When I was a student, I always hated group projects.  As a professor, I never assign them.  The source of my antipathy: Group projects provide terrible incentives.  Since everyone gets the same grade, the lazy and incompetent free ride off the hard-working and able.  The free riders often add insult to injury by deliberately aggravating the people doing the work – and loudly protesting, “You can’t boss me around.”

Still, group projects are not without their defenders.  Their best argument: People work in groups in the real world, so they might as well get used to the process now.  Sure, group projects have built-in problems.  But it’s important for students to learn how to overcome these problems.

So far, so good.  But this defense of group projects conveniently overlooks massive differences between the typical school group project and the typical work group project.  Namely: In school projects, students are equals.  Even if there’s a “team captain,” he’s selected democratically, and every team member gets the same grade.  In the workplace, in contrast, there’s an externally appointed boss.  The boss gets rewarded for group success – and hands out rewards to team members based on their contribution.

If we really wanted to use group projects to prepare students for the world of work, then, we’d totally change the incentive structure.  Away with equal status, equal rewards, and democracy!  Instead:

1. The teacher would begin by selecting the best students to be team leaders. 

2. Team leaders’ grades would be based on their group’s performance – but with an average grade well above the average grade for the class as a whole.  If the average student gets a B-, say, the average team leader would get an A-.

3. The team leader, not the teacher, would grade his own team members, using a budget of points based on his group’s overall performance.

For example, suppose there are four teams with five students each.  The teacher hands out the following grades to each group:

Team #1: C+
Team #2: B
Team #3: A-
Team #4: D

The teacher’s judgment would have two effects.  First, it implies the exact grades of the group leaders.  Suppose leaders get a +1 grade bonus:

Leader #1: B+
Leader #2: A
Leader #3: A+
Leader #4: C

Second, the teacher’s judgment implies the average grade group leaders are allowed to give their team members.  The leader of Team #1, for example, has to give his team members an average grade of C+ (2.33 grade points per student).  He could hand out four grades of C+.  But he could also give {an F, a C, a B+, and an A} – which also averages out to 2.33 grade points per student.  Since the team leader wants to maximize group performance, he has a strong incentive to reward performance and punish its absence.

To improve the system further, the teacher would demote underperforming leaders to the ranks, promote the best-performing non-leaders to leadership roles, and allow quits and firing.

Many people will object that team leaders might “play favorites.”  Clearly some would.  But at least they’d pay the price: Team leaders who reward incompetents will get lower grades themselves – and have trouble retaining talent (and their leadership positions!) if there’s repeated play.  In any case, if we’re trying to teach people about the real world, isn’t learning how to handle and cope with favoritism a vital skill? 

Another objection might be that team leaders would be uncomfortable giving unequal grades to fellow students.  Fair enough.  But at least leaders would pay the price for their own squeamishness.  And once again, they learn a vital skill: to put your feelings aside and judge people on their merits.

The main problem with my proposal, I’m afraid, is that there’s less than zero incentive for teachers to adopt it.  Even I’m not planning to experiment with my own proposal.  Yes, if students went to school to learn real-world skills, they’d thank me.  But in practice, the reward for my effort would be a lot of angry student resistance – and rock-bottom evaluations.