July 1st, 2010

Group Work: Should Your Top Students Work Together?

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One of the common objections to group work is that bright, capable students are held back when they share group activities and grades with students of lesser ability. This is of concern to teachers and students. Often very good students strongly oppose group work. They worry that an ineffective group with weak or nonproductive members will compromise their grades. Many openly express the belief that they can do the activity, project, paper, or presentation better on their own and would prefer doing it that way.

When bright, capable students with these concerns and beliefs are put into groups, they often compromise the group’s effort by doing all (or most, or the most important parts) of the work themselves, and then they complain about having had to do all the work.

These issues raise interesting questions about forming groups: Should ability be a criterion used in forming groups? Should all the best students work together? Typically faculty form groups of students at different ability levels. But does this compromise what the best students can learn from the group experience?

Ballantine and Larres (reference below) looked at the role of ability across several different group learning outcomes with fourth-year accounting students. They formed groups that combined students who had achieved more than 60 percent in a previous course with students who had achieved less than 60 percent in the same course. With respect to the development of skills (such as leadership, verbal communication, ability to get along with others, negotiation, and persuasion), “the responses … provide some level of assurance that students, irrespective of their ability, have enhanced their skills development because of engaging in group-work in a cooperative learning environment.” (p. 175)

In other words, both able and less able students in the same group reported that their skills had developed. The researchers elaborate: “Both ‘more able’ and ‘less able’ students reported positive outcomes from the group assessment experience. There was only one difference in response, namely that the less able students felt that the group experience had contributed more to their academic improvement than their more able colleagues.” (p. 178)

This study explored other issues as well, but the findings with respect to the impact of ability are notable for a couple of other reasons. First, the project these groups completed was large (spanning 11 weeks). Second, what the group produced was graded and everyone in the group received the same grade. There was no peer assessment or individual grade, and still group members reported skill development.

Reference: Ballantine, J. and Larres, P. M. (2007). Final year accounting undergraduates’ attitudes to group assessment and the role of learning logs. Accounting Education, 16 (2), 163-183.

Excerpted from Individual Ability and Group Work, The Teaching Professor, March 2009.