working together to complete a group assignment.
  • Decide what should happen if someone is not accountable to the group. Write that down as well.

Several asked, “Can we kick them out of the group?” And I just told them to write down whatever they thought was appropriate, and if they thought that was appropriate, it was fine.

In short, I had them work out as a group what was acceptable group behavior before I told them that, hello, these are your groups and now you have to figure out how to work together. I did it this way mostly so they wouldn’t say what they thought their group members wanted to hear and instead would share pretty honestly. I think it worked.

So yes, then I told them they were in their current groups, introduced the group contract, and went over it. When I got to the part about firing group members, some of them gasped because I guess they thought it was a dream consequence but not something that a professor would actually allow. But, yes, I told them. Yes, you can fire your team members if they are absolutely not contributing or meeting the standards set in the contract. (Most of them will probably NOT opt for that–they seemed more comfortable with asking me to take off points–but knowing the option is there seemed to be enough.)

I have had issues with students being mean and petty to their group members in the past, so I also made it a point to tell my students that if they think their group is shutting them out to let me know, so I can handle it. As my friend pointed out, the mean students won’t think it’s about them, but the good students who are getting pushed around will hear me say that and know I’m on their side.

My contract is pretty much exactly like Kushin’s except, like I said, my students aren’t doing this all semester, but for about three weeks. So I changed the penalty for non-attendance. Mine reads:

Missed classes: You will be given time to work on your projects in class. Anyone who misses class sessions will receive a 5-point deduction from his/her final project grade for each in-class group meeting missed.

I did tell them that I would take into account whether or not they notified their group of the absence and made alternate arrangements. But I reminded them that since they’re working in class, missing class means they’ve blown off a group meeting and aren’t being accountable to their group. I have found that most students don’t care what I think about them missing class (or writing poorly or whatever), but they do care about their peers, so we’ll see how this affects attendance.

They spent the rest of class filling out their contracts (the schedule usually took the longest) and then I gave them time to work (which means most of them spent the rest of the time talking).

Tomorrow, I assign their actual project. We will probably also discuss some of the book, so I should probably finish my reread. It’s 9:50, and I promised myself I would be in bed by 11. I’m on page 76 of 333. I wonder how much I can get read in an hour. I’m pretty sure I’ll make it to the 200s. Fingers crossed I actually finish.

Slice of Life Challenge

Slice of Life is a writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers.



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  1. Andrea Clark

    Removing group members is an interesting strategy. I work with elementary students, and I know some of them would like that option. It can be hard to work in a group. I’ll have to think about a good way to make that work.

  2. Ally Bean

    “Can we kick them out of the group?” A kid after my own heart! I despised group projects in college classes. Stressful, but your rules certainly would have made my experiences less horrible. On the flip side, college group projects gave me a taste of working world nightmares to come. So that was good. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

  3. Elisabeth Ellington

    What I find so hilarious about the griping that students do when I invite them to air their past frustrations with group projects is that literally 100% of students say they always do all the work in group projects. They never seem to notice the statistical problem with all four group members all saying that they do 100% of the group work and everyone else takes advantage. I really like the idea of semester groups and some kind of longer, more extensive project. Most of my group projects tend to be short. I’ll have to think about this more.

  4. jennysrich

    I am a behavior teacher and my 6th graders have just started working in groups for an immigration reading project. I like the idea of a group consensus on expectations. Sometimes students are more concerned about meeting the expectations of their peers than the expectations of their teacher.


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