February 8th, 2012

Group Work: A Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for All Members


I recently revisited something I have always considered a great resource. It originally appeared in a 1992 issue of The Teaching Professor and was published then as a Study Group Member’s Bill of Rights. It outlined what individuals had the right to expect when they participated in study groups. Students not only have rights, they also have responsibilities. Those rights and responsibilities are relevant in any group activity used to accomplish educational goals. The version below attempts to capture those larger expectations and duties.

There are lots of ways a document like this can be used, starting with simply distributing it to students prior to their participation in a group activity. During their first meeting, group members could review and discuss the document; and revise it so that it directly applies to the activity they will complete together. The teacher can help underscore the importance of the document by having students sign and return the document. Or, you might have group members construct their own bill of rights and responsibilities.

Groups need to be empowered to fix problems that emerge as they work together. Peer pressure can motivate behavior change, but the pressure has to be applied. A document like this won’t solve all group interaction problems, but it does make students aware that groups have collective responsibilities just as they have individual responsibilities. A student in a group has the responsibility to participate, but if that student does not, the group has a responsibility to seek that participation. It’s difficult for most students to stay silent, if another group member directly asks for their opinion.

Some teachers are reluctant to use group work because some groups work together poorly. And, with a lot of content already in the course, the teacher doesn’t have time to teach small group dynamics. But when using groups, teachers should do what they can to help students learn how to work productively with others. A resource like this begins the process. It makes students aware that their membership in a group comes with rights and responsibilities, and that the group has the right to deal with any issues that might emerge.

Group Member Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

  • You have the right and responsibility to select meeting times and locations that are convenient for all members.
  • You have the right to contribute to the formation of group goals, the dividing of the work among group members, and the setting of deadlines.
  • You have the right to expect all group members to do their fair share of the work and you have the right to confront group members who are not doing their fair share. You have the responsibility to complete the work assigned to you.
  • You have the responsibility to be an active participant in the group process. And you have the right to expect active participation from other group members.
  • You have the right to expect feedback from the group on work you complete for the group and you have the responsibility to provide constructive feedback on the work of other group members.
  • You have the right to expect group meetings to begin and end promptly and that the group will follow an agenda that outlines the tasks it expects to accomplish during the meeting. You have the responsibility to help the group fulfill these expectations by getting to meetings on time and helping the group develop and follow the agenda.
  • You have the right to participate in a group that works cooperative and handles disagreements constructively.
  • You have the right to ask group members to limit the amount of time devoted to socialization or the discussion of extraneous topics. You have the responsibility not to engage in excessive socialization or to bring up extraneous topics. You have the responsibility to help the group stay on task.
  • You have the right to expect that group members will listen to you respectfully and you have the responsibility to listen to all group members respectfully.

Adapted from a study group bill of rights developed by D. G. Longman and published in The Teaching Professor, 1992, 6 (7), 5.

  • Mark A Palmer

    This is a great idea. I think it should apply to all faculty groups as well. It should be made standard practice across all aspects of academia

  • My doctoral research on using a very simple personality test with online learners showed that Type A learners will work harder and work better when grouped with other Type A learners. When grouped with Type B personalities the Type A's get frustrated and just do all the work before the Type B's can get going (B's need an impending deadline to spur them into action). If we want people to learn to work with dissimilar personalities (Type A's with Type B's) we need to teach these group work skills as a part of the lesson. My research was specific to online learning where we lack the social cues of voice, mannerisms, and body language to help with communication.

    Creating Cooperative Learning Groups that Work: The Role of Type A/B Personalities in Formulating Cooperative Groups ISBN-13: 978-3639010121

    • Mark A Palmer

      Are you familiar with Allesandra's Platinum rule?

  • Donna B

    Part 1 Comment: It's an interesting list and should be provided to students. The training and modeling is crucial for students working in groups, as is the opportunity for peer performance evaluation. As I teach freshmen English, in groups, in hybrid and online formats, I find a high degree of variability between student skills and expectations for group work. My freshmen/soph. students often lack the group skills and maturity needed for working in groups. There is naturally a high degree of conflict between these less experienced students when doing group work. By the time students are juniors/seniors, that conflict decreases to a very low level. Sometimes instructors eschew meaningful or high stakes group work because of the conflict. Personally, I think learning to work with others is a valuable/necessary experience for students.

  • Donna B

    Part 2 Comment: I've come up with a few extra "rights" for my students I would add to the list: 1) students should always be aware of and protect their own grades, even if that means doing a project by oneself. If that happens, I conference with the student to help them scale back the project to make it doable. Or I move them to a different group. 2) group members should never "wait" or be "held hostage" by an absent member. No matter what, the group work must move forward on schedule. Again, I check-in with groups on this point and urge them to keep the absent member in the communication loop, but not to wait for him/her to show up. The students who "show up" have the right to control the project. These two "rights" alone decrease anxiety and group conflict, even among my freshmen.

    • Mark A Palmer

      When I was a student I heard of a professor who gave a final examination worth 25-30% of the grade in a design project course. He told the students there was no way to study for it. The questions were identify a decision that your team came to which you agreed with and why?. I have thought of variations to that theme, describe how you came to consensus on something, maybe reference a specific part of the project. The students who participated and contributed had no problem writing and writing, those who didn't participate and contribute found this challenging.

  • Robert VM

    I used to co-teach a "Creative Collaborations" Freshman Seminar where we had group work as the central focus of the class, both as the structure for the assignments and activities to take place within as well as using the seminar space to have the students learn more about the entire group work process itself. As such we had something similar to the "Bill of Rights" (ours was a group "contract" and the group members all signed it) and it is a great idea, and I would do it again if I was involved in a course that had a heavy group work component.

    But the contract is sure also a challenge, especially with freshman, for you as the instructor have to really stay on top of it when structuring out the group and self evaluations to make sure the students as a group and individually are reflecting back to their contract/Bill of Rights. I found it to be one of those fine lines of bringing things back to their contract too often could make it overkill and they start to resist the idea and not enough made it fade away too much from the students' radar altogether.

    Group work is one of those really important teaching and learning areas that I really like to have the students involved in, but it is also such a challenge that a lot of the time it just SEEMS to be more trouble than it is worth. That said though I'll keep plugging away at incorporating it into my teaching!

    • Kelly Crawford-Jones

      I would love for you to share that contract/Bill of Rights.I teach an interdisciplinary health course and the entire coursework is done in groups. I know that the students will eventually work in teams at nursing homes and hospitals, so it is imperative that they learn how to function in a team. I agree with you that sometimes seems like more trouble than it is worth, but like you, will keep on plugging away. Thanks!

      • Robert VM

        Hi Kelly, sure about sharing do you have an email?

  • Forrest H

    This post is brilliant! I'll be bringing to my students this morning!

  • Solomon O

    I can't imagine getting a team or group going on a project without this mutually inclusive engagement contract! I will suggest including the "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" in a course syllabus (with due credit given to the source/author). By so doing it becomes the "rules of the road or engagement" to project teams or groups.

    Truly, common frictions or challenges abound in teams or groups, especially during the earlier stages of team development, the "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" is a formidable rescue tool to normalizing teams or groups towards early productive relationships and engagement.

    Thanks a lot for sharing this useful resource!

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  • Zen

    So overall is , Group work is important?

  • pmha65

    I recently enrolled in an online class, which has a group project as the final project. Being one to not try to "reinvent the wheel" I searched for bill of rights for a group project since that is the first part of the project! this is fabulous!! I will suggest this to my group members!