Finding the Value in Group Projects: Service Learning in a Group Communication Course

Mary Stairs Vaughn, Chair Communication Studies
Belmont University


Students often say that they hate group projects. Many are products of a traditional educational system that teaches them to fend for themselves and compete with their peers. This case study of a small group communication course explores the potential of service learning to accomplish academic and civic learning as well as cultivate students’ genuine appreciation for teamwork. Based on analysis of student papers, students’ qualitative and quantitative reflection, and partner feedback, this paper summarizes the academic and civic learning outcomes and students’ increased affect for teamwork resulting from a service learning project


The new century has seen an increase in civic engagement among college freshmen (Viadero, 2009). Compared to their counterparts in the early 1990s, students of the millennial generation are voting more, volunteering in record numbers, and are eager to connect their classroom learning with community needs (Marklein, 2006, p. 6D). The 2007-2008 survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute indicates that college professors are responding to this changing demographic. Over half (55.5%) of four-year faculty at 372 four-year colleges and universities nationwide rated “instill[ing] in students a commitment to community service” as a “very important” or “essential” goal, compared to 36.4% in the 2004-2005 survey (DeAngelo et al., 2009).

Service learning is one way for faculty to foster civic engagement in their courses, because it seeks a clear and intentional integration of course learning goals with community service. Students are able to apply and experience course concepts in a real-world setting (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Furco, 2003). Research has shown that service learning enhances students’ understanding of the course material (Eyler & Giles; Simons & Cleary, 2006) while increasing their sense of citizenship and ownership for community problems (Reinke, 2004; Simons & Cleary, 2006).

I’ve used service learning for a number of years in a Group Communication class, and I have seen its power to accomplish both academic learning objectives and civic learning objectives. Additionally, in the context of this class, I’ve been struck by the way service learning seems to shift students’ feelings about working in groups and depending on each other. As Yelsma (1999) observed, “when faced with real challenges that affect group members and people in the community, students seem more compelled to learn methods of working together as a team” (p. 87).

This case study of my experience illustrates the way service learning accomplished the civic and academic learning objectives of the course and increased students’ appreciation for working in teams.

Why Students Hate Group Projects

Research suggests that when students have positive group experiences with accountable interdependence, mature communication, a common purpose, and a clear understanding of their role in the group, they’ll have a better attitude towards teamwork (Ruiz Ulloa & Adams, 2004). However, students in the United States are more likely to have an individualistic orientation, and their sense of self-reliance can preclude collective efforts. Ramamoorthy & Flood (2004) examined individualist/collectivist tendencies in teamwork, and found that tasks structured with a high degree of interdependence are more likely to enable individualists to align their personal goals with collective goals.

Unfortunately, many group tasks are structured such that the students can easily divide the work, and the only interdependent component is the grade. Because grades are ultimately an individual measure of success (e.g., a student’s grade point average), students often experience anxiety that overshadows their collective effort. In their qualitative study of students’ perceptions of group projects, Payne et al. (2006) observed that students defined their group goal in terms of a particular grade. When the group task is secondary to the goal of a grade, students become frustrated when “freeriders” in their group earn the same grade as those who do the majority of the work (Joyce, 1999). Indeed, Pfaff & Huddleston (2003) found grades to be the biggest predictor of student satisfaction in group projects, and Feichtner and Davis (1984) found a similar correlation between grades and a negative attitude towards group work. Thus, to instill an appreciation for teamwork, instructors need to design complex, interdependent projects that distract students from their individual academic goals.

After hearing about service learning at a conference, I began to dream about what might replace “grades” as the primary motivator for my student groups. Service learning seemed an obvious fit for the class, because it entails collaboration and interdependence with the community. I developed a project that would not only include curricular objectives, but would also address students’ affect for working in groups and their sense of civic engagement.

The Project

Previously, when I had taught my Group Communication course, I had students do in-class group projects that usually resulted in a group research paper and presentation for the class. To turn this into a service learning project, I sent students out to service sites to analyze and address community problems.

