March 20th, 2013

Five Things Students Can Learn through Group Work



I often get questions about group work. Recently, the question was phrased like this: “Can students learn anything in groups?” And, like faculty sometimes do, this questioner proceeded with the answer. “I don’t think my students can. When they work in groups they have no interest in doing quality work. Whatever the first person says, they all agree with that and relax into a social conversation.”

Standing opposite the experience of faculty members like this one is an accumulation of research that strongly supports students learning from and with each other in groups. There’s research and analyses of group learning now reported in virtually every discipline. Here are five things students can learn in groups, all well-established by a wide range of empirical analyses.

  1. They can learn content, as in master the material. Whether they are working on problems, answering questions about the reading, or discussing case studies, when students work together on content, they can master the basics. The reason they learn is pretty straightforward, when students work with content in a group they are figuring things out for themselves rather than having the teacher tell them what they need to know.
  2. They can learn content at those deeper levels we equate with understanding. I just highlighted an article for the April issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter which reported that the explanations students wrote to justify a chosen answer were stronger after just seven minutes of discussion with two or three students. When students are trying to explain things to each other, to argue for an answer, or to justify a conclusion, that interaction clarifies their own thinking and often it clarifies the thinking of other students.
  3. They can learn how groups function productively. In order for groups to function productively, students must fulfill individual responsibilities. Productive group members come prepared, they contribute to the group interaction, they support each other, and they deliver good work on time. In order for individuals to function productively in groups, they have the right to expect the group to value their individual contributions, to address behaviors that compromise group productivity, and to divide the work equitably among members.
  4. They can learn why groups make better decisions than individuals. Students can see how different perspectives, constructive deliberation, questioning, and critical analysis can result in better solutions and performance. If students take an exam individually and then do the same exam as a group, the group exam score is almost always higher because students share what they know, debate the answers, and through that process can often find their way to the right answer.
  5. They can learn how to work with others. Group work helps students learn how to work with people outside their circle of friends, including those who have different backgrounds and experiences. They can even learn how to work with those who disagree with them, and others they might not “like” or want as friends.

Now, it is absolutely true that students don’t learn any of these things just by being put together in groups. Student attitudes about group work are often negative and that’s because they’ve been in lots of groups where they didn’t learn anything other than the fact they don’t like working in groups. Much of the group work used in college classrooms is not well designed or well managed. But when group work is carefully constructed and when teachers help students deal with those group dynamic issues that compromise group effectiveness, students can learn the content and the skills listed above.

It would also be nice to be able to end this post with a reference of a comprehensive review of research on group work. I don’t think that piece exists. Research that documents that students can learn these five things is so scattered across the disciplinary landscape that finding it all and then devising some way to quantitatively compare the results is all but impossible. But just because the findings aren’t organized or integrated does not diminish what has been documented time and again in study after study. Students can learn from and with each other in groups.

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26 comments on “Five Things Students Can Learn through Group Work

  1. My colleague has written on this very topic.

    This is a web resource that we are converting to an online faculty development course for faculty who teach through the Penn State World Campus:

    This was developed by Dr. Barton Pursel whose research is on teaming in virtual environments:

    Pursel, B. K. (2009). The role of virtual worlds as a collaborative environment for partially distributed teams. The Pennsylvania State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 185-n/a. Retrieved from…. (304986605).

    • Thanks, I will check this out! Sadly, I have many students (nursing) who hate team work and find they do not learn anything :)

  2. What a bunch of pie in the sky crap.

    "Student attitudes about group work are often negative and that’s because they’ve been in lots of groups where they didn’t learn anything other than the fact they don’t like working in groups. Much of the group work used in college classrooms is not well designed or well managed."

    Undergrad – 100% of students hate it and for good reason
    Grad School – 50/50 on a good day

    But let's all close our eyes and imagine that Utopian nirvana where groups would work just if people weren't involved.

