July 1st, 2008

Why Students Hate Groups


More people are writing comments on the blog! Yes! Thanks! And some of the comments are really excellent. They include references to other sources and links! I more optimistic about this being the kind of exchange from which we can all learn and grow.

Did you see the student rant about group work? It was posted in response to the March 18 blog entry on cohort groups. Having students reading the blog will keep us honest! Many students hate group work. Why? I think there are three reasons. First, some students (like most faculty) aren’t very good groupies. They don’t learn well in social contexts. I belong to that group.

Despite having a Ph.D. that emphasized small-group dynamics and being endlessly fascinated by how groups operate, given the choice, I will always pick to work alone. At this ripe old age, I have learned that groups can help, especially when you’re stuck. But for some students, groups do not provide the best or easiest context for learning, although all students need experience working in groups because teamwork pervades the professions now.

Second, students hate group work because faculty design it poorly. The grade is a group grade—everybody gets the same grade. There’s no individual accountability. So, if a student lets the group down, the rest of the group takes up the slack or suffers the consequences. Generally students take up the slack, but doing so engenders lots of hostility toward the process. The tasks lend themselves to the divide and conquer approach. Students can divide the tasks into equal portions. Theoretically everybody does their portion, so students work alone and the group never gels or becomes a community to which members feel any responsibility. They all submit their finished products to one person who puts it together, only not everybody delivers work of the same quality and some don’t deliver at all or in a timely fashion.

Finally, students hate groups because groups make them feel vulnerable individually. They don’t understand that collectively they have power. They can “pressure” members to perform. But in order to do so, they need a rudimentary understanding of small-group dynamics. They need to know about norms, how they are formed and what they should do when a member does not conform (like misses a meeting or shows up unprepared). They must understand that groups need members to fill different roles, including the leadership role. Students (and faculty) aren’t born knowing how to function in a group. It’s one of those skills students should learn in college, and it’s one of those skills learned best if it’s taught explicitly.

—Maryellen Weimer

13 comments on “Why Students Hate Groups

  1. A technique I use in teaching Physics is to have students work in small groups on a non-trivial problem (we have sets of problems called Ranking Tasks that are ideal for this). Then – each group is supposed to send a rep. to the board to write down their solution (typically a list of letters of different scenarios ranked in order). Everyone in the group who turns in their completed sheet at the end gets a participation grade, but they know that a similar problem will show up on the quiz or test and hence individual learning is also important. The power of the group comes in the conversations around the content.

  2. I, too, would prefer to work alone rather than in groups. Could this be part of the explanation for so many dysfunctional academic departments in higher ed.?Despite my personal bent, I always try to incorporate at least one collaborative, group assignment for each of my classes. From what I have read and experienced, collaborative work is key to learning, and I've seen some very successful projects, but these invariably require a high degree of instructor design and regulation.Grading group projects is a special challenge. I've heard that if an instructor uses group grades rather than evaluating individual performance in a group, then it is best to have group members evaluate their teammates. This ensures a higher degree of individual accountability and makes assessment part of the learning process. Of course, the instructor must carefully design the assessment method too.

