July 12th, 2017

My Students Don’t Like Group Work


students working on group assignment

Editor’s Note: Today we’re revisiting an old favorite on group work. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find links to additional articles on designing effective group work assignments.

Students don’t always like working in groups. Ann Taylor, an associate professor of chemistry at Wabash College, had a class that was particularly vocal in their opposition. She asked for their top 10 reasons why students don’t want to work in groups and they offered this list (which I’ve edited slightly).

  1. It’s hard to focus during small group exercises.
  2. We are always rushed.
  3. Group exercises mean we do the work and the teacher doesn’t.
  4. We’re trying to work on material we didn’t understand in the reading.
  5. If we want to work in groups, we can form them on our own; in class we would rather hear someone who understands the material explain it.
  6. We’re all confused; getting in a group merely compounds the confusion.
  7. I don’t like the people in my group.
  8. Group members don’t show up or don’t contribute.
  9. We’d get through more material if you lectured.
  10. I can’t sleep during small group exercises.

A few of these reasons have convinced some faculty that not much learning occurs in groups. Others may be a bit more ambivalent but figure if students are opposed why bother with a questionable strategy and have their resistance to deal with as well.

Taylor responds as do many of us who use group work regularly. “Some of these reasons are exactly why I use small group work in class.” (p. 219) Group work engages students and forces them to work with the material. Of course, it’s easier, and from the student perspective preferable, if the teacher provides all the examples, raises all the questions, proposes and evaluates various solutions, i.e., does all the work. All students have to do is copy or download the teacher’s material.

It’s also true that working in groups is harder than doing it on your own. Groups have to cooperate, communicate, delegate, and depend on each other. But for most tasks, groups can do more and do it better than individuals. In the professional world, there’s hardly a career where some (if not most) of the work is done in groups and not necessarily groups populated with your friends.

To students and some teachers, lecture looks like a “neater” way to learn. It certainly is more efficient, but the question is what kind of learning results from lecture? Too often lecture material is memorized—it hasn’t really been figured out, often it can’t be applied and regularly it’s quickly forgotten. Learning most things is a messy process. Confusion, frustration, even despair regularly occur. If students never experience those feelings, they also never experience the thrill of finally figuring something out, of really understanding and of being changed by what they’ve learned.

Does this mean group work should replace lectures? That teacher explanations are always ruled out? Of course not. It simply means that teachers need a repertoire of instructional strategies and that the decision of which to use when should be guided by a collection of variables that does not include whether students want to work in groups.

Taylor says she uses groups over student objections because they work. “By the end of the semester, there are improvements in their performance, teamwork and ability to solve problems. And this is what education is about: students’ growth and learning. Our role as educators is not as a performer or entertainer, but as a facilitator who guides students through the challenges of the learning process, whether they like it or not.” (p. 219)

What may be most useful here is her head-on strategy for dealing with student objections. If you ask students why they don’t want to work in groups and assemble their list, you can respond to their objections. Students may not like all your answers but at least the conversation introduces them to the educational rationale behind having them work collectively and it isn’t because you’re making them do the work you don’t want to do.

Reference: Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in groups … and why I do it anyway. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 39 (2), 219-220.

For more on group work, check out these articles:

My Students Don’t Like Group Work was originally published on Feb 22, 2012 and was the fourth most popular article on Faculty Focus that year.

  • kingscollegecelt

    The last point is essential. Giving students the rationale for why they are doing any activity or assignment can help cultivate good dispositions toward learning. It can demonstrate that the activities are not simply hoops to jump through, but real exercises designed to build their knowledge and skills–just as much as the exercises they do in the gym are designed to build strength and agility.

    • Ken

      As an adult graduate student in an online course, I find that group activities online tend to tax the students more than necessary. Online students have different schedules and live in different states sometimes. It can be very difficult to communicate for a group project. As a veteran of many of these, I find no advantage to group activities over individual activities in an online setting.

  • drjeffreyp

    My students abhor group work as well. I find it interesting though that once again we hear " In the professional world, there’s hardly a career where some (if not most) of the work is done in groups and not necessarily groups populated with your friends." This is so often stated in support of group work and yet I don't find that to be the case in the professional world.

    This is not to say that we don't work with other people but that work is usually individually based (i.e., I do my work, you do yours; we work in a really big office [think cubicles]). This does not suggest that we're doing group or team work.

    I don't have to like you, go to lunch with you or invite you to the BBQ in order to work with you.