    • I can't help but agree with Bart. I was first exposed to the academic version of "teamwork" through my daughter's experience with the UofP MBA program. What she learned was that no more than 2 out of 6 members of the "team" do squat. She learned that university "managers" are no more skilled than real world mismanagers (think Bain Capital) and that credit is rarely given where it is deserved and blame is usually spread downhill.

      Where I work, we've been driven to this teamwork approach by our newly hired education "experts" who have never taught a class and who can't even manage a meeting of professionals competently. I've tried a variety of approaches with this team concept over the last two years and my conclusion is that it's time to retire. The core to the approach is that we're catering to students who can't study, who don't care about the materials, and who do not belong in college. We're trying to find a way to sneak information into their distracted little heads and we hope to not get caught with our fingers in the public till while we pretend to be educators.

      For once, I'm glad to be old.

  3. working in groups – teamwork – must be learned like everything else. Many teachers have never learned how to structure and implement group work. Without such training, the result will be accordingly.

  4. Group work is the way business is most often conducted today. It can be rewarding and frustrating. Thus, it is critical that students learn how to make every group experience a success.
    Business Simulations can give students experience in making decisions as a group where their teammates will likely have different opinions about what their team should do. If this students’ first time experiencing a group decision-making process, it will require new skills in addition to knowledge and judgment that focus on group and managerial processes. How will they organize their group? How will they make decisions? Consensus? Delegation? Can they come to a shared vision and mission for their team? Will they embrace their strategy or will they second guess others if faced with obstacles? Managing people and organizations is indeed a challenge. Business Simulations are a great opportunity for students to gain experience of a group learning process.
    Interpretive Simulations also suggests that specific duties should be assigned with each person to be held accountable for his/her responsibilities. It is recommended that professors or students assign a "lead" person to head up the team, perhaps with the title of President or CEO. This position could be assigned on a rotating basis to give everyone an opportunity to take a leadership role.

  5. Most of my students dislike group work….the ones that like it are generally the ones that do poorly on individual assignments. However, when I assign a complex homework project they spontaneously (it seems) form groups to do the 'divide and conquer' technique. So my assignment of group work requires, and measures, individual contribution (yes, through group member revellations which is not completely truthful) and individual learning (through the re-testing of learning through individual assignments). This short-circuits the 'divide and conquer' mentality while teaching them individual accountability and peer teaching/learning. Truth be known, I dislike group work. The value outweighs the detriments, however, so I continue to use the technique with discretion.

  6. Many years ago I read a suggestion for how to create groups that work well. This involves surveying the students with regard to their previous experience with group work: do they like it? hate it because they tend to feel like they are doing all the work? Or not have much experience with it? The key to a good student group is to but all those who "hate it" in the same group. Basically, you group all the best students together and they end up having the best group experience ever. I also find that if I put all the poor performing, low participating students in the same group, they are then forced to sink or swim together and they will each end up doing more work than if grouped with more productive students. Plus these low performers will not frustrate the "good" students who otherwise have to work with them.
    Of course you also have to include peer evaluation to assure there was equal distribution of effort in the group and adjust the group grade up or down for individual members, based on how the others in the group evaluated their contribution (more or less than most of the others in the group).

    • Laura, this approach would work.

      I wonder why it's never tried in Primary/Secondary education?

      In Primary/Secondary we demotivate good students and teach them to hate school by forcing them into classes with unproductive students because some great thinker thought that would bring "up" the unproductive students.

      If only Primary/Secondary students were allowed to give peer evals….

  7. I believe that no one works in a vacuum in the real world so students need to learn how to work in teams. I decided to take away the "grade" aspect of teamwork but allow students to work together on problems and discuss concepts. They are not responsible for another person's efforts so the stress is taken away. I am finding that my lower performing students come to class prepared because they are missing out on the discussions and want to be more engaged. It has been a win win situation for the class. Students obtain the scaffolding opportunities and they don't have to worry about the grade in the process.

  8. Group work enables disinterested, unmotivated students to free ride on the hard work of committed, dedicated students in an nvironment with little effective accountability. In most "real world" situations, there are clearly defined roles and supervisory levels. These are much weaker in class groups, even with peer evaluations.

