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A College Group Project that My Students Actually Enjoy

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I’ve never had a whole class of students cheer when I tell them they will complete a group project in our course. Usually, students automatically worry about having to work with peers they don’t know. They wonder how much work they’ll end up being responsible for or how often they’ll have to meet outside of class. In all the courses I’ve used my group project, however, the large majority of students express their enjoyment of the experience and/or how much they learned from the experience. In today’s post, I go through all the details of this project so that you have a basic college group project design ready to be tweaked and brought into your own classroom.

Looking for tips on designing a group project from scratch? Check out this video/blog post on group project design.

Project Metadata

Project Name: Discussion Leadership Activity

Project Weight: 20% of my students’ course grades

Project Grade Breakdown: 50% stems from group work, 50% stems from individual work (more details below)

Group Sizes: 10 groups of 3 students

Other Basic Details

  • Students lead their group projects at the beginning of class, before I lead them through any analysis of the texts.
    • For ENG 170, in which I’m required to teach my students about various children’s literary genres, I sometimes complete the PowerPoint lecture on the genre and key terms of the week before the first group presents on that text. My lectures include no close reading of the text, so that I can insure that I’m not stepping on the group’s toes, so to speak.
  • Two groups present on each novel, since I tend to split the reading of novels into two days. 
    • In my current course, ENG 128, we are splitting the reading into three class sessions. The students complete their group projects during the first two days, and I will lead the last day of discussion. After that, six students complete the individual presentations project that I describe in my prior post
  • Students are given 20-30 minutes to lead their activity, but they are free to go over that limit if they have not completed their activity plans yet and want to do so. 
    • At least a few groups each semester go over the 30 minutes limit, with no group every passing 40 minutes. Students are not penalized for going over the suggested time limit, nor are they penalized for not finishing all their planned questions or activities if they decide to stop at 30 minutes. 
  • There are three basic elements to this project: the materials they turn in before the class period they are leading begins, the actual leading of the class discussion activity, and the after activity reflection that they submit by midnight on the day they lead the activity.
  • As I try to have an eco-friendly classroom, students turn in their materials via our LMS site. 

Project Breakdown

Step 1: I have students pick their group mates and their project focus very early on in the semester (at least 2 weeks before the first group project occurs). As such, I describe the basic plot line of each novel that we are reading for that class when introducing this project. That way, students can hopefully lead their activity on a text that actually interests them.

Step 2: Once students pick their group mates and have a general understanding of the activity, I assign each group a number and use a random number generator website so that my students can pick their focus text. Basically, I use a digital “pick a number out of a hat” tool so that each group has a fair chance at presenting on the text they want to focus on. Once the groups know what novel they are focusing on (and what part of the novel they are in charge of), I type out the group members and their foci on an announcement in our LMS site.

Step 3: Each week in which we analyze our class novels, two groups lead their classmates through the activity they’ve designed. Once they finish their activity for the day, I tie up any lose ends I noticed in their discussion and then lead students through further discussion or an in-class activity.

Students’ Project Description

Basic Assignment Description

Once I explain the process of picking group members and project topics, I provide the following description of the assignment:

“Based on your focus, your group will lead a literary analysis discussion for the class to participate in. You will lead the class through a discussion either on Tuesday or Thursday, depending on which half of the book you’re focusing on. This discussion should involve the whole class, but you are free to design it in whatever way you feel will be most successful. For example, you can create a list of questions to go through while everyone sits at their desks, you can create questions or tasks that require students to use the chalk/marker boards, you can create questions or tasks that require your peers to pair up to find the answers/complete the task before discussing it as a group, etc. Each group’s discussion activity will start immediately after any announcements are given on that day.” 

When I teach ENG 170, I add the following information about any lectures I might give before a group project takes place:

“I will post my lectures in advance so that you will know what material I will be covering about the project focus during the Tuesday of each book week, but you don’t really need to know this information to design your discussion considering my lectures will focus on literary terminology, genre information, and author information.”

