By: Trisha Burns, Middle School PBL Facilitator
Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Group contracts are a key tool to use in a project-based learning classroom. Not only do they provide a support and structure for groups as they work through their projects, but they also model more of what students will experience when they work in future careers and professions. That being said we’re going to dive into the purpose and elements of group contracts and how they can help you and your students be more successful in meeting the goals and learning outcomes of project-based learning unit.
What are they exactly?
Group contracts are a formalized document (digital or paper) of norms and agreements students fill out at the beginning of the project. This document is completed together by all group members and outlines how they will work together as how well as how they will successfully complete the end product(s) of the project. Group contracts are often broken into several sections, which I’ll dive into below. Here is an example of one that we used for our Lit 4 Life project and here is one that has been started by students (I deleted their names and contact information).
Why are they important?
Group contracts take some of the load off the teacher and give the responsibility to the students to facilitate their group. Having a plan documented when the project begins helps keep the students on track, hold each other accountable and overall have more effective collaboration. However, when there are group issues, I always start by making the group pull out their contract to see how well they are working together based on their plan at the beginning of the project. If I find it was a “one and done” for them, and they aren’t using it effectively, I support them in finding a plan to use the contract and check back in after a couple of days to see if that helped.
Who uses them?
Individual groups and the facilitator use these group contracts during the project. If you struggle with collaboration issues in your projects, give them a try! They can really help empower the students to take control of their group without needing you as their mediator as often.
What are the made up of?
Group contracts have several different parts that you can adapt to your projects. Some that I like to include are the following:
I always let the students choose how to be contacted. Sometimes students share their email, their cell phone number, or their Snapchat name. When students don’t feel comfortable sharing any other contact information with their group, they just say “Google Docs” where the group knows to share their documents. This allows each student to see the group work and what he/she needs to work on if he/she is absent.
Strengths and Weaknesses
It is important to do activities for the students to get to know themselves as individuals and group members. If you are looking for examples, try this Ultimate List of Team-Building Activities or use this NSRF protocol, Compass Points. It is then important for each group member to feel comfortable discussing their strengths and weaknesses with their group members. If this part of building your groups’ culture is new, you may have to give the students some examples like these listed in the table.
Group Roles refer to how each person will function within the group. They can help students divide the work more equally. If you (or your students) are new to Project-Based Learning, you may want to use the same group roles. The four generic group roles that I used as I began PBL were facilitator, liaison, team tutor, and recorder.
Facilitator: The leader of the group who will make sure everyone does their part.
Liaison: The go-between person for the group and the adults that will help this project be a success.
Team Tutor: The person who will make sure the group understands the content and checks the rubric often.
Recorder: The person who records and organizes the group’s work; they are not the only person who does the work, but they oversee it.
Sometimes it is fun to make the group roles match the project. For example in our Carnival 4 a Cause project we used Carnival Operator, Philanthropists, Quality Control, and Construction worker. Then we had the groups describe what each group member would be doing based on their role. By describing the role of each person, students are given some voice in how they are going to tackle the project. When you and your students get comfortable with PBL, you can begin to have each group create their own roles and responsibilities. One group may need a construction worker and another group may need a community partner liaison. Not all groups will necessarily have the same needs so you can begin to let them make those choices.
Agreements/norms are those statements that help a group work together respectfully and effectively and know how to function in a group setting. They are so important to effectively work in a group within the professional realm. Your groups in your classroom are no different. Throughout the year, you can scaffold the process of how students choose their agreements. To begin with, you may want all groups to use the same agreements that you give them. Then maybe do a whole class reflection on what worked and didn’t work during the project. This allows you to have a class-generated list of agreements. However, when you and your students get comfortable, let them make the agreements that are specific and relevant for their individual group. Some that I see very often with my students are:
Technology as a tool, not a toy.
No music during group time.
Finish benchmarks on time.