    • I agree with you, in principle, but the "real world" accurately mirrors the mess we've created in academic teams. The Harvard Business School management model is to "pull credit up and push blame down." Academic group work which "enables disinterested, unmotivated students to free ride on the hard work of committed, dedicated students in an environment with little effective accountability" is doing exactly what our current failed corporate model does. Psychopathic idiots, who aren't bothered with doing productive work and who take credit for the work of others, do well and hard working students/employees are frustrated and beaten down.

    • I definitely agree about this. I found that to be the case 90% of the time in college. The students who are unmotivated just ride on the good students and good students grades are sometimes brought down. Now, if teachers set up the groups and defined the roles (acting as a manager) then group work wouldn't be so bad. However, group work is usually assigned randomly by counting off, or "you pick your partners" and turns out bad then students don't want to "rat out" other students even in peer evaluations by saying something like "I did 70% of this entire project and the other 3 people did about 10% each" …

  9. I use Myers-Briggs to form groups of "like minded" students of about 4 or 5 students. This is their home group–with whom they do peer reviews and other basic stuff. Each student picks a topic and joins another group to work on that. It is hard to get a team going in such a segmented world. Every student takes 4-6 classes, and quite a few work full or part time. There is little time for outside team work. At least, in class, they meet and work with fellow students whom they would never meet otherwise. I am a former tech writer who had years of group work in the trenches–getting S/W to meet with mechanical engineers and then speak to marketing–a circus/tower of babel, experience and with much higher stakes. Group work in college IS a challenge they need to figure out and we need to know how to guide them. I like the link above for team building!

  10. Thank you Linda! If I may, and for the benefit of our colleagues, who aren't familiar with the value of the Myers-Briggs, I submit the following. Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers built on the work of Carl Jung and gave us the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), which is used by organizations throughout the world. Meyers and Briggs postulated that there are 16 different “Personality Types” that determine what motivates and energizes each one of us. Can you imagine how much more effective higher education would be if, as Linda has done, each student were administered the MBTI and had it properly interpreted at the beginning of their college coursework? I’m not implying that the MBTI is perfect and there are multiple forms of personality assessments available, but the MBTI is widely accepted as one of the standards of personality assessments. How novel it would be to provide each student with enhanced self-awareness at the end of high school or at the beginning of college by administering an MBTI to determine their Personality Type and train them to capitalize on their Type attributes? The information could be used to enhance their performance in individual one-on-one and group settings. I believe Linda has validated this premise with her experience above.

    Now, to take the “real world perspective” (as if there is an alternative world) as referenced by contributor Old School, the facts do not support the premise that “…the ‘real world’ accurately mirrors the mess we’ve created in academic teams”. The fact is that organizational life doesn't really reflect the “equality of ability and opportunity” postulated by academia; therefore, teams do have a better chance of being functional in a corporate environment where there is real accountability generated by competition, motivation, rewards and accomplishment. The statement that those “psychopathic idiots, who aren't bothered with doing productive work and who take credit for the work of others, do well and hard working …employees are frustrated and beaten down” is ludicrous. I don’t know what Old School’s “real world” experience has been, but unfortunately, what he/she has referenced is a carryover from academia and does “infect” some of our organizations; typically, those with strong academically oriented Human Resource departments. However, I can’t agree with his/her statement that we have a “…failed corporate model…” A broken one, yes, but failed no, just look at the successes of corporations like W.L. Gore, Whole Foods, IBM, Ford and Google, they all incorporate team driven environments. These are the models academia should be looking at and incorporating their best practices for successful group interaction.

    Fundamentally, we have three broader issues here that are ripe for discussion: the failure of the American public school system; deficiencies of educators and managers in assessing and training individuals to effectively function in team driven environments, and acknowledging that some individuals just aren't effective in situations that are driven by the traditional approaches to group work.