  3. There are other ways to look at these issues. You have incorporated a very individualistic perspective on learning. Baxter Magolda (Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship) outlines three criteria for transformative learning. She includes a constructivist perspective that in my opinion is crucial to thinking about learning. Learning entails much more than transfers of information from the text or the professor’s notes. Quoting her ideas (p. 27-28):Three principles emerging from the longitudinal study are validating students as knowers, situating learning in students’ own experience, and defining learning as mutually construing meaning.Validating students as knowers means acknowledging their capacity to hold a point of view, recognizing their current understandings, and supporting them explaining their current views. Validation as a knower helps students view themselves as capable of learning and knowing, heightening their engagement in learning.Situating learning in students’ own experience means using students’ experience, lives, and current knowledge as a starting point for learning. This places learning in a context students can readily understand. Situating learning in students’ experience can draw existing experiences into the learning context or create experiences within the learning context from which students can work. It also means connecting to students’ ways of making meaning.Defining learning as mutually constructing meaning makes both teacher and student active players in learning. It suggests that the teacher and the students put their understandings together by exploring students’ experiences and views in the context of knowledge the teachers introduces. Together they construct knowledge that takes experience and evidence into account. Through this mutual construction, misunderstandings in previous knowledge are resolved; thus validating students as knowers does not mean endorsing misunderstandings. (Italics in the original.)The first principle is about helping students understand themselves as learners. A key to this is to put their ideas into play with those of other students. You can’t know yourself as a learner without knowing both who you are and aren’t. Putting your ideas into play with those of others forces you to encounter multiple perspectives and understandings (even just different interpretations of the meaning of a given passage from the text). As learners encounter different interpretations of the key ideas of a course, they must move epistemologically toward more complex understandings of themselves and the content of our courses. Another key idea in the process of working out understanding of self is the building of trust and community in the group of learners. Group work often fails because we do not help students build trust. The semester system and the atomization of knowledge into courses and disciplines also undermine community.The second principle relates to creating a context for buy-in. Learners resist new ideas for which they have no context or connection. They need to build on and make connections to what they already know. It is much easier to understand new ideas for which you can make connections to ideas with which you are comfortable. Often our biggest hurdle to engaging students is an assumption that what we want them to learn bears almost no relation to what they have learned before. The most successful teachers are ones who can help their students make connections. As students share their different experiences and understandings, they deepen knowledge of themselves as learners in the context of others as learners. In engaging in interactions centered on the course content learners who have different experience have to engage in higher level thinking and processing of ideas. This may not always be fun and comfortable but it will very likely be productive learning. Again, the semester system and faculty commitments to “covering all the material” work against using class time to develop the kinds of community and trust necessary to have productive group work. It is our fault, not theirs.Finally the third principle moves us beyond the notion that there is only one correct understanding of the content we are teaching. Students test answers document that there are multiple understandings of the materials. We can agree that some of these student answers are better or more useful than other ones. We cannot dismiss the multiplicity. What we need to do is help students develop an understanding of that multiplicity so they can use reason and experience in the discipline to put different answers into a broader perspective. Learning includes developing the capacity to sift through perspectives and pick the ones that are most useful and consistent. We want to develop problem solvers not dictation robots. Because we value the product (the report) more than the learning process, we are less likely to put the energy into making the process a productive one.

  4. Reflecting: Students (and faculty) aren’t born knowing how to function in a group. It’s one of those skills students should learn in college, and it’s one of those skills learned best if it’s taught explicitly.Bravo….no, it is not inherent to work as a group/team. It requires the acquisition of knowledge and skill and the application of behavior in the context of learning. Communication, negotiation, and conflict resolutions skills are bext learned through intentional curricular design. In the health sciences, these skills are essential to teaching diverse health professionals how to function as an interprofessional team for the safety of the patient and for effectiveness of care. In fact, I cannot think of a discipline that does not need these skills…..even academics have to serve on committees. It is always a challenge and requires more energy to place our personal agendas to oneside and incorporate the ideas of others as a collective thought into a product. Even those of us who love to work alone must admit…that is our interaction and exposure to others that fuels our thoughts.

  5. One pitfall of arguing that group work "prepares students for the real world" is that the college classroom can't really be paralleled to the real world. It's apples and oranges. In the corporate world (I know because I've worked in it for more than a few years) team based projects require high quality work and participation from each member. We get paid to do a job, and that is strong motivation to perform. People who can't or won't perform are culled from the team one way or another. Ultimately, even in collaboration, we stand or fall based on the merits of our own work.
    In college, a good chunk of the population just pays their tuition and tries to skate through as easily as possible to graduate with a piece of paper. That means that in a group, a couple of people will be motivated and a few will not be. Those that aren't performing or learning optimally are still carried through. That doesn't happen in the real world. People like that get fired before too long.

    Also, not everyone will choose to work in a highly group-centric field.

    There is a host of other problems with high stakes group work in college. Ultimately, we don't have group tests, group GPAs, or group interviews. So it is unfair to force students into high stakes group work.

    I see the value in group discussions that allow students to engage and exchange ideas. Also, low stakes group assignments if they are well designed can be valuable. But please do not force your students into high stakes group work. The best thing you can do for your students is to encourage them to stand or fall on the merits of their own work. That is the skill that will be most useful in the real world.

    • The only way corporations do group work is this:

      "Annette, you're designing the widget. Sarah, you'll get it through the manufacturing process. Tom, you'll write the manual for the widget. Jill, you'll do the marketing of the widget. Andrew, you'll do the distribution, Allen, you'll handle advertising and promotions. Now you all need to talk to each other about what you're up to and where you are until we get this baby on the shelves. I'll trust you to do that. Now go to it."

