Several upper-level courses in journalism and media require students to work together to create collaborative projects. Some classes, especially those that function as capstones, challenge students to work on large projects over the course of the entire semester, scaffolded through various tasks and mini-projects due throughout the term. Especially because an outcome of the course is for students to effectively collaborate with one another in the accomplishment of the large projects, it’s been essential for me to add specific activities and assignments that actually help students develop strategies for effective group work.
One of those that’s been fairly effective is the use of group norms plans. These are documents that students in each group collaboratively develop in the first couple weeks of the class. I tell students they might want to think of these as contracts that spell out processes and expectations; these are often referred to in the literature as “team charters” (Hunsaker, Pavett, & Hynsaker, 2011).
Problems with collaborative work can occur because we assume others might have similar work processes than we as individuals do, and we develop implicit expectations based on those assumptions. The group norms plan/group contract makes the implicit explicit, so everyone is on the same page. Though I offer guidance on effective work processes, many options are left to student groups to decide, giving a high degree of autonomy. At the end of the process, students are expected to have a clear understanding of what to expect from one another. In addition to setting clear expectations, it helps quickly develop relationships and trust among the students, thereby building psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999), an essential part of effective group work.
- First, decide how groups will be divided. In this class, I’ve organized groups in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s been based on interest (e.g., the story topic) and other times based on ensuring complementary skills (e.g., writing, video, etc.). No matter how the team is constructed, it’s vital that the first assignment the team works on together is the group norms plan.
- Discuss the value of developing clear group norms and expectations. Before beginning to construct the actual plan, it’s best to discuss with students the value of the plans. Ask them to reflect on their experiences in past group work. Share research or your experience about the value of students creating norms plans or team charters.
- Discuss the concept of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound). Students need to know that as they develop plans, they should be as specific and ensure that what they are proposing meets group goals and is realistic.
- Next, provide students with clear prompts. I ask students to address specific concerns in the norms plan. Some of these are specifically relevant to the class, but many are useful across contexts. It has to address not only what the group will accomplish, but it has to outline with as much specificity as possible what each individual members’ contribution to the project will be. Among the prompts are the following:
- List your team members and clearly state what each member's strongest skills are as they relate to the projects required for the class.
- Who will function as a project manager? This should change for individual stories. Map out whose goal it is to manage/take a leadership role for each story? Who will be responsible for the overall cohesiveness of all the projects and will ensure all work is getting done and coming together?
- What will be the responsibilities of each team member for each project?
- What sub-goals and associated deadlines will you set up for each project? Who will be responsible for each goal? (e.g., interview main source for video #1 by Feb. 7, etc.)
- What is the team workflow? How will your team communicate? How often and when will the team meet?
- How will you periodically evaluate the equitability of each person's share of the workload? What will you do if one of you is unresponsive? What's the penalty (how will you be accountable to your group members)?
- Give students time in class to initially discuss the questions. This is especially useful in situations where students don’t know each other well. Give at least one opportunity in class to discuss initial plans. This prevents individuals from dividing the prompts up and creating individual expectations that are not shared. Make sure discussion is the first step in creating the plans.
- Iterate with the students. Make sure they have an opportunity to share the norms plan with you, and give feedback. Ask them to clarify points or be more specific.
- Ask students to sign the document. Because this is a charter or contract, and it outlines expectations, adding signatures can emphasize the commitment each person is making to themselves and to others.
Periodically check on how students are doing. In my production-focused classes, I have students regularly metacognitively reflect on their work and what they’re learning in the class. In those “production journals,” I often ask students to reflect back on the group norms plans, how the plans are holding up, and what issues they see come up. I ask them to discuss what they think they should do about the issues. This is an important component because it helps me identify where I can better coach students to communicate and self-advocate in group work.
Collaboration has always been a challenge in this course, but as I’ve started using this norms plan creation strategy, student work products seem more integrated and the final products’ component parts are more cohesive, thereby improving the overall quality of the stories they produce. In student evaluations, students regularly said they sharpened leadership, collaboration, and time management skills. For example, one student in spring 2019 said that collaboration skills improved in large part because of regular interactions with their group, which was facilitated by the group norms plan.
Creating groups norms plans encourages equity and accessibility because it allows students to decide collectively the best strategies and tools for collaboration that fit with their individual needs. Also, given that it provides autonomy for students to choose (collectively) where they want to lead, it provides multiple means of engagement, an essential aspect of universal design for learning.
This strategy can be used across any discipline or any class where there is a substantial group project that involves sustained collaboration in student groups. However, given the amount of time and resources needed to set up the plans, it might not be useful for courses without sustained collaboration or for which collaborative groups change multiple times over the course of the semester. A more condensed norms plan and plan creation process might work in those situations, however.