Over the course of three years (and three different sets of students), we partnered with a community youth organization, a neighborhood tutoring program sponsored by a nearby church, and an organization that provides transitional housing and programming for women recently released from prison. I established contacts through our campus volunteer coordinator and my own volunteer work. Prior to each semester, I met with representatives from the organizations to set up group projects that would accomplish the learning objectives for the course while simultaneously serving the needs of the organizations. In other words, the projects needed to give students an opportunity to work collaboratively, make decisions, solve problems, and complete the task within the timeframe of the semester.

Three of the groups prepared workshop presentations on various college preparatory skills for the middle and high school students of the community youth organization. These groups also participated in the bi-weekly program as volunteers in order to get to know their audience. Each semester a group staffed two nights of the after-school tutoring program for disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood surrounding the university. Their task involved setting up programming for the afternoon and tracking progress of the kids who participated. In our partnership with the transitional home for women, one group organized a volunteer recognition event which included fundraising for the event, catering, and decorating. Two other groups conducted workshops for the residents on communication-related topics that the volunteer coordinator felt would be appropriate and needed for women transitioning into the workforce and living together in very close quarters: conflict management and interviewing skills. Thus, all of the groups were faced with one of three types of community tasks–conducting an effective and educational workshop, planning a successful event, and managing an after-school program.

At the beginning of the semester, I introduced the projects to the students, and they self-selected into groups based on their interest in the various tasks. I designated four or five class sessions for students to work together on their projects, and I also canceled a couple of class sessions in lieu of time spent on-site. The students used the in-class meetings to discuss their projects and compile their proposals, itemized budgets, and group summary reports.

Each group received a small budget ($50) through a service learning grant provided by the service learning office on campus. The workshop groups used their funds to purchase instructional materials and handouts. The tutoring group used their funds for reading contest prizes and some needed resources for the center. The event-planning group had to raise additional funds for their project, and fundraising became a part of their group task.

The students compiled group materials documenting their progress. Each group created typed agendas and minutes for every meeting that included task assignments for individual group members. They also compiled a project proposal with clearly defined goals and objectives, a timeline for the project, an itemized budget, and a goals summary report detailing the extent to which they accomplished their goals and objectives. Each individual also wrote a paper analyzing their group communication and decision-making through course theories and concepts. For example, students analyzed group roles, group norms, decision-making processes, groupthink, story-telling and other relevant theories common to a basic small group communication course. Reflection is a key component of any service learning project and was accomplished through in-class discussion and non-graded writing assignments.

The students received individual grades for their analysis papers, but the group projects were graded pass/fail. As indicated previously, this alleviated individual fears and greatly enhanced students’ ability to focus on the project. The project “passed” when all of the group materials (goals report, meeting agendas and minutes, summary report, etc.) were deemed substantive, a good-faith effort, and free of editing/stylistic departures. I also had a mechanism wherein a group could “fire” a member but only after several interventions with me and appropriate documentation. This never happened. I made the change to a pass/fail grade based on a recommendation from a workshop I attended on teaching group communication. I was initially skeptical that students would be motivated to turn in good work, however, because I stipulated that project materials must be “error-free” (i.e., ready to show a future employer), I could simply turn back materials that didn’t meet this standard.

Throughout these three experiences using service learning for the group communication class, I saved the individual papers, the group project materials, summaries, and the non-graded written reflections. I also retained survey and focus group data that was collected by our university task force for service learning. In preparation for this paper, I repeatedly read these materials and noted emergent themes related to my course objectives, including civic engagement and individual affect for team experiences. I never intended for these course materials and various forms of feedback to become formal research data, but in reflecting on them as a whole, I’ve learned much about the potential of service learning for meeting the specific objectives of my course and enhancing students’ appreciation for teamwork.

Academic Learning

The basic group communication competencies in the course include effective decision-making, meeting management, use of procedural order, awareness/analysis of group roles, and conflict management. I found that these objectives came alive for students in the service learning context because they were connected with very real outcomes. To meet the decision-making objective of the course, we asked students to set and document their goals for the project. For example, the tutoring group set academic goals with the children and documented them with the following in their summary report:

Toward the end of our time at [the tutoring program], Mrs. Mayfield gave us the report cards of the children, and we saw that Ryan, a first grader, had been taken out of his resource classes, which is an obvious educational improvement.

The other groups similarly documented goal-attainment in their work, and I feel confident that when these students are faced with committee work in the future, they will be able to draw on their experience in crafting and documenting measurable objectives.

