The pros and cons of student team projects.

Team project cartoon

Cartoon created by Phil Jones and Visual Artist/Illustrator, Ron Martin (

As the saying goes, “There’s no, ‘I’,  in the word team”. No there isn’t, but there can be an ‘F’, ‘D’, ‘C’, ‘B’ or an ‘A’.

One of the biggest complaints from students regarding team projects, is that there always seems to be a ‘slacker’ within their midst; a student that ‘rides the coat tails’ of other team members efforts, and ends up with the same mark as everyone else for contributing little or nothing. If this is happening in any of your courses, then you need to change how you set up the team project so there’s a way to identify who did or didn’t do the work. If you don’t, then frankly, you deserve the flack you’re going to get from those individual students who feel they are being marked unfairly because you penalized them for another team member’s lack of effort. “Well, that’s what it’s like in the real world!”, a colleague once told me. My response is “Bullsh*t!”  Those ‘slackers’, at least where I worked, didn’t last too long; they were fired. In a college environment, why should it be any different? Students who don’t pull their weight on team projects should be fired by their peers and possibly even failed by the prof.

Having experienced team projects myself in college, I understand why students get so frustrated when someone is doing nothing to contribute to the project. You have to remember that these students are at a stage where their academic reputation is at stake. A low mark on a major assignment could negatively affect their overall course mark, which in turn affects their overall program GPA, possibly jeopardizing their career opportunities upon graduation. So, let’s talk about how to make this work, because team projects aren’t going away and they can be a positive experience if managed properly.

To pick or not to pick, that is the first question? Who should determine the team members? From years of experience, I have determined that we should let the students pick their own teams. I’ve seen profs choose teams based on seating arrangements, alphabetical order of last names, or by random name draws. The problem with using these latter approaches is that the students can, and will, blame you for putting that ‘slacker’ on their team, especially when things start going wrong.

What about the timing of when to start including team projects into a course program? I recommend team projects shouldn’t even be in a course program until after the first semester is over. During the first semester, give ample opportunity for students to work in teams during class activities, with no marks attached. This way, students will get to know who they should work with when it comes time to work on a project in level 2 and beyond. Students are intuitive; it doesn’t take them long to figure out who the slackers are.

The last, and possibly the most important tip, is to have a team contract. Each group must read it, understand it, discuss it, and agree upon it before they start the assignment. Everyone in the team signs it, keeps a copy for each member, and hands in a copy to you for your records. I can almost guarantee that you’ll be pulling out one of these contracts to use as a back-up to mediate a (heated) discussion between team members. This document really is your ‘ground zero’ when you need to sort things out. I like to keep the contract information simple. Here’s an example:

Team Name: 

Strengths/Weaknesses/Distinctive Skills of  each Team Member:

Goals/Objective of Team:

Expectations of Team (Attendance, Participation, Preparation, Quality of Work):

Early Alert Procedure:

Timetable (Meeting Times and Places):

Key Roles of Team Members:

Finally, I’d like to share some of the comments from some of my students when I asked them for the pros and cons of working together after a recent in-class team exercise (these are first semester students).


“I had a chance to build new relationships.”

“When you have a good team, you can accomplish more!”

“I learned how to manage different people.”

“I did the entire project by myself; I know who to avoid now!”


“We needed a better exchange of contact information outside of the classroom; we couldn’t reach each other to finish the assignment together.”

“I learned that people ‘slack’! It’s very difficult to work with team members who don’t care and don’t do their part.”

“One team member was overloaded with the work; me.”

“It was too hard to synchronize meeting times after the class, since everyone is busy.”

“I don’t work well ‘hung over’!” (I found this amusing).

I think the bottom line is that it’s important to be both realistic and flexible when we evaluate each individual of a team. At the outset of any team project, let students know that just because they are part of a ‘team’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will automatically end up with the same mark. You can also tell them to watch a couple of episodes of the reality show ‘The Apprentice’ to see how teams work, or in some cases, don’t work well together. Have them listen for Donald Trump’s classic line, “…and somebody will be fired!”; it may drive home the message on what happens to slackers in the real world…and that’s a reality they need to learn during college, not after.

Do you give the same mark to all team member’s, regardless of who did/who didn’t do the work?





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