Project Time Description 

I make very clear in my assignment sheet the ways in which the time limit of their projects are flexible or inflexible:

“Your discussion activity should take 20-30 minutes. It must take at least 20 minutes. If you’re not done after 30 minutes and/or your peers are really invested in the discussion and you want to continue, you are free to do so. You can also just end the discussion without finishing all your questions/tasks. You won’t be penalized for not finishing your questions/tasks, unless you never actually got to the point of analyzing the text (unlikely, but possible if you design your questions/tasks incorrectly).”

Project Requirements Descriptions

Once my students know the basic details of the assignment, I then move on to the finer details. Here are the descriptions I include on my assignment sheet:

“Written Material You Will Turn in on Your Discussion Day (via LMS site):

  • A detailed description of what will occur in your discussion. Information such as:
    • activity instructions if you’re doing more than simply asking questions for students to answer in their seats (i.e. Step 1: Pick piece of paper out of hat that has a question/quote/statement/etc., Step 2:…)
    • agenda/plan (i.e. list of questions/tasks you plan on your peers answering/completing; amount of time you think each part of the discussion will take; order of elements in activity, etc.)
    • class set-up (i.e. changing seats? using class materials? walking around necessary? etc.)
  • A detailed rationale explaining why you designed your discussion the way you did and why you chose the specific novel elements and/or literary analysis terms/concepts that your discussion focuses on. Information such as:
    • the goal(s)/purpose(s) for your decisions
    • the personal reasons for your decisions
    • how you anticipate the participants will react to the discussion questions/tasks
  • Optional: If your discussion involves handout(s), submit a copy along with these other two elements

You must submit the above material as PDF(s) before you arrive in class on your discussion day. I’ve set up an assignment link for the group project on our site. Keep in mind, you’re turning in one version of each element. Each member does not need to create individual descriptions and rationales. The third element is optional. You are not required to create a handout for the discussion. If your activity needs a handout, I can make copies for the class if you send/give me a copy by class time on the Friday before your activity.  

Note: There are no length requirements for the above written elements of this assignment. It is up to your group to make sure you are detailed in writing both these documents. As a hint, your rationale should definitely be longer than your description. Consider, if someone reads your description and rationale, will they be able to lead their own students/classmates through your discussion/activity and understand the purpose(s) of its design? If what you’ve written will not allow this to happen, write more.

You are also free to get creative with your font style(s) and color(s), as well as you page layout(s). Remember, you will submit the above material as PDF(s) via the assignment link before class on the day you lead your discussion.

Written Material You Will Turn in After Activity Day:

  • For each group member:
    • An individual short reflection about how the discussion went during class time.
    • Some questions to consider when writing your reflection:
      • What was successful about the discussion?
      • What did not go as intended?
      • Do you think the goals of the discussion were achieved?
      • Do you think the design worked as intended?
      • What would you change about the discussion design or content if you led it again?
    • Word Requirement: 400 words minimum
    • Submission: Turn this reflection in using the “Group Project Reflection” assignment link text box.
    • Due date: The night that your activity takes place, by 11:59 p.m.”
I want to make sure my students understand they are not supposed to lead a plot recap discussion or an opinion-based discussion. #ELA Click To Tweet

Providing Project Clarification

As this project takes place in my literature courses, it’s very important that I make clear the purpose of this project. I want to make sure my students understand they are not supposed to lead a plot recap discussion or an opinion-based discussion. The goal is to lead a discussion activity that centers on practicing literary analysis. To help make this goal clear, I include the following information on my assignment sheet:

“What do I mean by a literary analysis discussion?
It’s a discussion that doesn’t just require participants to have read the book and remember its plot. It also requires the participants to think deeply about the characters, plot, setting, and/or other literary elements. It requires them to make connections between these elements, and consider the effects these elements have to the book and to the reader. It requires participants to make connections between what happens in the stories and the concepts we’ll be discussing as a class, like gender, race, ethnicity, politics, (dis)ability, childhood, friendship, religion, family, etc.”

I also want to make clear to my students that their activity needs to involve their “students.” They cannot just create a 20-30 minute lecture or just have a discussion amongst the three group members. I make that clear with the following description: 

What do I mean by leading a discussion?
As long as it centers on analysis and requires participation, the discussion can be designed in any way that you think will work for the project objectives and time limit. You all need to be leading the activity, though, so make sure you coordinate who will be asking what questions or leading certain tasks and who will be asking follow-up questions (if you include them). You should also have a plan for how to help your peers stay focused on the discussion, in case the class gets really side-tracked during your discussion.”

