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Taking the sting out of group projects

headshot of Maria Boerngen

Maria Boerngen

In any classroom, when instructors announce a group project, a collective groan can generally be heard emanating down the hall.

Assistant Professor of Agriculture Maria Boerngen has found a way not only to engage students in the dreaded group project process, but also increase their appreciation for working in teams.

In her Farm Supply & Food Industry Management (AGR 215) course, Boerngen assigns students into groups to develop an agri-food business. “We’ve had everything from fertilizer to microbreweries,” said Boerngen. “The semester-long project has groups doing seven related assignments, like creating a vision statement and analyzing the competition. At the end, all of the assignments align and out pops a business plan.”

Long interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning, Boerngen decided to give the students a simple personality test at the beginning of the semester that could help her shape the groups. “I chose the DISC factors, which measures dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance,” she said. The first semester, Boerngen tried matching up similar personalities. “I feared all of the dominant personalities together would kill one another before the end of the semester,” she joked. “After that, I worked to make sure all of the groups had a balance of personalities.”

At the end of the second semester, Boerngen was surprised at the evaluations at the end of class, almost all of which made mention of the group projects. “People said things like, ‘I usually hate group projects, but this turned out pretty well,’ or “I thought this would be terrible, but it was cool,’” she said. Boerngen decided she would examine further what works and what doesn’t in group work.

Boerngen began tracking how students react to the group project with a series of surveys throughout the semester. Students assess how they feel about the projects at the beginning, midway, and end of the project. “When I realized students were reacting positively, I moved from anecdotal input to a more formalized survey for research,” said Boerngen, who added she has found a statistically significant increase in the overall perception of group projects. “It seems to be making a difference.”

Boerngen also realized students find their footing more quickly in the groups when she assigns them to create ground rules the first day they meet. “The fear is that someone will not do the work, or will run over the other members,” she said. “Rules give everyone input of what is expected of their role in the group.”

Along with the surveys, students also perform individual reflections about the process of working together. Responses later in the semester usually allay earlier concerns. “At first, some students are disappointed that groups are assigned, but they tend to get that they will not be able to choose their coworkers in the future, and they need to figure out how to work with people who have different ideas and personalities,” she said.

Boerngen combines the SoTL work with her research examining farmers’ perception of nutrient loss issues and the adoption of best management practices to reduce fertilizer runoff. The chance to conduct her research and expand on her love of teaching and learning drew her to Illinois State from a community college in 2015. In both 2017 and 2018, she was honored with both the Harvey S. Woods Outstanding Teacher Award from Illinois State’s Department of Agriculture, and the Teaching Award of Merit from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture.

“I find studying SoTL is a bridge between teaching and research, which is the key to making the classroom more intuitive,” she said.