      It's not, "Okay here's this paper to write, and all of you chip in ideas for what to write about"

      That's just stupid. Group work in corporations involves acquiring people with SEPARATE skills tailored to specific aspects of getting something done, not just throwing idiots together with a smart person and then thinking they'll come up with Shakespeare.

      It's just not how it works.

  6. As a student in college aiming to be a high school teacher, I find group work to be terrible.

    As Set says, its one thing in the work field…but its a whole different animal in college/high school/middle school.

    I have more horror stories than good.

    I don't like the grading system of failing all over the actions of one. I have had to countlessly on a whim do their parts for them as they either don't show up or don't do their part.

    I find it to be an oxymoron that group work is supposed to help us. How can being docked a letter grade possibly help you at all? Especially if the only reason your grade isn't what it should be is because your group didn't do their parts they way they should have.

    I am also an introvert which makes group work hard on that front alone. Not everyone wants to be group oriented in life. Not everyone needs the approval of others. Not everyone wants their life to depend on the actions of someone else.

    Not everyone wants to be social.

    It shouldn't be forced because its not the only way to do things and its not the only way to live.

  7. As a high school student, I personally find group work to be terrible.

    I hate knowing that my grade relies on someone else, and a lot of the time that person has lower standards. So rather than take the risk, I would much rather do it by myself. Group work just creates unneeded conflict within the class room. Also by just grading the group, many students get a free ride. That's ok for them, maybe, yet it's just not fair on those who did the work. As said before, another major issue is standards. My standard isn't the same as others; and when those others have tried their personal best it feels terrible to have to tell them that it's just not right. It then adds the extra work of editing their parts, yet attempting to interpret what they were trying to say.

    In conclusion, group work simply doesn't work. I hate doing all of the work, but I'm not about to let someone lower my grade.

  8. group work can have its benefits but it can be a major hassle and it can be over used sometimes in certian programs . however, as fun as it can be, group work that requires excusrions can be annyoing and time consuming. one, it may take time to travel and not everyone drives and some people may have trouble with the schedule or even deciding. sometimes the way the class schedule designed in the program, does not give students enough time to travel. no studnet wants to have to give up a friday night of social plans, to travel./ note to program directors who design these assignments, if you're gonna use group work limit the number of excursions we have to.

  9. I don't care what the theories are about the abomination known as group work. All I know is that I'm ready to go postal on the next prof who demands another round of group work filth.

    All I hear when a lazy, incompetent prof (and all of them pimping group work are lazy and incompetent) is: "Hey! You're getting your work load quadrupled–at a minimum. You're the one who will have to organize everything, arrange the meetings, rag on people to attend AND to turn in "their" always substandard work that they don't understand, probably because 90% of them don't show up to class even once a week. On top of that, you're going to do the entire project, anyway, no help at all, and we don't care about the other classes you have, or, well, that you might want a life every now and then. We don't care that you're going to field desperate phone calls anywhere from midnight through one hour before the assignment is due, begging to know if you've done anything on the project and daring to demand help at that point—and then you get to watch these moronic slackers give you a few mewled thank yous before they skip away to do whatever they were doing rather than doing the work that they were assigned. Do you know why we love to do this to you? Well, how dare you be COMPETENT enough for college work? How dare you show up to class, take good notes, do your assignments, and study for tests–all the things we pay lip service to, but patently do not care about? Of all the nerve!"

    That's all I will ever hear out of your lazy, incompetent mouths when you vomit up the words, "group work."

  10. As a 20+ year HS teacher and a mother, I am not a fan of group work and agree with many of the above commenters. However, what is missing and ought to be of utmost importance to the teachers/profs in particular, is the research on group work overloading working memory. This is the case for ALL students but can more severely affect those with attention issues. When valuable, limited working memory must be devoted to negotiating group dynamics, what is left for actually learning the content? And learning it deeply and retaining it?

  11. I can work with people who knows how to respects each other and know how to work in teams, but most students are inexperienced, rude, others are self centered and take over the project not letting anyone participate–plus attack the one who dares to challenge him or her. Professors don't gives any guidelines of Does and Dont, neither bother to take their role as manages of these teams. The amount of time wasted dealing with drama with dumb kids it affects students grades, the moral goes down as well. Randomly putting together teams are the worse, and stupid to think that inexperienced people with nothing in common other than the project at hand, can learn from this torture is wrong,

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