Highs and Lows of Implementing a Management Strategy Eliminating 'Free Passengers' in Group Projects

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Introduction

It is now well established that the IT industry, along with possibly every other industry, wants graduates who are able to work effectively in groups, and many university courses are consequently now using group projects. Benefits of group work are said to include: higher order thinking (Cohen, 1994), increased communication and conflict management skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1996; Williams, Beard, & Rymer, 1991), as well as skills in teamwork, time management, and interpersonal relationships (Koppenhaver & Shrader, 2003). It has also been noted that students with limited skills can learn from those with greater skills (Van Der Vyver & Lane, 2003). Unfortunately, it is also known that group projects can lead to a plethora of problems (Hansen & Hansen, 2007). The "free passenger" syndrome is recognised as a major problem; with some students putting in little effort, causing stress to other team members yet, despite doing little or no work, receiving the same mark as other team members (Ford & Morice, 2003; Hasan & Ali, 2007). Academics might claim they are simulating a "real world" environment, but as one student noted in a survey by Ford & Morice, "they try to be like the real world but they're really not."

One difference between the real world and typical group projects at university is that team members who do not perform in the real world may be identified and dismissed by the supervisor; the supervisor can see what is happening and has the power to do something about the problem. With university project groups, academics are often not aware that someone is not working, until another group member alerts them. To help overcome the problem, Ford & Morice put forward a management strategy for running group projects at university. This paper discusses an attempt to implement the management strategy, which we will for convenience call the Monitored Group (MG) strategy. It will be seen that some aspects of the strategy were not possible to implement (or at least it was realised that such implementation could lead to serious problems). It will also be seen that, as hoped, many students were very relieved and thankful that finally their work was being recognised but that, unexpectedly, some students still became quite resentful and hostile.

The MG Strategy and Its Implementation

Ford & Morice (2003) wanted to provide a strategy that would provide conditions that were more similar to those found in the real world. They thus developed a three-phase strategy using management techniques on a small scale:

"(1) the initiation phase where an academic staff member, who acts as a "group manager," advertises positions on projects, students apply for the positions, and appointments are made;

(2) the management phase where the "group manager" and each group meet according to an agreed schedule and where group members work according to contracts; and

(3) the completion phase where a "post-mortem" and individual marking (not group marking) takes place. (Ford & Morice, 2003, p.367)"

The course chosen for implementation of the strategy was a course on user interface design; a second year 13-week course with approximately 150 students separated into 5 laboratory classes. Students were initially briefed about how the group work would proceed in the course. No students complained and, in fact, some seemed very happy about the strategy.

The Initiation Phase

Students were asked, for their first assignment, to write a resume that was laid out using certain design principles. Given that the course was on user interface design, this assignment was quite appropriate. Students were asked not to include their real Grade Point Average and were advised that their mark would depend on the layout of the resume, not the content. The idea, they were told, was that students would be grouped according to how well they laid out their resume, not on how well they had performed in the past. …