Student Experiences in Project-Based Networking

Dr. Victoria (Vicky) Pace
UCF Department of Psychology

Before I begin, let me acknowledge this: You will think I am crazy. I teach multiple classes concurrently, often with course caps of 125 students; many times the undergraduate classes are fully online, and yet, in one of my regularly assigned online courses, I require a big group project in which student groups perform services for one of 25 community clients. My course is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and the student projects focus on producing deliverables such as structured interview questions, training materials, or standardized rating forms for employee performance evaluations. The tasks themselves are discipline-specific, but the essence of this project easily translates across many fields. Now, you may not believe me when I tell you that not only is this assignment a high-impact integrative-learning experience and great professional development for students, but it is also laborsaving for me. Yes, I said laborsaving! And this course receives good ratings from students! (I think they especially appreciate the social interaction and shared learning in the online course format.)

Learnersu2019 Permits

Is it a bit scary turning undergraduates loose on the business world and community clients? It is true that their work reflects on the university and our teaching, but keep in mind that it will after they graduate as well. I consider this project as part of a learner’s permit or dress rehearsal type of training, perhaps like a mini-internship. Although they are entering into the “real world” and dealing with real clients, this assignment is relatively small in scope; moreover, students share the workload with team members, and I am there—with the help of undergraduate peer coaches (or undergraduate TAs) and a GTA—to answer questions and provide support as they tackle this work-related project. We are essentially in the passenger’s seat and helping to ”navigate,” as needed. Plus, their livelihoods are not at stake. Much less scary than the real thing when they graduate, right? We are helping to prepare them to succeed when the stakes are much higher.

“How?” you might ask.

First, let us tackle networking to find community partners or clients. When I arrived at UCF, I did not have any local business or organizational connections. Instead, I reached out to the Service Learning office for some names, and I was successful in connecting to one. However, I also wanted the students to have some autonomy, so I let groups find their own client organization if they chose (subject to my approval). Giving groups autonomy and responsibility was more successful and developmental than I expected, so that is now my standard practice except in the short summer terms.* I also have a few organizations (past clients, on-campus groups, etc.) to suggest if a group is struggling on this step. The main consideration is that the organization must be willing to talk with at least one member of the student group to share a course-relevant need before the group drafts a Statement of Work to describe the potential project. After I approve this project plan, I contact the organization to confirm it (See Tools below). The students are not required or expected to spend time at the organization’s location. Near the end of the semester, the organization receives the group’s completed project and I ask their representative to complete a satisfaction survey via emailed link to Qualtrics.

Next, let us consider establishing communication and equalizing efforts within teams. Because I usually have 25 teams, peer coaches or undergraduate TAs who have excelled in this course in the past are a real asset. I have developed several techniques to solve various team difficulties if they arise, and I teach these to the peer coaches because they may have been in a well-functioning team when they took the course. Student groups are welcome to use the group tools in Webcourses or other tools such as GroupMe, as long as everyone in their group can access them and agrees. Developing roles and assigning tasks within the group is encouraged, as are internal deadlines in advance of course assignment deadlines to minimize last-minute stress. If efforts seem to lag on some group members’ parts, we send reminders of the policy of peer ratings that influence approximately 40% of the final project grade. Students are usually eager to please their team members as well as their client.

Student Perspectives:
Real-World Experiences

“I really enjoyed the class. Thanks for an assignment to create a project that used the things we learned in class instead of just reading the ideas out of the book. That was great experience working in a group. I am sure group projects are part of consulting in the field.”

“I really liked how I was able to apply the concepts learned in class to the real world through the semester long project.”

“The course was well organized and I felt that all assignments were relevant. The group project, while usually undesirable, I think gave a good application of the concepts that are a part of I/O psychology.”

Project Management Steps

  1. I allow time in the initial weeks of the semester to student efforts in finding a client and communicating with them. Once that is accomplished, the project typically takes approximately five weeks to complete.
  2. In addition to the final group submission, there are also preliminary assignments such as:
  • Assignment 1, Statement of Work (SOW): Includes a description of the proposed work, a schedule of tasks, and the name and contact information of the client (I use this to confirm the project with the client after I have reviewed and approved it.)
  • Assignment 2, Rough Draft of Project Components and/or Class Presentation: Includes a list of references. Peer coaches provide detailed feedback, whereas I and/or a graduate TA review and grade the draft(s) as well as the list of references.
  1. Student groups present their final projects in class, or I upload them to Webcourses, depending on course format. Expectations of the presentation include a 10–15 slide show reflecting on and sharing lessons learned as well as showing the products that students will deliver to the client.
  2. Students usually have one week to confidentially rate approximately 6–8 other presentations (I tell them which ones) according to a rubric-based Qualtrics survey. These ratings tend to be very positive and could be optional, but I want to engage students and ensure they are learning from others’ experiences as well as their own. I rate all presentations and often ask for TA input as well as peer evaluations which are gathered confidentially through Qualtrics (see Tools below).
  3. While I am compiling ratings at the end of the term, the groups can further tighten their client projects and deliver them.

Moans and Groans

True, often early in the semester, I hear groans or see emails expressing concern about this team or virtual team assignment. How can they possibly do this online?! They have already tried and been frustrated with group projects when the “slackers” took unfair advantage. They cannot possibly attend a group meeting from afar (that will not be necessary, I say). Therefore, I reassure them that they will learn to communicate and share work online, the grading will be fair, and asynchronous work will be the norm. After all, many current workplaces and jobs require work teams (even multinational virtual teams) and extensive online communications. Developing project management skills and interacting with a client to address their needs are additional benefits of this project. Having such experiences on their resumes might even differentiate them from the pack and help them land the job they want. I give them examples of how to list this on their resume whether for a job or graduate school application.

To avoid social loafing, I limit groups to 4–5 students each and make peer ratings account for approximately 40% of the final project grade. Only those members who the group lists as active contributors to the preliminary group assignments earn credit for those. If any group members are not listed on those, that provides an early alert to me and the TAs/peer coaches that the group needs our help in communication or other team aspects.

Student Perspectives: Group Work

“The thing I like best about the class was the opportunity to get a hands on project that gave actual experience in the field of Industrial and organizational psychology.”

“I actually ended up really liking the group assignment. Although initially I almost dropped the class because it had an online group assignment I am glad I stuck it out because it was not too terribly difficult and my group was great.”

Associated Tools and Templates:

Dress Rehearsal

Now that you know how, I encourage you to give this a try, perhaps starting with a smaller project version and a single client, then working your way up to the big, nearly term-length multi-stage project with multiple clients and student teams. The more similar it is to “show time” (employment), the more impact that student learning from your course will have in the world and the better prepared the students will be as graduates. Please contact me if you have questions: Bravo in advance!

*In short summer terms, I arrange for the client/clients and develop a project description sheet for each group, based on client needs. Students can see these project sheets posted in Webcourses before signing up for a limited capacity group (4–5 students; first-come, first-served). The groups begin with developing the Statement of Work, based on their description sheet, and proceed as usual. A GTA and/or I relay any early student questions to the client (in a single batch to save everyone time) and deliver the final projects to them.