I think it’s fairly safe to say that nearly every college instructor wants their students to learn. In fact, I know more than a few of my colleagues who design their courses around this very idea. Toward that end, group work appears enticing, a peer-to-peer tool gleaming in our “teacher toolbox” with the promise of lessons learned. Right?

But we all know the story, dysfunctional group dynamics often tower over the project and the lessons the project was intended to imbue. Our job then shifts, we focus more on group management rather than promoting and supporting the project’s intended virtues.

But what if the “group work” tool performed as advertised? What if we put the student at the center of their own learning instead of the project?

Typical Group AssignmentThis has implications.

Perhaps these images will help. As you can see, the “Project” is at the center of everything in a “Typical Group Assignment” setting. But what if each student were at the center? What then does a student focused project look like?

With the student at the center of his or her own learning, the student takes ownership of their own project. In the first drawing (the one on the left), the project owns the students. But in the second drawing (the one Typical Group Assignment Refocusedon the right), the student owns the project. The shift is profound. In the “Typical Group Assignment” scenario, it’s often Student “A” and Student “B” that do the bulk of the work with Student “C” and “D” riding their coattails. What happened, then, was that Students “A” and “B” were overworked and stressed, and Students “C” and “D” did not learn (or at least fully learn the lessons unto which the project was intentionally given).

If we “Switch the Focus” so as to make learning the priority, it is obvious who gets to be at the center of attention: the student. Look, it’s simple: a “project” does not have the capacity to learn, but a student does. In the “Switch the Focus” scenario, student “D” is now in charge of student “D’s” project, and thus his/her own learning. Student “D” can no longer ride the coattails of other people’s work. Student “D” is placed in a position of responsibility not only toward their project but toward empowering themselves to maximize their own learning.

Additionally, with the group’s focus centered on each individual’s learning, the roles change. Student “D” is now the captain of his/her own project and the captain of his/her own learning. Student “D” is the boss, the entrepreneur, and will reap the rewards of the work that goes into the project. Student “D” is, initially, given “advisers.” In this case, students “A,” “B,” and “C.”

Another important aspect is this: student “D” gains empowerment. Not only does the student learn from the project (which is important), but student “D” learns entrepreneurialism. Student “D” is his own boss. If student “D” is unhappy with how the project is progressing – student “D” has options. Sure, consulting an expert (you know, the teachers) might be a good idea; sure, seeking advice from his advisers (you know, his group mates) might be a good idea. But if both teacher and peers are not working out, what can be done? Every small business owner faces a similar dilemma, sometimes things do not go according to plans. And just like an entrepreneur, a student must call the shots, adjust the game plan, and all in pursuit of success.

Last, the Beatles once sang on the album Abbey Road, that the “love you take is equal to the love you make.” Students are compelled to help because they will, similarly, seek out such assistance: reciprocity – it works. And us teachers can tweak this concept a bit further: prizes or grade enhancements or some other recognition for the group with the best composite grade concerning the project at hand.

Placing the emphasis on the learning, focusing on the student rather than the project, empowers the student to grow, to think, and to become their own boss. Make students the priority rather than the project and group dynamics will become less of a problem.