A second key objective of the course is for students to become better at procedural order and meeting management. I required detailed documentation of the group process so that the students would be forced to practice procedural order. One of the group members who helped with the workshop presentation for the half-way house described this structure in his final paper:

On the very first day that we were together, we wrote a mission statement according to the parameters laid out in our class discussions. This was our guide for the project, and helped to keep us focused on the task. The group was provided with a tentative timeline at the beginning of the project. This allowed us to create a map of how far along we needed to be at each group meeting; at the end of each meeting we set the time and date for the next meeting and drafted an agenda. This gave us a clear view of how much time we had to complete our assignments, and it also allowed us to have a sense that, when we did meet next, we had a good reason to do so. This group experience helped to firmly plant into my mind the necessity of keeping these norms in any task-oriented group.

Another student from the tutoring group commented on the value of procedural order: If we had not had the requirements we had, I think we would not have been as effective.” Overwhelmingly, the students did not perceive this work as busy work but saw it as essential to the task, perhaps because they were working on a real community problem.

In addition to these practical skills, students were also able to use the theory from the course to analyze their group experiences. In his chapter on integrating group communication concepts and theory into a service learning course, Yelsma (1999) noted several such areas for analysis including group roles, groupthink, and interdependence. In their individual analysis papers, the students identified factors of group cohesiveness, roles of group members, decision-making processes, barriers to effective decision-making, and many other group communication concepts. I found that the service learning context afforded a much richer experience for students to analyze these theories in their written work. Because community stakeholders were involved, students seemed to perceive greater consequences attached to their decisions, and they took their work more seriously. Service learning enables students to accomplish academic learning objectives while engaging in an experience that cultivates tremendous attitudinal change.

Civic Learning

Underlying this and every course I teach is the larger goal of teaching students how to connect what they learn in the classroom to the social and civic problems around them. Our university distributes a survey to the service learning classes across our campus. The students from my classes scored higher than the university average on these items: (1) I have a clear understanding of the differences between volunteerism and service learning; (2) The service aspect of this course helped me to understand better the required lectures and readings; (3) The service aspect of this course made me aware of my own biases and prejudices; (4) As a result of my service learning experience, I have a better understanding of my role as a citizen. This indicates to me that they not only learned the course objectives, but they also experienced powerful civic and social lessons.

In campus-wide focus groups on service learning, my students were asked to discuss surprises from their experience. Most of their surprises reflected genuine social lessons. One student said that she was surprised at “how interested the kids were about college and opportunities,” and another said that she was surprised “how little the kids knew about college.” These comments revealed real moments of dialogue wherein students gained a better understanding of their own privilege and came to understand their ownership in the problems of poverty and inequality.

Because this was a communication class, we spent a great deal of time reflecting in class about gaining access to community sites and earning trust through respect and dialogue. The groups doing presentations were particularly engaged in audience analysis and reflection. One presenter in the workshop for the half-way house wrote in her reflection paper:

One goal we set [was] that we would approach these women on an equal level and hopefully, be able to relate with them. At first there were some prison jokes and such, but then we were all able to really get down to business and find out what these women really needed, and we realized that many of their conflicts were ones that we experience daily with our roommates, friends, and coworkers. This made it very easy to see the women as equals that we could relate to.

Students found genuine moments of dialogue in their experience and were able to find connections with people they might have otherwise never met. As one student stated, “I was surprised at how accepting diverse and vulnerable populations have been towards my culture and others’ efforts towards service. They have been very genuine and welcoming. I could see myself wanting to get to know these individuals better in the future.”

A New Appreciation for Group Projects

Many students come to this course with significant attitudinal barriers derived from their previous experience with disastrous group projects. In my experience with service learning, I found that because the projects were connected to a community agency, group members tended to take their roles more seriously, and their effort was more evenly distributed. Simultaneously, their intrinsic motivation for helping others seemed to replace their preoccupation with grades, and they found themselves actually enjoying their group experience.