This breakdown between group and individual work is one of the main reasons my group project-hating students enjoy this activity. Click To Tweet

Project Assessment Information

Finally, I end my assignment sheet by informing my students on how I will assess and grade this group project:

  • “50% of your grade stems from the written elements of the project (not including the After Activity Reflection). This includes the discussion description and the design and topic(s) rationale. Each member of the group will receive the same grade for this element.
  • 40% of your grade stems from the application of your discussion leadership in class. I will assess how your group leads the class through the discussion activity. Each member is required to lead at least part of the discussion. Most importantly, the discussion needs to be a tool that helps the class analyze the novel we are focusing on during that week. A successful discussion is one that leads to individual learning and collaborative learning. Getting your classmates invested in your discussion and/or interested in participating is essential to creating a strong learning environment.
  • 10% of your grade stems from your After Activity Reflection. Remember, this is due the night of your discussion day, by 11:59 p.m.”

This breakdown between group and individual work is one of the main reasons my group project-hating students enjoy this activity. I make very clear that only half of their grade is based on the group work that happens outside of the classroom. [Here’s a video on how I use unit grading for this assignment.] The other half derives from the effort they put in when leading the activity and reflecting on the experience. The chance to privately reflect on the project also gives them the chance to reveal the behind-the-scenes project management details if they are so inclined. I can count on one hand the number of after activity reflections that reveal the lack of work from one or more group members. I’d still have uncounted fingers left, as well.

Of course, there are also students who have positive (from their perspective) experiences with prior college group projects because they’ve been able to get by doing very little work. Skating by on group members’ work isn’t fully possible with my design, which might create negative feelings about the group project from these students. However, I’ve rarely seen this type of reaction, because my students constantly reflect on how being able to lead a class activity gave them the power to focus on parts of the novels that they were actually interested in analyzing. It also gave them a chance to design and lead discussion activities in ways quite different from my usual Think-Pair-Share, small group to large group, and whole class discussion approaches.

My students constantly reflect on how being able to lead a class activity gave them the power to focus on parts of the novels that they were actually interested in analyzing. #teaching Click To Tweet

Instructor Benefits

Other than the benefits students receive from competing this group project, I also want to note how this project can benefit instructors. Here are my top three benefits:

  • Since only two projects take place each week, I can grade these projects as the semester progresses, rather than as one big package received all at once from 30 students. I use a holistic grading style.
  • By having students write a rationale for their project design and then reflect on the experience of leading the activity, many of my students have acknowledged a new awareness of the difficulties in teaching. For example, they often mention how difficult is was to engage more than a few students in the discussion and the anticipated pacing of the activity often didn’t work out as they assumed it would. 
  • A few groups tend to get pretty creative with their project designs, which I can then use during other class periods or in other courses. The fishbowl discussion design, for example, is not something I was familiar with prior to an education major picking it for their group’s project. [If you’re looking for discussion activity designs, here’s a great post I recently found on the topic.]

Final Thoughts

This group project is the only major class assignment I’ve barely tweaked since I designed and started using it four years ago. My office mate also uses a version of this project in her own literature courses with a lot of success. Working collaboratively is such an important skill for students to learn. I’ve found the balance of this activity’s design really helps students feel comfortable working as a group. And, when students feel empowered during class discussions, the depth of their ideas and analysis is always incredible to experience.

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Comment Below: Have group projects worked well in your own classes? I’d love to hear your thoughts on assigning group projects.

Looking for a group project design that students will actually enjoy? Here's exactly how I've designed my group project to help engage my students! #teacher #assignment #ELA


  1. Rebecka

    This is great!
    Thank you for sharing!!!

    • Erika Romero

      Thanks! Today was actually the day my first group of ENG 128 students led their activity. It was so similar to what I had planned for my portion of the class. I love seeing how students conceptualize activities eerily similar or completely different from my own!

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