  11. I have a problem with items 3, 4, 5. Yes it is true that students can learn how groups function productively, how to work with others and why groups make better decisions than individuals. They can. But mostly groups without guidance do not learn these three. Groups without guidance do not respond rationally – which is what the post seems to presume about groups.

  12. The effectiveness of a group learning activity is predicated on the composition of the group. My personal experience taught me that the natural leaders in the group learn well (they will learn in any form of pedagogy) and the followers learn less well, if at all. In addition, the concept of students doing better on a test that is taken as a group concerns me. I hope that the physicians we see did not pass their respective specialty board exams as the result of a group effort. Finally, the cynic in me views the group learning activity as a method employed by some, not many, educators to avoid doing that for which they spent time preparing, i.e., teaching effectively.

  13. I will say up front that I, myself, disliked group work when I returned to grad school at the age of 50. It had never been a part of my undergraduate experience, thirty years before! However, in my teaching, since I have long classes (3 hours or 5 hours) I do use group work in several different ways and I do find it very helpful. For example, they check homework in homework groups I set up. They are much freer to discuss whatever they don't understand with each other. I then debrief with the whole class. I have set up several review types of exercises where pairs, or groups must match or define, etc. I find that these types of activities gets them to move around and they actually are using the vocabulary of the subject area. I know this because I make sure that I am moving around monitoring. They are also assigned long-term group projects. I have tried to build in several safeguards against the loafers. For example, I require a log for out of class meeting times with attendance; peer reviews are completed after the project is submitted; before submission, each team member fills out a form that outlines what part the student completed in the project. Each member then signs the document attesting that they agree with the statements. I add the warning that if they do sign off, they cannot complain about another team member later. I have had NO complaints from students about group work. As many have mentioned, it must be well-planned and have a concrete goal. Just saying "get into groups and…." doesn't cut it.

  14. University, undergrad second year: What I learned from working in a group:

    A summary of my experience:

    1 of my group did nothing until the last minute, 1 member did nothing even at the last minute, I told on him and he got pissed off, unfriended me on facebook and basically treated me with contempt. However when he learned that he would get the marks REGARDLESS OF IF HE PARTOOK well he still hated me, but he was happy because he didn't want to fail. Evidently he doesn't know how much stress and how many tears I shed over this project.

    The day we were handing it in, he posts on our group communication page ': it has to be handed in today and the conclusion isn't done', I had to mentally restrain myself not to scream and strangle him when I saw him later when I was meeting another member to finalise the project. Another of our group members stated: 'why don't you do it?' and he replied 'oh no, I don't know the content', as I said before I had to restrain myself from making a snarky comment.

    We had a peer assessment, this only counted as 10 percent, so he would pass anyway. I know all our group had had enough of him and our group wasn't the only one to suffer.

    I learned: working alone is the best way to go, unless you want dead weight hanging off of you who will leech away at your hard work and get the credit. I also learned about that 1 member's attitude and work ethics, how by some miracle he managed to pass his first year. I also learned how much I can hate someone and how long that hatred can last and as a result I had to go back to my therapist

  15. 1) I learn content from studying books and papers about a subject. I learn content from YOU.

    I don't learn content from group work. I learn how to hate sloth and incompetence, including that of my professors, but I don't learn CONTENT. Not one scrap of it, and I never have.

    2) I learn depth of understanding from, you know, good study and research habits. I learn depth of understanding from well-planned assignments that I've never needed a group to complete.

    Try again.

    3) We know how groups function effectively, long before college. Families teach these things. Kindergarten teaches these things. 12 more years of elementary through secondary school teach these things.

    4) Congress is all the proof you need that groups do not make better decisions.

    Groups are pretty awful at decision making, truth be known. Slavery, oppression of women, racism, cults–all of these ideas were decided by GROUPS of people.

    5) To say something so stupid as that college teaches people how to work with others, just shows that you didn't pay attention in kindergarten at all.

    Look, cupcake, if you haven't gotten the work with others message drilled into your head by SIXTH GRADE, you're not going to learn it after that.

    Sheesh. What a load of utter tosh.

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