Do "experts" understand project planning and management?

Teamwork on an Academic Project

Conrad Weisert
February 15, 2012

NOTE: This article may be reproduced and circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.

". . . some colleges are trying to address that deficiency [inability of individuals to work effectively in a project team] by assigning homework to teams rather than individual students. Unfortunately, this approach isn't always successful, because the teams often just break the assignments into pieces that individuals complete on their own."

Mary K. Pratt: "6 Key Skills IT Grads Lack", Computerworld, February 13, 2012, p. 20.


The article's author wasn't expressing that bit of wisdom as her own opinion; she was reporting what a Florida-based consultant, a supposed expert, advised!

Successful experienced project managers have news for Ms. Pratt's source: Decomposing a large project into manageable tasks that can be performed by individual team members is exactly what project teams are supposed to do. If a team of students produces the assigned result on time by constructing a network of tasks assignable to individual team members, that constitutes success. They've earned an A.

Tasks and assignments

We can assume that Ms. Pratt's source used the term "pieces" to mean what most project mangagement experts call "tasks". A task specification in a project plan consists of:

Once the task has been assigned to an individual, the individual periodically reports its status.

Note the emphasis on individual team members. If a task specification is too large, too vague, or too complicated for the responsibility to be assigned to a single individual, then the project plan lacks sufficient granularity and the project leader or planner needs to decompose that task specification into two or more simpler, more concrete task specifications. The resulting tasks can still be assigned to the same individual, but need not be.

Of course, each team must communicate effectively among themselves. Just as in an organization, regular team meetings or equivalent on-line communication should make sure that every member is well-acqiainted with the whole assignment and understands how his or her teammates are contributing and how the task deliverables ("pieces") fit together.

Grading team particpation in a course

An instructor faces a challenge in grading the performance of a team of 3, 4, or 5 students. The tasks assigned to one student may be far simpler than the tasks assigned to another student. In extreme cases, one student may dominate the team effort, or one non-participating student may be given a "free ride" by his or her teammates. Team members are reluctant to provide assessments of other team members' contributions.

Traditionally, many instructors assign a grade to the team project and then, in the absence of clear contrary evidence, give that grade to each team member. This practice reflects many real-world organizations, and is therefore viewed as reasonably fair by most students.

In an attempt to grade individuals more fairly, however, I've sometimes done this:

  1. Familiarize myself a week or two before the end of the course with the content of each team project.
  2. Customize the final examination for each team with a question or two about their own project, especially one that asks why they made some critical design choice.

That's time-consuming and burdensome for the instructor, but it exposes the free-loader and rewards the top contributors. I do it whenever time permits.

Last modified Feburary 16, 2012

Return to IDI home page
Professional Education articles