Collaborative Project Courses: Course Design Resource Center

This resource center is designed to support faculty who are interested in designing a collaborative project course by providing video advice and example syllabi from Duke faculty, as well as links to helpful resources. (Please note: example syllabi and faculty videos are restricted to Duke users only; all other content is open source.)

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What are Collaborative Project Courses?

Collaborative Project Courses (CPCs) are courses in which student learning is driven by collaborative engagement with applied projects that extend across an entire semester. Such courses often reach beyond the classroom, giving students a chance to bring their academic knowledge and skills to bear on complex problems under the mentorship of faculty, graduate students and, in some cases, community leaders.

This is a flexible model that can be applied in unique ways depending on the focus and goals of a course. Several examples include:

Why and When Should You Use Collaborative Project Courses?

Collaborative Project Courses help students grasp the relevance of their work while also demanding rigorous study, the navigation of open-ended research questions, original knowledge production and the ability to work effectively with others. When done well, this approach creates a dynamic learning environment and inspires students to take greater ownership of the learning process.

These courses fuse elements of project-based learning, experiential learning and team-based learning – pedagogical models that educational research has found to have positive impacts on students by contributing to improved learning and academic outcomes, student self-efficacy, leadership capacity, facility with teamwork, and communication and critical thinking skills. *
 
CPCs can be used at all stages of the curriculum in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. As gateway courses, the emphasis on problem identification, discovery and application of research findings can help students bolster their knowledge of a field and motivate engagement with higher level concepts and theory. At the intermediate level, CPCs can help students cement their learning, delve more deeply into a specific area of growing interest and inform future pathways. At the advanced level, CPCs can provide a capstone experience that helps students synthesize their academic knowledge and experiences, practice important career skills and consider career options.

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What Questions Do I Need to Consider When Designing a Collaborative Project Course?

The following course design questions will structure the remainder of this resource center:

  • What are the courses learning objectives, and how will the collaborative project element support those learning objectives?
  • How might you shape the process of project selection? Will projects be student-, faculty- or client-driven? 
  • How will you form teams?
  • How will you set teams up for success?
  • How will you divide class time and expectations for work outside class between didactic content and group work?
  • How will the grading rubric account for a mix of individual and collaborative work?

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Connecting Collaborative Project Courses to Learning Objectives 

In a CPC, the project is an integral part of the course, supporting all learning objectives. Start by identifying the learning objectives for the course and then design the project to map to and support those objectives throughout the course. Each project assignment and activity should support those objectives. The syllabus should articulate how the project connects with the learning objectives. We also recommend including learning objectives that specifically identify the skills and mindsets that the collaborative project model seeks to foster (e.g., learning to work in teams to apply content knowledge to achieve a specific outcome).  

Resist the urge to simply layer a project on top of traditional readings and individual work. Rather, the project should be integrated throughout the flow of the course, helping students meet course outcomes and prepare for other assignments. Without both sufficient scaffolding for project work and a willingness to limit the extent of content coverage, a course runs the risk of overwhelming students. 

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Selecting Projects

If you are wondering how to frame or select the type of project that students might undertake, start by considering what you most want students to gain from the project (e.g., ability to identify and scope projects vs. deep integration of content). Consider the following methods below and their related pros and cons.

Method Pros Cons Tips
Client projects
  • Maximizes the applied nature of the course
  • Students value the opportunity to contribute to real-world settings
  • Students learn how to engage productively with clients/project partners
  • Takes time to identify clients
  • Need to manage client expectations
  • Clients may not engage with students as promised
  • Create an MOU with clients to manage expectations (see example)
Students recruit a client
  • Maintains the applied nature of the project
  • Increases the range of possible external partners
  • Allows students to select a client of interest
  • Reduces faculty time required for client management
  • Students may spend too much time selecting and identifying a client, limiting time available for work
  • Possible clients may tire of hearing from multiple student groups
  • Clients and students may not scope projects at correct level
  • Consider allowing students the option of selecting a client, or using a different method (e.g., choosing from a predefined list of projects; creating a clientless project)
Students create non-client-based projects
  • Eliminates risks involved with client management 
  • Allows students to channel their interests
  • Provides opportunity for students to learn about problem identification and definition
  • Students may spend too much time defining focus and scope
  • Team members may disagree about chosen focus, leading to varying levels of commitment
  • Applied dimensions of project may be thin
  • Provide frameworks to help students narrow their focus (e.g., examples of past projects; possible themes to choose from)
  • Have teams submit a project charter early to check scope 
Instructor-designed (Provide a list from which students choose or create a single large project to which all groups contribute like a website or exhibit)
  • Eliminates risks involved with client management
  • Helps focus teams quickly
  • Increases time available for teams to engage with content
  • Eliminates opportunity for students to conduct needs assessment and scope project
  • Reduces student ownership over the project
  • Consider ways to increase the applied nature of the projects or create opportunities to showcase outputs
  • Create mechanisms of democratic decision-making for aspects of the project

Defining Outputs

Consider how much latitude to allow teams in defining research approaches and anticipated outputs. Allowing teams leeway in research design or output definition provides opportunities for creativity but also increases variability and may lead to some teams “spinning their wheels.” If you allow for different outputs, provide examples and standards. 

You should also build in assignments that will allow for common assessment. For example, have each team create a project charter, keep an activity log and submit reflections about the research process as well as findings and articulation of arguments. 

Tip: If your students’ projects will be available for public consumption, you will need a release form for student work. Please see Duke ScholarWorks for a model form.

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Forming Teams

When assigning teams, consider:

  • What is the ideal team size? (This choice should reflect the anticipated scope of the project, as well as the range of likely roles.)
  • What skills, knowledge and characteristics will each team need to succeed?
  • What roles do you envision that team members will play and how do you expect team members to divide tasks?
  • Do you want to allow students to self-select/work with students they know, or rather require them to work with individuals with whom they are not yet familiar?

We generally advise that instructors assign groups, giving consideration to the optimal mix of skills and perspectives. This approach requires an investment of time, but it ensures that teams have the skills necessary for success and increases the likelihood that students will be exposed to more diverse individuals and perspectives. 

To form groups, consider surveying students to collect more information about their background, interests and perceived strengths and weaknesses. If you expect teams to meet regularly outside of the scheduled class time, you should also form groups to ensure that students’ schedules allow them to meet at mutually convenient times.

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Setting Teams Up for Success

Students often have significant trepidation about group work, having experienced many of the challenges that can plague teams, such as insufficient direction, poor organization and freeloading. Instructors who place students in teams with a general goal and then leave them to their own devices can expect many problems. We strongly recommend that instructors be intentional about building structures and supports that facilitate effective teamwork into their course design. 

Provide guidance on how to be a productive team member. Spend time discussing what good teamwork looks like and why learning to work in teams is important. Consider integrating team-building exercises when you first form teams to allow students to get to know one another and build a foundation for trust and open communication. As a first assignment, require teams to develop a team charter or team norms document that outlines their operational principles and values, meeting times, communication methods and strategies for handling conflict. Encourage teams to discuss conflicts constructively before coming to you with issues. Use peer feedback throughout the course to encourage dialogue and provide opportunities for team members to improve (see assessment practices). Tools like Team+ (free) can walk teams through the process of creating a team profile and team ground rules, building team workspaces and getting to know the communication and conflict-resolution styles of peers through assessments. 

Use your syllabus to provide scaffolding and structure to projects. Requiring students to submit smaller parts of a project throughout the semester will allow you to catch groups going down the wrong path early and to intervene when necessary. It will also model good project management practices for students. As mentioned above, consider requiring a team charter and/or project plan as a first assignment – these tools can provide all team members with clarity and commitment to the project goals, the roles of team members and agreed to operating principles. Use “works in progress” presentations, weekly updates and/or reflections to monitor team progress and help teams reflect on their own progress. 

Encourage teams to use tools thoughtfully. There are many tools that can help students communicate and organize their work. However, the proliferation of tools can also slow teams down and add unnecessary complexity. Encourage teams to be thoughtful about any tools or technologies that they choose to use and ensure team members agree to using any tools. Consider having teams limit use of tools to a single platform. Or you might even preselect one tool for teams. Explore our list of team collaboration tools.

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Readings

Structuring Course Time

Team projects work best when instructors dedicate in-class course time to them. Avoid simply layering a project on top of traditional readings, individual assignments and tests – this approach will overwhelm students and limit their ability to engage deeply in the team project. 

Start by setting your course objectives and then consider which goals students can achieve through the team project and which will still need to be addressed through standard readings, lectures or other assignments.

Depending on when your course will meet, consider the sequencing of teamwork. Many project-based courses start by dedicating at least one class session to helping teams build a strong foundation. Thereafter, teams might spend 15-20 minutes during each class to assess progress and set priorities. Or, if your class meets multiple times a week, one meeting might be dedicated to more traditional didactic instruction or seminar-style discussion, while the other meeting might be reserved for project work. Dedicating some portion of a class meeting to teamwork allows time for instructors and teaching assistants to engage with teams and identify groups that may be struggling. Teams should be expected to meet outside of class sessions as well – as such, it is important to consider student schedules when forming teams. 

Some instructors have found it useful to divide the semester into quarters, with each quarter having an identified focus, such as problem identification and development of a research plan, carrying out of research, analysis and iterative creation of final products. Others schedule a major check-in around the midway point of the term so that any teams encountering serious obstacles/challenges have the chance to regroup and teams doing well have the opportunity to consider stretching their goals. 

Resources 

Assessment and Grading Practices

Intensive team projects can provide rich and varied opportunities for assessing the synthesis and application of knowledge, as well as for carrying out open-ended research. Key project milestones and deadlines should be part of the grading rubric and the course syllabus should clearly describe the mix of individual and collective assignments. 

Use a mix of individual and collective assignments. It is best practice to grade both individual and group work to increase accountability and engagement. Consider whether to make the project the core premise for grading, or whether to also layer in purely individual assignments such as a paper, quiz, problem-set, etc. Even if the project will be the primary element for grading, you should develop a mix of assignments that will allow for individual and collective assessment. Examples of these include:

Individual Collective
  • Peer feedback
  • Activity/lab log
  • Reflections
  • Participation
  • Project component with individual as lead
  • Group MOU
  • Project charter/project plan
  • Draft presentation/deliverable/prototype
  • Final presentation/deliverable

Using peer feedback for assessment: Peer feedback can provide valuable input to team members, spotlighting individual and collective strengths, and identifying less constructive behavior. Peer evaluations can be conducted via an instructor-designed survey or form, or using tools like CATME and TEAMMATES, which help distribute rubrics and qualitative questions. To effectively improve team performance, peer evaluations should recur throughout a project (at least twice). To allow students the opportunity to grow, consider making the first one or two peer assessments ungraded (although you might grade for participation in the process), and then layer in grades for performance as the semester progresses.

When using peer feedback for grading, you should also consider:

  • Will the feedback that team members provide be shared with each student? If so, will it be anonymous? Will you screen/moderate the feedback before sharing it? Regardless of the method, it’s important to set clear expectations for students with regards to how you intend to use and share peer feedback. 
  • How can you model good and constructive feedback? Consider providing examples. You might also keep the first round of feedback confidential and use it as an opportunity to provide students with commentary on the feedback they provided. 
  • How will you incorporate peer feedback into student grades? You might set a percentage of each student’s grade based on peer feedback, or you might consider that feedback a bit loosely and incorporate it as part of the student’s participation grade. To encourage constructive peer feedback, you might also consider grading students on the quality of the feedback that they provide their peers.

Using reflection for learning: Providing students the opportunity to reflect on their team project can serve multiple purposes, including: helping students internalize what they are learning about both the application of the course content as well as the process of working collaboratively; providing you with greater insight into the team’s progress as well as any challenges that may need intervention; and allowing the opportunity to distinguish individual and group performance. 

Resources

Browse all faculty videos or all example syllabi included in this resource center. 

This resource center was designed in collaboration with Duke Learning Innovation. Some content on this page was excerpted from the Duke Flexible Teaching site


References

Burgess, Annette W et al. “Applying established guidelines to team-based learning programs in medical schools: a systematic review.” Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges vol. 89,4 (2014): 678-88. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000162.

Guo, P., Saab, N., Post, L. S., and Admiraal, W. 2020. “A Review of Project-based 
Learning in Higher Education: Student Outcomes and Measures.” International Journal of Educational Research, 102, 101586, ISSN 0883-0355, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2020.101586.

Haidet, Paul et al. 2014. “Analysis of the Team-Based Learning Literature: TBL Comes of Age.” Journal on excellence in college teaching vol. 25, 3-4 (2014): 303-333. 

PBLWorks. Research Summary: PBL and 21st Century Competencies. Unpublished report. Accessed at: http://pblworks.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/FreeBIE_Research_Summary.pdf

Trolian, T.L. and Jach, E.A. 2019. “Applied Learning in Higher Education: Conclusions and 
Recommendations for Institutional Leadership.” New Directions for Higher Education, 2019: 101-106. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1002/he.20350.