July 1st, 2010

Group Work: Should Your Top Students Work Together?


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.

  • Brian

    Quite interesting. The idea of putting all the "smart kids" together in a group would seem to make the group project a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of like the days when elementary teachers used to divide the classes into "stars" (or similar) and other group gradations down to "turtles" or whatever. Of course the goal was to spur upward mobility (I think and hope) but it was damaging. A friend of mine who is quite bright and aware (don't play Trivial Pursuit or chess with him) was a "Turtle". This damaged him for his entire school experience until he got to college where he managed to shed his "turtle" shell.
    Putting people into groups by perceived ability tends to make teachers and students adhere to the expectations placed on the group identity.
    To me, it makes great sense that Ballantine and Larres found that weaker students pared with stronger students felt improvement in their skills. The stronger students would likely have acted as unofficial peer mentors for the weaker students and mentoring has the effect of improving the skills of both mentors and those mentored (mentees??).
    Finally, yes, strong students are right to be concerned about weaker (or worse, ineffective members) dragging them down but the instructor has to be concerned with the whole class, not just the keeners. The value of stronger students working with weak or ineffective ones is that they will learn to cope with real life groups they will encounter in the working world.

  • Steve

    Interesting and very relevant article. However, this article missed the key issue of the 'smarter' students receiving a lower grade in group work when mixed with lower ability students. While all students feel that they learn, the 'smarter' students (ie. the ones with more prior knowledge, skills, experience and meta cognitive skills) if mixed with too many 'lower ability' students ends up becoming the pseudo-teacher or even disengaging due to too wide a disparity and often learn less. Usually what each individual specifically learns within their zone of proximal development is not measured well and marks only reflect the group work outcome.

    While the 'higher ability' student can gain from being a higher level guide, they can loose out with the marks. Do they receive marks for acting as the higher level guide ? – generally not. At the end of the day if marks are used to measure students, then marks are the main motivating factor in classes, not learning or mentoring. If 'higher ability' students are doing more than others in the group such as mentoring, then should they receive extra marks for this work ? If the disparity in ability is large, then the 'higher ability' students can become demotivated and disengage by having to work with the others at the 'lower ability' in order to socially fit in.

    While skills may improve for all students, in group work, the amount of improvement in skills varies and the nature of skills improved is different as well. Often the demotivating factor for higher ability students is that what they contribute to group work can be difficult to measure and is often not measured in terms of marks and marks is what is promoted as 'the measure of a top student'.

  • Vik

    I agree. Let the groups be inclusive.