Roadmap to Group Project Success in Online Classes

by Cheng Li | Jul 13, 2017

Cheng LiRound 2-Roadmap

It’s not fair that I spend more time than others in my group, and yet still get the same score on my group project!” How many times have we heard someone complain about a group project in an online class? Working on a project in a group can be either rewarding or frustrating as data collected from online courses suggests. The outcome really depends on how the group works together.

In this blog I want to share with you, someone who is interested in taking an online course with a group project, or who has taken an online course with a group project, a viable road map to a successful group project in an online course. I hope that by reading this blog, you will be better prepared for the next group project in online classes.

  1. Meet as a group at the beginning

    The first step towards a successful group project is to get to know your group members at the beginning. Developing personal relationships helps to build trust among the group. As observed in many dysfunctional groups, lack of trust is the fundamental issue that causes the group to fall apart.

    Nowadays, online courses usually offer ways of communication for group projects. In Compass (or Blackboard), it offers Blackboard Collaborate, an online conferencing tool that allows synchronous communication (both video and audio). Alternatively, third party tools are available too, such as Google Hangouts, or Skype. Or if your group members are all locally on campus, meeting in person is not a bad choice either.

    When meeting as a group, keep it causal for the introduction part. It helps create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable. Some simple icebreaker activities can lead off to an agreeable group environment.

  2. Set ground rules upfront

    When first meeting as a group, one important task to accomplish is to establish ground rules as a group. For example, members of the group may come from different cultural backgrounds. If that’s the case for your group, respect everyone’s opinion and take cultural differences into consideration when presenting and exchanging ideas. Members from non-native English speaking countries may have difficulty speaking English. In that circumstance, it’s important to slow the pace of speaking to make sure everyone understands. 

    Roger Schwarz, the author of The Skilled Facilitator, shared 9 ground rules for effective groups:

    1. Test assumptions and inferences
    2. Share all relevant information
    3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
    4. Explain your reasoning and intent
    5. Focus on interests, not positions
    6. Combine advocacy and inquiry
    7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements
    8. Discuss undiscussable issues
    9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed
  3. Meeting or Check-In Progress Weekly

    Although weekly meetings are highly recommended for a group project in online courses, this option is not always viable for every group. The bottom line, though, is to make sure the group checks in on the project on a weekly basis, either synchronously or asynchronously. It’s a good practice for each group member to share contacts, whether it’s email, phone or text.

  4. Establish Key Milestones and Schedule

    More often than not, group projects are a final deliverable that’s broken down into several components or parts, stretched across a semester or a long period of time. Each component or part may have a designated deadline for delivery (presenting or submitting). Because of the very nature of group projects, the group should establish key milestones that align with the various components of the final deliverable, and set a timeline for each milestone.

    As an example, the table below is a sample milestone breakdown and timetable for a group report project. The group decides that for each component, it should be reviewed/approved by each group member. Hence a key milestone for each component is to review/approve the component on a certain date before the submission deadline of the component.


    Milestone: Draft

    Milestone: Group Review

    Submission Deadline





    Initial Proposal




    Report Draft



    N/A (Draft Revision Based on Group Feedback)

    Final Report Presentation

    Group Review by 2/12 and Prep for Presentation 2/13


  5. Divide and Conquer

    Each group member has their strengths and weaknesses. Assigning roles to each group member is a widely used strategy in group project. By taking responsibility, each group member is held accountable to one puzzle of the project. Although divide and conquer is widely used, sometimes it leads to the group falling apart. In most cases, the reason is that the role of each group member is not clearly defined or well-articulated. When it comes to gray areas where multiple group members could be involved and responsible for, it becomes unclear who should be doing it. Often times, grade fairness becomes arguable among group members. To be even worse, the group stops cooperating, and then falls apart.

    To avoid that awkward situation from happening, it is wise to invest time up front to define and articulate each member’s roles. For example, group member A serves as the leader role, who is in charge of organizing the meeting agenda, keeping track of project progress and other logistics. Whereas group member B, could serve as a group discussion moderator, who’s in charge of moderating group discussion, and summarizing meeting notes.

    By carefully articulating and assigning roles, each group member shares responsibility for the entire project.

  6. Don’t Be Afraid of Group Projects!

Lastly, don’t be afraid of a group project in an online course even if you’ve had a bad experience with it before. Admittedly, group work is not only a challenge for a school project, but also a challenge for a big company. Group projects are a dynamic entity where each group member should work together and continue to seek solutions for any barriers encountered. Just like Rome is not built in a day, neither is a group!

Finally, to make group projects sound less intimidating and more fun, here is an interesting video from Tom Wujec who presented at Ted Talk about his research into the “marshmallow problem” – a simple team-building exercise that asks a team of 4 to 5 people to build a tower with spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow where the marshmallow has to be on top. The result, you will find in this video, is a big surprise. Enjoy and leave a comment below on what you think is the most effective group project strategy: