Earlier this year Katie Duncan interviewed Jurgen Schulte and myself about a maintenance session I run in Jurgen’s class. In that interview I suggested that student groups can benefit from having some maintenance-related discussions. I also briefly outlined the three short activities that I run as part of this maintenance session. In this blog I will explain each activity a little further and share the worksheets I use. I present these activities as a set, but they don’t have to be. You can run any of them as a single activity.
I usually run my maintenance session around 3 weeks before the student groups have to submit and/or present. It’s often a good idea to give students advance warning that you plan to run some in-class activities. It is very important that all members of each group are present for the session. Some lecturers I have worked with make attendance at the session compulsory. The session is treated like a workplace training session where all group members are required to attend. Students usually respond well to this framing, and the room is usually full with all members present. When all students are sitting in their groups, the session starts.
Strengths and Weaknesses Audit
I have fine-tuned this activity a lot since my original design in the Monitoring Groups Unit of the Enhancing Experiences of Groupwork Resource Kit. It is now just a single sheet that is given to students (sheet available at the end of this blog). The sheet asks students to collectively rate their group on three aspects:
- Members getting their work done on time
- All members participating equally
- Quality of work produced by group members
It is important that students discuss these aspects, particularly if one is rated as a major or moderate weakness. Following this, groups then need to list a few of their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, groups are asked to state how they are going to address any identified weaknesses in their group. I usually give students around 7-10 minutes to complete this exercise. I’m always amazed how much effort students put into this task. It is clear they appreciate the opportunity to talk openly about the current state of their group. I’m also surprised how open and honest the students are in their appraisals. Rarely do students rate all three criterion as major strengths.
Going Forward Timeline
I have only recently developed this activity. Groups are given a sheet of paper that has a horizontal line on it. The left side has the label Today, with the right side labelled Finish. On this timeline, groups are asked to plot what needs to be done in the remaining weeks/days and when. Groups usually approach this task by starting with the due date. They then work backwards plotting various milestones (e.g., edit draft, analyse results) and the associated deadlines. It’s a powerful activity, as it helps groups discuss the tasks that need to be completed and by when. From my experience, student groups tend to leave too much to the last minute, which can result in an ‘under-cooked’ piece of work. This activity helps groups prevent the last-minute rush and deliver better quality outcomes, because a sense of urgency is being fostered. During the task, students often become quite concerned with how much work they have left to do. I always tell the students that it’s better to have this realisation now, rather than in a few weeks. My timeline sheet is available at the end of this post. I recommend giving students around 7-10 minutes to complete this task.
Final roles/responsibilities allocation
The above-mentioned timeline activity helps students decide on what needs to be done and by when. But it doesn’t address who is going to do what. This is where my final roles/responsibilities allocation activity comes in. Groups are given a sheet of paper that allows them to specify the responsibilities assigned to each group member and the expected completion date(s). This activity helps to ensure that all members have agreed-upon work allocated to them, and they know by when this work needs to be completed. This helps to address the all-too-common free-riding issue. Each member’s final set of intended contributions has been discussed, allocated, and recorded. Again, I give groups approximately 7-10 minutes to complete this task. My final roles/responsibilities allocation sheet is available below.
All of the worksheets discussed above require groups to write their name on them. At the end of the session I get a member of each group to take a photo of their completed worksheet for record-keeping purposes. I then collect all completed worksheets and pass them over to the lecturer/tutor, for his or her records. It is very useful to see what the students have documented, as it gives insights into what has been discussed and agreed upon. It also gives insights into how groups are approaching their last few weeks. I always recommend that the maintenance session is the last thing students do in the class time, as it gives students the chance to continue their process-related discussions as they leave the room. It’s quite common to see groups stay back and continue their conversations either in the room or out in the corridor. This is why it’s important to run the session towards the end of class. It gives them an opportunity to continue their conversations on any team-related matters raised within the session.
Help your students have the discussions they need to have
As mentioned above and elsewhere, student groups can struggle with their dynamics and progress. This is due, in part, to the equal status of group members and the competing demands on students’ time. The maintenance session described above helps students deal with their struggles and build momentum for their group’s remaining weeks together. By running the session (or part of it), your students will benefit from having some much-needed process-related discussions.
Links to my worksheets are given below. They are available in pdf and word (if you wish to adjust them to better suit your needs). As usual, I’d love to hear if you try any of my maintenance tasks. Likewise, I’m always keen to hear how others are helping their students manage their group dynamics and progress.