In their written reflections, students were very positive about their group projects. They seemed genuinely surprised to find their classmates actually pulling their weight and getting into the group experience. As one member of the volunteer event planning group commented in her goals summary report, “Everyone in the group performed equal tasks and were more than willing to participate in whatever needed to be done. No one ever complained about any task and everyone knew that the most important thing was to honor the volunteers.” The workshop group for the transitional home was similarly enthusiastic in its goals summary report:

We all felt that we were really able to reach these women, and hopefully make their home a more peaceful place to live in. We worked amazingly as a group. We were able to communicate clearly, accomplish tasks, and make decisions fairly and precisely, and we will all leave with a great group experience that we can take with us and apply to other group situations that we may come across.

These comments are not typical of the reflections I’ve received from more conventional, in-class group projects. There, I’ve heard lessons learned, but through bitter reflection of conflict, tension, and mostly, unequal effort. I suspect that what accounts for this difference is their source of motivation. In service learning contexts, students think less about grades and more about their overall service goal.

This replacement of motivation was clear in students’ reflections. One of the presenters for the youth organization wrote:

I think that this experience was much more valuable with the service learning than it would be without it. In a group, there is always a group goal. Having the goal being a presentation for young students gives me so much more motivation and excitement than just for a class. If you get a grade regardless, then why not make your time worth more.

Another student commented, “I loved the service to the community, and it gets you more motivated because we know your classmates don’t give a crap, but the [youth organization] students do.” Another stated, “I actually really liked this project. It allows for accountability unlike preparing a `ghost’ project. This project was rewarding too. I got a lot from helping these young adults.”

When reflecting on their experience, students repeatedly connected the “reward” of the project to the larger group goal instead of the grade. One student observed, “I really felt like I connected and did something important.” Another stated,

I thought that this type of group project was far more rewarding than a traditional research project. While both types of projects teach group communication skills, a service learning project entails possibly making a difference in someone’s life. Group projects of any kind are hard, but having a service part made it worth it.

Many said that the experience was eye-opening and took them out of their college “bubble.” One student described the experience as “life changing” and several students commented that they had previously hated group projects but this project had changed their minds. This feedback indicates that service learning accomplishes not only accomplishes civic and academic learning but enables students to better appreciate teamwork.


This case study provides a model for service learning for the communication discipline and holds broader implications across the curriculum. With group projects and collaboration integrated into the general education goals of many universities, educators frequently find themselves challenged by student complaints. My experience in using service learning to teach teamwork demonstrates how investing in a real community problem enables students to refocus their attention from the grade to the experience of community engagement. Additionally, it enhances their appreciation for depending on others.

Many service learning projects are structured as group experiences, but much of the research in service learning focuses on individual rather than group outcomes. By intentionally structuring group experiences in service learning projects, practitioners can maximize students’ engagement with the community. Based on my experience, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. Pre-plan the projects. It is challenging for student groups to find and coordinate a community project in one semester. I found it best to meet ahead with the community partners and establish the larger goal and then let the students determine the best means for reaching that goal.
  2. Consider grading the group effort pass/fail. By keeping standards for “passing” high, I received high-quality work while eliminating a threat to interdependence. I was able to assess individual effort and mastery of course objectives through individual analysis papers.
  3. Insist on procedural order. By requiring error-free project proposals, task timelines, budgets, minutes and agendas for every group meeting, I forced my students to develop (and appreciate) good project management skills.
  4. Allow for meetings in class. By carefully structuring group meetings into the class schedule, I essentially gave students the rough timeline for their projects. This prevented procrastination and took the pressure off of the students for having to coordinate 4-5 very busy schedules.
  5. Do everything you can to increase the likelihood of a positive group experience. So many of us learn negative lessons from group projects. Make this the class where they genuinely learn the value of teamwork!

The millennial generation seems poised for change, and educators are ideally positioned to shift students’ attention to a better reason for learning. Service learning provides a powerful complement for teamwork in higher education.


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About the Author:

Mary Stairs Vaughn is Chair of the Communication Studies Department at Belmont University. Her scholarly interests include instructional communication and power in interpersonal relationships. She has researched Montessori education, shelters for battered women, course evaluations, and most recently, service-learning. She has published her work in several venues including Communication Education, Communication Studies, and Communication Teacher and has presented numerous times at the national and regional levels. Mary has practiced service-learning for over 10 years and has been a long-time member of Belmont’s Service-Learning Committee.  Phone: 615-460-6084;  Email:

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.