May 4th, 2010

Faculty Perceptions of Group Work


We’ve all seen those survey results where employers and recruiters list the skills and characteristics they are most looking for in college graduates. And I expect you know that teamwork, the ability to work in groups with others, is always high on the list (second only to communication skills in a Wall Street Journal survey of recruiters). Despite that, widespread faculty endorsement of group work is still largely tentative. Even faculty who use group work have concerns about the caliber of the exchanges, whether there’s appropriate leadership, and who’s doing the work.

The authors of an article I read recently wondered if the continuing negative perceptions faculty have of group work might in part result from their experiences dealing with dysfunctional groups. Groups come to the instructor when they are having trouble—they can’t make decisions, members are fighting, or people aren’t pulling their weight. This can involve teachers in some pretty messy situations. I was just speaking with a colleague who reported sitting with a group of graduate students for more than two hours as they worked through a series of grievances that had caused them to request that they be allowed to disband. My colleague said that when she got home, she had energy to get to the couch and that was it.

It is true that we don’t hear all that much from the groups where things are going well. Even so, I still think a lot of us worry about what’s happening in those groups. I wonder if there aren’t some control issues involved here. We aren’t in charge—selecting and delivering only the highest quality content. And what might the students be finding on the Web to exchange? And how are they talking about that all important theory? And did they really discuss all that deeply before making a decision? As legitimate as these concerns are, students don’t learn how to function in a group without being in groups. They will do better in those groups with some explicit instruction on how groups work, but then we need to stand back and let them be groups. The products they produce give us a chance to provide feedback that can improve their understanding of the content and how they function of future groups.

So, let’s be more aware of what’s feeding our perceptions of group work. Perhaps the groups with problems are distorting our view and perhaps our worries have more to do with our hang-ups than with what’s happening in the groups.

  • Larry Spence

    On average, employees in industry recieve 40 hours of training in team management skills before they are assigned to work in groups. How can we expect students to be adept at teamwork without preparation? Students get on the job training without supervision and that produces mostly sub-par performances. This situation is acerbated by their high school experiences where lack of training and supervision results in the black-mail of the best students — "If you want an A you do the work. We don't care." On top of this we ask students to work in groups mostly outside of class; leaving them with scheduling problems and every incentive to break the work down into individual pieces.
    The wonder is that students get anything out of the experience at all. And some do. Group work is one of the most ill-concieved, ill-supported and ill-managed activities that faculty undertake. We need to do something about it.

  • Trent Spriggs

    I feel that the Wall Street Journal article points out a sorely needed problem-in-search-of-a-solution. Academics, most of all should not shy away from this requirement to include teamwork projects. We face difficult decisions every day. Obviously without sufficient input from all sides, the potential for failure only increases and the rewards for success reduced. Managers and professionals of all stripes should be the most adept at working with others and producing quality long term outcomes. The article points out that communication skills are foremost, followed by teamwork. I would not be surprised if problem solving were to be listed next. As a case in point, the entire gulf coast of Mexico is in danger of being fouled by a single oil leak. Fishermen will lose livelihoods, resorts will close, and wildlife will die by the millions… Just today a report was publicly released showing a myriad of errors, both procedural and engineering that accumulated and led to this disaster. Would someone speaking up at any time have had an effect?? The evidence that has appeared online suggests that a lack of leadership and poorly mapped out master plan clearly contributed to this calamity. All in some part are small group discussions. I would trade a hard day at work for a professor for a multi-billion dollar disaster anytime…