Consultation Projects: Engaging Students in Meaningful Group Experiences
By Amy C. Barnes
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Amy C. Barnes is a faculty member in for the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program at Ohio State University and Director of the Education Doctorate in HESA. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in leadership development, group dynamics, case analysis, and intercultural leadership. Her research and teaching interests include critical pedagogy and student leadership development. She is an author of the Innovative Leadership Workbook for College Students and recently co-authored Leadership Theory: Facilitator’s Guide for Cultivating Critical Perspectives. Amy has consulted on leadership and organizational development locally, nationally, and internationally since 2005.
As a faculty member who teaches leadership studies courses, I am familiar with the collective groan that occurs when introducing the dreaded GROUP PROJECT on my course syllabus. Students immediately conjure up images of past group projects where members “never complete their fair share of work.” Knowing that this apprehension could lead to a lack of appreciation for collaboration, I was determined to design a challenging, engaging (dare I say, fun?), practical project that students would talk about in future job interviews as a positive group learning experience.
Thinking about research and pedagogy, I started with Kolb’s theory (1984), which describes learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). I wanted students to learn through experience as leaders, productive team members, and reflective learners. Reflection as a pedagogy was especially important to the project for two reasons. First, some group projects fall short on reflection. Students do a great job on the requirements, but don’t actually learn anything about group dynamics or leadership within the group because they don’t take time to reflect. Second, the ultimate goal is to get students to use metacognition, or to critique the cognitive learning process itself (Mezirow, 2000).
Metacognition involves recognizing a present thought or belief and asking oneself where that belief originated or where that line of thinking was previously learned. For a cohort or community of learners, metacognitive thinking can transform the way participants perceive leadership roles. By creating leadership experiences that introduce innovative views of leadership (e.g., leadership as non-positional, leadership as developmental instead of trait-based, leadership as inclusive instead of exclusive), we create trigger events that disrupt traditional views of leadership and help students view themselves as growing, changing leaders. Furthermore, in a small group setting, utilizing metacognition can get students “on the balcony” above the action where they can analyze the process and how they are communicating, engaging, and being perceived by others in their leadership roles (Heifetz, 2002).
I infuse metacognition into my group projects by providing several key components:
- Ample time for reflection. Whenever I design a group project, I include required written assignments throughout to encourage reflection. This is typically a progress report two or three times during the project working phase that includes specific prompts to help spark metacognitive thinking. For example: “How has your leadership approach adapted and changed the past two weeks through the incorporation of new knowledge from class readings and discussion? How has that change impacted the others on your team?” I also set aside class time to guide reflection and observe the reflective process.
- Opportunities to give and receive feedback. Students typically don’t have much experience providing feedback to others, especially regarding leadership behavior. Therefore, I spend time talking about how to provide constructive feedback and the benefits of positive feedback on a group. When introducing a new model like strengths-based leadership, for example, I make sure to cover how to give feedback from a strengths-based perspective. That way, students can try out these techniques the next time I give them class time for group and leader feedback.
- Project specific learning outcomes that are revisited throughout the semester and during group project check-ins. One outcome I often use is “Students will understand how their approach to leading others and their communication efforts impact others on the team.” About two or three weeks into the group project, I revisit this goal with the class and ask them to reflect on whether or not they feel like they are communicating with each other effectively and to consider the impact of their leadership approaches. I help them “get on the balcony” to analyze their group dynamics.
The Jeni’s Project
My most successful group project to date is one students viewed as having applicability to the real world. I created a consulting project where students could work with a local company. Through this approach, students could see how their leadership process and their group work were transferrable to future job settings. My challenge was to make the project interesting and fun without losing sight of the key components of reflection, feedback, and outcomes-based learning.
I made a list of companies and non-profits in Columbus that I thought would be interesting for the students. At the top of my list was an up-and-coming artisan ice cream company named Jeni’s. Today it is a household name, sold in upscale grocery stores around the country, but, when I started the project, they were mostly still locally-based.
I loved Jeni’s innovative approach to running a company. I felt the combination of social responsibility, innovative leadership, and ice cream was an ideal way to engage college students. I often get the question, “How did you land Jeni’s as a partner for your project?” My answer: I have always operated from the perspective – If you don’t ask, you will never know the answer. It could be no, but it could be yes! I emailed the CEO, John Lowe, set up a meeting, explained the project, and he said yes! He left project conception to me allowing me to align the task with my learning outcomes and goals. John visited class twice — once to share about the company and once to see the final project presentations.
Ultimately, finding the right partner for a consulting project and establishing a good understanding of how the project will unfold is key to success. John did a wonderful job creating the project parameters and explaining the company’s values so students could understand the project focus. We established early on that I would manage the learning outcomes and the grade (which was not based on the ideas generated, but on the quality of the final presentation and paper, the group progress reports, and the contributions made by team members). The final presentations became a competition where John selected a winning team, but could implement ideas at Jeni’s from any team. This increased the stakes and motivated students to do their best on the project.
Several additional aspects contributed to project success. First, I utilized two leadership assessments to create the groups — StrengthsFinder and Emotionally Intelligent Leadership assessment. We explored how each person approached tasks during class reflection and in progress reports. Students saw how team members made unique contributions and how they utilized their individual work styles and strengths. Students heavily relied on their knowledge of these models when giving and receiving feedback.
Second, each team was required to select a team leader and that person was encouraged to apply multiple theories and perspectives of leadership to the role. That person was the “contact” for the instructor in scheduling meetings, communicating about questions, and turning in assignments for the group.
The final reflective paper on the project experience was probably the most useful tool in meeting the learning outcomes because students were able to synthesize their learning and observations of leadership from the entire project. They were asked to apply at least three readings from the semester and to utilize class discussions to support their observations and reflections.
From reading through reflections and talking with students about the experience, many cited the desire to put their best effort forward due to the partnership with Jeni’s. As an instructor, I observed higher levels of motivation, engagement, and reflection in this group project. Learning outcomes were met and students were able to truly see the leadership happening in their groups through the use of metacognition. My hope is that project inspired the habit of metacognitive practice where student will continue to “stand on the balcony” and see how their leadership impacts others.
I finally found a group project experience that my students could look back on fondly!
Heifetz, R. and Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Mezirow, J. & Associates (2000), Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.