Student Group Research Projects

Student Group Research Projects
It's a favorite assignment in upper-division major courses—have students collaborate on a research project. The rationale is straightforward. Students learn how to do research by doing it. Of course it depends, but in most fields, students new to research find it a daunting process that includes multiple steps: generating a research question, reviewing the literature, designing the study, collecting the data, analyzing them, writing up the results, and then presenting them. Teachers have students tackle the project in groups to make it less overwhelming and to underscore the value of collaboration on big projects.

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It's a favorite assignment in upper-division major courses—have students collaborate on a research project. The rationale is straightforward. Students learn how to do research by doing it. Of course it depends, but in most fields, students new to research find it a daunting process that includes multiple steps: generating a research question, reviewing the literature, designing the study, collecting the data, analyzing them, writing up the results, and then presenting them. Teachers have students tackle the project in groups to make it less overwhelming and to underscore the value of collaboration on big projects. Sociologist Renee Monson wrote that “almost without exception, instructors claim that group research projects have impressive effects on student learning in research methods courses” (p. 242). Students become engaged with the project, they learn to work together, and they accomplish more than they could if they worked on the project alone. However, Monson goes on to point out that there isn't much evidence that supports these beneficial outcomes, and for instructors, “inspired by the testimonial case studies of this pedagogy,” there isn't much guidance on the design details that make these successful learning experiences. That's why she thought it was important to explore these two research questions:  “What group characteristics are associated with groups that earn higher grades on the research project?” and “Does the achievement of a student's group on the research projects predict the student's subsequent achievement on the final paper in the course?” (p. 240). Monson used 14 sections of an intermediate-level sociology research methods course taught across 11 years, enrolling a total of 257 students, to explore the role of group characteristics and the influence of the group research project on individual learning. As for group characteristics that might influence the outcome, she looked at group size, gender, and racial composition. She used mid-term exam scores to create three- to five-person heterogeneous groups. After completing the research project, her students prepared a final paper formatted as an individual research report, which Monson described as a “comprehensive assessment of the sum total of their learning in the course...” (p. 244). “With respect to predictors of group achievement on research projects, it is not surprising that a group's overall average midterm exam grade predicts group achievement on the research project...” (p. 248). She found that group size matters and suggested that instructors avoid three-person groups, although that recommendation may be content- and course-specific. The effects of gender were less clear-cut. Racial compositions did not produce statistically significant differences in achievement. Perhaps more significant were her findings on the effects of the group project on individual learning. Here “the results suggest that group achievement on the research project does predict individual learning as measured by grade on the final research report and proposal, even after controlling for individual characteristics that also predict individuals' final paper grade” (p. 249). On the other hand, the group characteristics considered in the study (size, gender, racial composition, and overall average grade on midterms) did not contribute to individual achievement on the final paper over and above the group's achievement. This study is noteworthy because it begins to provide evidence that supports anecdotal claims about the value of group research projects. In this case, students learned how to do research by working with other students on a research projects. In addition, it offers some insights as to the effects of group characteristics, such as size and composition. Reference:  Monson, R. (2017). Groups that work:  Student achievement in group research projects and effects on individual learning. Teaching Sociology, 45 (3), 240–251.