Consequences for Breaking Agreements/Norms
Agreements among students are only as good as the consequences for breaking the agreements. Without consequences the agreements lose their effectiveness. Again, you can scaffold your way to having the students create consequences that work for their individual group. One of the most popular choices students pick to address breaking agreements involves a strike system. The students design a system of signing off and recording strikes for when agreements are broken. They usually do something similar to the following:
Strike 1: Warning given by group members.
Strike 2: Have teacher mediate and help the group come up with plan. This plan usually involves saying out loud the things they have already agreed to in the group contract. It may involve writing a next steps list for the person who is struggling or sometimes it is being the voice of the person not being listened to/hear in their group.
Strike 3: Remove from group (either for a limited time period or for the rest of the project). If students get to the point where they are ready to remove a member, I check in on the plan that we created at Strike 2. I also talk to the group and ask if the person who they want to remove took all of their input and worked with them would it impact their group. I’ve had groups realize that the person they want to remove built their final product, and they consequently decided to make a new plan and figure out how to make the group work. I’ve also had groups, when asked that question, say their group member would get to take nothing with them if they were removed because none of it was their work. If a student gets removed from the group, I help develop a plan so the student who has been removed can still be successful in the project.
Plan for Absences
We are all absent occasionally, and it is not always planned. Each group should have a plan on what to do if there is an absence. If students aren’t willing to give their contact information to their group, it would be their responsibility to contact the group during work time or forfeit their input on any decisions that need to be made that day. A lot of the time these decisions are put into a Google folder that is shared with the whole group so all students have access whether or not they are at school.
Project benchmarks are specific check-in points where a significant part of the final end products are due. This is a part of a group contract that I don’t always put in. However, if you know the benchmarks that will get the groups to successful final product, this is a great place to insert them. You can include the due dates or have the students assign their own due dates. I also put a spot for students to include who will be responsible for making sure that benchmark gets completed.
Next Steps List
This is a blank space for the students to write their next steps for the project down. They should pull their group contract out often throughout the project and add to their next steps list. I have used this section at the beginning of the class to help them organize their thoughts and plan for their work time. However, it also works as a great check-in at the end of work time so they can record what they need to work on next and what they accomplished during their time.
When do you use them?
Your students create group contracts at the beginning of the project. The day they get their group, we let them work through this with their group. At the beginning of the year (or if we add a new section to the group contract), we go through it step by step for them to see what, why, and how each section should be used and then give them time to work on it. It is always their first group benchmark before moving on to the other requirements of the project. However, to make them successful and worth your class time, you have to encourage them to use the contracts frequently. How frequently is up to you! Maybe you start every group time, with a 5 minutes check in for the groups to do a refresh on their agreements and next steps list. Maybe you do a Friday check-in reflection to see how they are using it in their project. Again, there are no right or wrong answers here. You get to figure out a method that works for you!
Where can you store them?
I’ve used several different storage strategies with group contracts. Non-digital options include group folders that are stored in your room. The group can get their folder out at the beginning of group work time and store all group documents in it. Another fun option is to make it a group placemat that they can lay out on their work table. All it takes is some butcher block paper. Then the students can create their group contract in their own style. The expectation is that every day they get it out and unfold it on their group’s workspace. This is a great way for students to get in to practice of checking their contract daily. If you have technology capabilities, Google Drive is a fantastic way to store group contracts. They can share them with you as their facilitator and also with their whole group. Another fun way to store them digitally is on Google Keep. If you don’t used Google Keep for the contract, it is a perfect place for the group’s next steps lists.
Want to see some examples? Check out Magnify Learning’s Website for some that you can look at and tweak to make your own. Look under Resources→ Project-Based Learning Tools→ PBL Key Elements→ Group Contracts.
In conclusion, if you as a teacher are struggling with how to facilitate groups, try incorporating group contracts into your next project. However, remember you will only get out of them what you put in. This blog is full of suggestions that we use at CSA Central to help our groups learn to work together. What things have you tried for group contracts in your classroom? What tips and tricks do you find helpful in facilitating groups? Let us know by commenting or tweeting to @magnifylearning.
Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through Magnify Learning to teach project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in the classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!