Bottom line: effective group assignments do not require students to collectively author a paper or make a presentation. Writing and presenting are often individual tasks, and charging a group with these tasks, without special guidance on how to perform them, is to set up yourself (and your students) up for frustration and mediocrity. On the contrary, effective group assignments simply give groups a set of data and require them to make a difficult decision, much like a courtroom jury is given a great deal of complex information and asked to render a “guilty or not guilty” decision. In this format, student energy is focused on analyzing different pieces of evidence, weighing their merits against one another, and using the concepts from your discipline to argue toward a “best” conclusion together.
Instead of “group projects” think of these as “application activities” taking the form: “Given X, students must decide Y.” Of course, X and Y will vary based upon your discipline, topic and learning goal, but experience has provided a few basic principles for how these activities can best be carried out. Each of these principles starts with the letter S, so we have come to call these “Four S Activities.” —Michael Sweet, Prof. Hacker