Working in groups can be both rewarding and challenging. When students write down and agree upon ground rules, expectations, roles, and responsibilities in the form of a contract or project charter, they can help keep one another on track and accountable. This teaching tip discusses four steps instructors can take to support students in creating group contracts.
Explain what a group contract is and why you are asking groups to develop one
What is a group contract?
A group contract is a document that a group creates to formalize the expectations of group members. A group contract should contain the following:
- Group members’ names and contact information
- Expectations (ground rules) regarding preparation for and attendance at group meetings, frequency and duration of meetings, and communication. The contract should focus on behaviours that will be expected of all group members and should only include those behaviours that are crucial to the group's effectiveness. Groups could aim for five-seven ground rules.
- Assignment of specific tasks, roles, and responsibilities along with due dates. The group can itemize the tasks to be completed for the project and provide a space for each group member to sign up for that task.
- Outline of the specific process for dealing with unmet expectations or other problems that might arise.
- An agreed-upon method for peer feedback during the project so that problems can be addressed before the project ends.
- A place for each group member to sign, indicating their agreement to the contract.
- A place for group members to sign once the project is completed to indicate whether or not they agree that all group members contributed as expected and, therefore, earn the group grade.
Why use a group contract?
Explicitly discussing the benefits of group contracts will help establish good faith in the process among your students. So what are the benefits?
The benefits of small-group learning are well known — group work is associated with deeper learning, strong information retention, and the acquisition of valuable communication and teamwork skills (Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhaji, 2004).
On top of this, because group contracts allow students to take an active role in setting the tone for group interaction, group contract can help "motivate ownership of learning" (Hesterman, 2016, p. 5). Writing group contracts can also:
- help students identify expectations of one another, communicate those expectations, and practice articulating their expectations.
- facilitate student reflection on their past experiences and communications practices, important transferable skills for future work and personal relationships.
- increase a sense of community in the class as students get to know and work with one another.
See 7 Reasons to Use Contracts in a PBL Classroom + Tips for Use for more information.
Identify intended learning outcomes
Reflecting on the particular pedagogical benefits you would like to see your students reap through group work can help you establish guidelines for the creation of group contracts. For example, Oakley, Felder, Brent, and Elhaji (2004) advocate for group work where groups assign roles that rotate regularly among members in order to provide each student the opportunity to practice important teamwork skills.
Some questions to consider before asking students to draft their contracts include:
- What kind of skills do you imagine students practice within their groups? What roles might students take on to practice them?
- How do you want students to divide the workload? If students choose to "divide and conquer" the work, will they achieve your intended learning outcomes?
- Which guidelines, course expectations, or rules are firm and need to be in place before students draft their contracts, and which concepts, issues, and decisions would they benefit from working through as they discuss and create their contracts?
Provide resources to guide students through the process
Give students resources for creating a first draft of their group contract, or draw on existing resources and templates to create a guide for your students to follow. These can include:
Creating the contract
- Working Effectively in Groups [PDF] from the Waterloo Student Success Office
Group contract templates
- Team Contract Template from the Eberly Centre, Carnegie Mellon University
- Online Group Work Contract Template from the Taylor Institute Teaching Community, the University of Calgary
Group contracts samples
- Sample Group Contract [PDF] from the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Centre, UC Irvine
- University of Waterloo Sample Group Contract [DOC] (also available below as an Appendix)
Conflict resolution resources
- Group Work: Dealing with Conflicts [PDF] from the Learning and Teaching Office, Ryerson University
- Resolving Conflict from the UBC Learning Commons
- 8 Steps for Conflict Resolution, for the Office of Talent Management, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Give students time in class to write the contract
By dedicating class time to the creation of a group contract, you let students know that it is an important activity that merits time and attention. First, give students time to individually reflect on and write down what they like and do not like about working in a group. Prompt students to consider their past experiences working in a group. What went well? What didn’t go well? What contributed to the group’s success or problems? What are their strengths when it comes to working collaboratively, and what is something they would like to improve? Next, ask students to sit with their group members and share what they’ve written as a springboard to their discussion of ground rules and roles.
Hesterman, S. (2016). The digital handshake: A group contract for authentic elearning in higher education. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 13(3), 1-24.
Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhaji, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 9-34.
CTE teaching tips
- Teamwork Skills: Being an Effective Group Member
- Meeting Strategies for Group Work
Group behaviours expected of each member:
- All group members will be punctual. Meetings will start five minutes after the agreed start time and everyone should be there and ready by then.
- We should turn up to all meetings unless it has been agreed beforehand or unless there are unavoidable events such as illness.
- All group members will remain in the meeting until (a) all tasks for that meeting are completed, or (b) there is unanimous adjournment.
- Breaks will be decided by unanimous consent, and breaks will not exceed twenty minutes in length
- All group members will come to the meetings prepared by
(a) reading the assigned material (as much as possible), and
(b) coming with ideas pertaining to the tasks and decisions to be made.
- Tasks that group members agree to undertake should be completed to the agreed deadline. If it looks as though there will be a problem meeting a deadline, the person concerned should seek help from other members of the team in time to avoid a delay.
- There will be an assimilation period at the end of the session to evaluate group mechanics and ensure that all tasks have been completed adequately.
- Each group member has the right to point out whether any of these rules are being broken.
- The group will actively seek a consensus of opinion based on the opinions of every member.
- Each member will take turns listening as well as talking, and active listening will be a strategy for all group discussions.
- Sexist and racist remarks are not acceptable.
- Aggressive and dominating behaviour is not acceptable.
- Roles will be assigned prior to a meeting or, if this is not possible, at the beginning of a meeting. Roles will rotate each meeting.
- The leader will, at the beginning of a meeting, set sub-goals. These sub-goals will be presented to the group for a consensus of approval. The leader is also responsible for the presentation of the group material to the rest of the class.
- The secretary is responsible for taking in-session notes and preparing presentation materials from these notes.
- The timekeeper is responsible for keeping track of the time allotted to each discussion, and keeping the group aware of time remaining. The leader is responsible for deciding what to do when time is running out during a discussion.
- The devil's advocate will keep his/her mind open to problems, possibilities, and divergent or opposing ideas.
Methods for resolving an impasse:
Step 1: The group members will isolate areas of disagreement, and the group will come to a consensus. If no consensus is reached, proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: The leader will decide the relevance or importance of the dispute and may postpone the conflict if its relevance or importance is deemed questionable or minimal.
Step 3: The leader will decide the amount of time for discussion or arbitration before calling a vote.
Step 4: The leader will call a vote. If the vote is a stalemate, the leader makes a final decision.