How do you deal with absences during ongoing group projects? Or just kids not doing their part, coming to class unprepared, etc.? It feels so messy and hard to manage! Frustrating for everyone! Is group work even worth it in the end?

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Yeah, ultimately, but it comes at that cost. I always tell students how I know how it goes-- two days before the presentation, one student says, Sally didn't do anything... and they know, they've all been there. So choose group members wisely, I warn them. Of course, if you go all in, with a lot of group projects, then for some, you choose, for some, they choose, and for some, pull names out of a hat. At the end of the semester, have them write about their experiences with group projects.
You can always give individual grades too, at least for part of it, so those that do aren't punished for just being stuck with those that don't. But they have to learn two things: one, of you want a job done right, YOU have to do it right; and two, you will always have to work with people, and often some with whom you'd rather not. That's life, that's what we are trying to prepare them for in the end, whether you're teaching AP lit or fourth grade science, right?
Actually, I just remembered something awesome: Randy Pausch-- if you've never heard of him, look up and watch his Last Lecture. In it, he talks about a group project in which the students grade each other, and how humbling it was for them (graduate students, but the point is the same).

I find that it is inevitable that group work will never be equal, so I try to make sure that anything done as a group has distinct roles for each person in it so that no one's work is dependent on others. Then they work together to put everything into one presentation or whatever.

Mostly, though, I keep things to 2-3 students so that it is easier to stay on top of.

I can generally see/know who does the work and who does not, so I can add a grade if I want. I have also asked them to grade each other anonymously so they can be honest, including grading themselves. I give them a grading rubric ahead of time so they know what they are grading in their groupmates. I also ask them for a midway grading if it’s a project that takes four days or so; that also helps them realize they need to be accountable. Then, I can take those into account. Usually, the prospect of other students grading them helps make some kids more accountable and helps eliminate the super freeloaders.

I do teach high school, BTW.

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