In their 2001 study of term-long undergraduate group projects Bourner et al. defined “passengers” as an impediment to team functioning, referring to students who made little contribution to group work, choosing to “ride along” on the efforts of fellow students (Bourner et al., 2001). Last winter I also observed this problem as a TA in a second-year history course where term-long group projects, involving some shared team grades, accounted for the majority of students’ evaluation. Poor research skills coupled with questionable perceptions of work expectations seemed to me to be the origin of student disengagement, rather a conscious evasion of responsibility. Central to the history class’ “passenger” problem was the ways in which some students used the internet for research and communication.
Acutely problematic was students’ perception that in-library research too time consuming and could be replaced by “web surfing”, which they believed was more efficient. Despite an instructional session early in the term by a university librarian and scheduled meetings with the instructor and/or TAs, many did not obtain appropriate historical sources pertinent to their topic. By mid-term projects contained only unscholarly content, even lacking sources the instructor identified in the course syllabus as “core” texts. Since obtaining these texts required only a trip to the library for retrieval, it suggested apathy towards independent research and project work. Groups most affected were those whose leaders misunderstood requirements and thus misled their peers. It demonstrates a form of the “passenger” issue where students in a group passively allow one member to dominate the team’s project direction.
Groups who viewed “web surfing” as acceptable also did not seek project guidance from the professor or TAs that could correct this behaviour and re-orient their research. Over-reliance on the internet also appeared through inappropriate use of UW-ACE as a course tool. Implemented as a “between meeting” communication tool for groups, some teams relied exclusively on ACE for group discussions. Unable to see each other’s work and be accountable to team members in person, they produced disjointed presentations with minimal scholarly content. Insufficient accountability led the project to become a low priority for students in these groups, hindering critical engagement with research and procuring low project grades.
The internet has unquestionably made research easier through the greater accessibility of information. However, we as instructors need to re-evaluate our use of the web as a teaching tool and how we convey research skills to students, particularly given its increasing use as socialization tool among students. Undergraduates need more specific guidance about using the internet appropriately and skillfully for both group projects and individual assignments. Compulsory non-disciplinary-specific seminars on web use could enable students to discern academic sites and make appropriate use of programs such as UW-ACE. If such seminars were complimented by discipline-specific information co-presented by librarians and faculty in courses, research expectations might become clearer. For group projects, the submission of graded portfolios of team meeting minutes and research proceedings would create the accountability to teammates and project work necessary to preclude the development of “passengers”. While many students in our class complained about the fairness of the course’s shared grade components, I do not believe the solution lies in individual grading. Part of the value of such projects is engaging student in cooperative work that will be vital in their future careers.
Bourner, J., Hughes, M. & Bourner, T. (2001). First-Year Undergraduate Experiences of Group Project Work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26 (1), 19-39.