Project Work: Group or Individual?

Thanks to Chija Bauer for prompting me to write this post:

For the last several years, I’ve allowed students to work together in groups on their end-of-year projects (a self-designed lab investigation). The rationale was that students would be able to do much more complicated experimental designs with two, three, or four people than with just one. But in the end, I was never satisfied with how it worked out. Often the experiments were simple enough that they could have easily been carried out solo. Or two students actually did the project and then added the name of a non-contributing friend (or two) to the report.

One solution I’ve tried is to require individual reports. This usually ends up with group members submitting identical “individual” reports. Which leads to phone calls, discipline, cries of “I didn’t know we couldn’t do that.” etc., etc. It’s a battle I don’t enjoy fighting, so I don’t find this solution to be successful for me (though your mileage may vary).

This year, each student must do their own unique investigation. All students are now fully immersed in the experimental design process. Sure, some of the experiments require an extra pair of hands, but students have been enthusiastically helping each other out. Jack might be the cameraman for Jill’s terminal velocity experiment. And then Jill might release the cart at the top of the ramp for Jack’s conservation of energy experiment.

Some students have stated that if they work together to collect data, then they should both be able to analyze that data for their projects. My response to this is that they must have unique data sets. Take Jill’s terminal velocity experiment. She’s looking at the effect of mass on terminal velocity by dropping nested coffee filters. Jack is using a camera to film the falling filters so Jill can analyze the videos in LoggerPro. Now Jack is not allowed to use Jill’s data, but Jack could investigate the effect of surface area on terminal velocity or simply repeat Jill’s experiment using jumbo coffee filters or cupcake wrappers instead. And in the end, Jill and Jack can compare conclusions and come up with a mega-conclusion that ties together both experiments.


Sometimes, however, the project work must be done as a group because that’s the only feasible way. I had to do this in my Conceptual Physics class this year for our model defibrillator circuit project and our modified bike light generator project. I did not have enough equipment (or storage!) for each student to have their own circuit kit or bicycle.

Both of these projects came from the Physics That Works curriculum, and I used their solution to this problem of group project vs. individual work. The solution is that the project has two parts: a group component and an individual component. For example, for one project, each group had to modify a bike light generator so that the headlights would light even when the rider wasn’t peddling, yet wouldn’t add more batteries to the landfill. For the group portion of the project, students worked in groups to design and build such a circuit for their group’s bicycle. And everyone in the group received the same grade for that part (25% of the overall project grade).


For the individual portion, each person had to submit an annotated circuit diagram (25% of the project grade) and give a mini-presentation to the class (50% of the project grade). I’ve posted my rubrics below:

Even the way the mini-presentations are handled by the authors of Physics That Works is genius. Students are given several choices for topics for their mini-presentation, but the caveat is that, as group, no two students can do the same mini-presentation and that two of the mini-presentations must come from the two required topics and the others come from the elective topics. For example, for the bike light presentations, these are the options:


Ideally, the mini-presentations would be tied together in one large presentation for the whole group, but each student would only be graded on their contribution.


What are your solutions to the group project vs. individual work dilemma?

4 responses to “Project Work: Group or Individual?

  1. For my circuits lab course, I had to have students work in pairs, because of the number of lab stations. I required them to have a different partner on each lab, except the last 2 where they could pair up as they chose. Reports were written by the pair and they got the same grade, though they could opt to write separate reports and get separate grades (which happened once at the beginning of the quarter, and one of the students dropped the course shortly afterwards).

    Next year, I’m going to use an external randomizer, rather than relying on the students, as a partition quickly formed with 8 of the students forming partners among themselves and the other 5 trying to also.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this for next year as well. I’ve wanted to try an identical structure to what you propose. Alike topic groups. Individual experiments. Individual mega-conclusions. Collective presentation.

  3. It is so comforting to know that others struggle with similar issues that I do. Thank you for writing this. I spend a lot of time with my kids before our first lab write-up discussing how to do a formal lab write up and how we can get different individual lab reports even if we share the same data. I tried to stress how their own voice must be heard through their writing. This was the first year we didn’t get identical reports. The down side is the grading, it takes me sooooo long to grade these, even with the aid of a detailed rubric. Also, since I allow, and hope, each student to correct and resubmit their lab reports of they are not “perfect,” I tend to write a lot of comments to let them know where they went wrong without doing the lab over for them. On the up side, the subsequent labs tend to be of better quality.

    I really like the projects you mentioned, and the physics that works curriculum looks pretty awesome!

  4. T'Keyan Peoples

    It is always great to know that other teachers struggle with this situation as well. I honestly prefer for the students to work alone on projects. I say that because you how a student puts effort into a project on their own, that is how they will do in a group project. I want to make sure that every student puts in effort into their project and not rely on their partner to do the work. If i chose to do a group activity I will always do a student evaluation to every member in the group to get their personal opinion.

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