Group Projects Without the Headaches

Accounting faculty share tips for creating accountability, promoting collaboration, and managing conflict.

Samiha Khanna

June 13, 2017

Group assignments teach students skills that will be invaluable once they enter the profession. They help students learn that success is determined not only by how well they understand the subject matter but also by how well they share responsibility, listen to other perspectives, lead teams, negotiate, compromise, and work through conflict.

“Group work and collaboration are fundamental skills to learn, especially in a corporate environment where teamwork is essential to the success of the business,” said Patrick B. Lee, CPA, assistant professor of accounting at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan. Since so many accounting students will work on audit teams or with tax clients, it’s important for them to learn how to function well as a team, he said. 

Yet many students dread group projects. And because of the inherent challenges in collaboration, these assignments can cause headaches for instructors, too. Group members may fail to pull their weight or may clash with peers who have different work styles or levels of dedication to the project. When these problems arise, students often, fairly or not, expect faculty to step in and solve them.

There are ways to make group projects run more smoothly, for both you and your students. Accounting faculty share the following tips:

Set clear expectations. Vague directions are a recipe for poor group work, said Scott Hanson, CPA (inactive), an assistant professor of accounting at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D.

The few times his group projects fizzled were “because I gave poor instructions,” Hanson said. “If I don’t give very detailed, very clear instructions, the students will go off into four different directions, and we’ll end up with a lot of frustration,” he said.

Hanson suggested that faculty outline expectations in writing, verbally, or even through a video or other demonstration. Faculty should address both how the project will be graded and how students are expected to communicate with peers.

Teach students how to work well in teams. At the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, equipping students with skills to collaborate with peers is an essential part of the MSA program, said Geneviève Risner, Ph.D., a professor of practice and director of the accounting and information systems department’s Ernst and Young Communication Center. In fact, all faculty in the department use a consistent definition of what it means to be an effective team member when assigning group projects.

“Aligning all the faculty in a department to use the same definition of effective teamwork is critical to sending a consistent message to students about the standards of excellence,” she said. Risner and her colleagues lay out expectations in several ways. Before team projects, they give students a list of seven qualities of an effective team member and a lecture on how to work effectively in teams.

Require group contracts. In Risner’s courses, student groups are also required to complete a communications contract at their first meeting.

“The contract provides topics of conversation to help the team establish goals, norms, processes, and get to know the other members’ strengths, weaknesses, and goals as they relate to the project,” Risner said.

Lee said he asks students to resolve their own conflicts. If complaints arise, Lee will call a meeting with the group and ask them to propose a solution and work toward it, managing the process on their own. Most often, that initial meeting seems to nip further issues in the bud, he said.

Hanson’s philosophy is to step in quickly. “For some groups we [faculty members] have to remain more actively involved, and some groups don’t want us around at all,” he said. “I make myself available and say, ‘Come to me if you’re having problems.’ If I’m not hearing from someone, I seek them out.”

Hanson takes a proactive approach to group conflicts. “I would rather pull somebody off the team rather than see the whole team fail,” he said. For the few cases where he has removed students from a group, he has reassigned them to work directly with him so he can coach them personally.

Let students assign their own groups. Some faculty find that letting students pick their own teammates can circumvent problems. Ashley Stark, CPA, DBA, assistant professor of accounting at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., notes that many of her students have worked together before in previous classes. “As such, they know which of their classmates they do not want to work with, and I have found that it makes the projects run more smoothly when they choose their own partners,” she said.

Use peer feedback when grading. Some faculty have group members evaluate one another and let them know that this feedback will affect their final grade. For example, in one course at Michigan State, if two or more students on a team provide low ratings for another student, the instructor uses that feedback to lower the student’s score on the project, Risner said.

It’s difficult to assess whether peer evaluations improve students’ performance, Risner said. “I think the key is that the tools encourage and support the communication required for effective teamwork,” she said. “Giving and receiving feedback is a critical skill necessary for effective teamwork; the evaluation process provides an opportunity for both to occur.”

Think beyond group papers and PowerPoint. Being innovative is vital to helping students get the most out of their projects, Lee said.

It’s easy for students to give a presentation, but ask yourself how else they can integrate what they are learning right now in a way that helps them develop a skill useful in their career, he suggested.

In a few classes, Lee has given students the option to create videos to complement their final exams, instead of a traditional presentation.

“We’re trying to form broadly educated professionals, and this activity allowed them to explore their creativity,” he said.

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.