    Groups also promote groupthink, which I would argue is not good for anyone, but certainly seems to be in keeping with many an educator's philosophy.

    My $.02. As a friend of mine says, "yours may vary."

    • shawnpatrickdoyle

      Groups represent groupthink, but I don't think the design of group work is to come up with an answer that is not crosschecked or verified in larger discussion. Practicing working in groups in class and then coming together to talk about what you learn might even be beneficial because it can be used as an occasion to point out biases that the group forms in the process and generating strategies to get around them.

      I also get frustrated by the excuse that group work is preparation for the real world where they'll have to do that. I think it's based on a faulty premise that college translates to the real world directly, which it does not. Few jobs require workers to learn four different subjects and then write papers or take exams about them. There is a lot of value in college, but it's value is never as easy as it seems to be presented in the argument being that it trains you for a job.

    • debh

      Odd as this may sound my students often enjoy group work. I assign projects or problems and they enjoy the change up from sage on the stage. They develop teams or better supportive relationships that carry some of them through their college experience.

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  • alstoots

    From this article, and my experience with higher education, it sounds like students just don't like the interaction socially with their classmates. I'd be willing to bet that many students, if asked of lecture time, would have a laundry list of dislikes starting with "boring" and going to any other length. Most employees will interact in some way in group projects and we should be training students even before the college level to become comfortable with working with people who may not be friends, who may not agree, and who may not pull their own weight. Reality is, at some point in your career, you'll face one or all of those situations. The point of furthering your education is to gain the skills necessary to move forward in your career. That being the case, why shouldn't group work be a part of that training? It's a skill that needs to be mastered.

    • alstoots

      Quite honestly, I'm growing tired of whining at the college level from students who feel things aren't being given to them that they deserve or are entitled to. They will be in for a rude awakening when they get a job in the future and the world isn't handed to them. It's time to grow up and learn how to work well, not just play well, with others.

      • drjeffreyp

        Not a fan of whining me self. That said, what is the purpose of a college education? Why is it that the for profits seem to be doing so well?

        I think we need to decide the purpose of higher ed (and I'm OK if it's to prepare individuals for a career), then focus head long into that purpose.

        How many years now has the real world told us that our students were not prepared? If true, why and how can we, how should we then prepare them?

      • DanelleOH

        Most students get equally tired of professors' silly busy work when we are paying an enormous amount of money to be taught. It certainly rubs salt in the wounds when shortly after cutting the check the professor teams us with random students disinterested in the subject and with little motivation to contribute.

        In small seminar courses, group work on a small scale and with little weight may be fine but professors who insist on strapping students grades together in some effort to force false communities among disparate personalities (or out of laziness when grading time rolls around) these groups are not beneficial and can sour a good student pretty quick.

  • Hello Dr. Weimer:

    Thank you for providing a very thoughtful post about group work.

    Your list of reasons why students do not like group work includes some of the top reasons I’ve heard as well. The primary objection from my students involves equal contributions by team members. Do you utilize a team contract at the start of the project? When I utilize group work I implement it as an in-class activity – to supplement the class lecture. I’ve found that it helps to engage students in the topics being discussed and many students will participate in a small group setting, rather than raise their hand during the class lecture. Plus I’ve noticed that it tends to break the ice among students, which allows them to develop a perception of being part of a larger dynamic group.

    I am surprised by the following in your post:
    “It certainly is more efficient, but the question is what kind of learning results from lecture? Too often lecture material is memorized—it hasn’t really been figured out, often it can’t be applied and regularly it’s quickly forgotten.”

    From my perspective, this is why I take time to learn the material prior to delivering a lecture – I want to learn and comprehend the meaning of the assigned materials so that I can apply and explain it well. This approach allows me to find relevant examples, current videos, case studies, etc. – which allow students to interact with the information in a way that they are likely to remember it. What is your approach?
    Dr. J

  • prof. El-Bahai

    thanks for all the interactions
    simply a patinet would not be happy with the bitter medicine till he is cured !!!!!!
    as doctors we have to prescripe the medicine and students like patients have to drink

  • shawnpatrickdoyle

    I think the point that the groups have to be a part of the instructor's repertoire is important. I have many colleagues who go into group work with an idea that students don't like it, they try it once after lecturing the whole course, and then students don't respond so they say group work doesn't work. For group work to work, students need practice at it just as they do any other skill.

    One point to consider responding to students' sense that group work just compounds confusion: there are some studies that show that group work can help students reach a correct answer even when both of the students get it wrong. I don't have the original source for that, but I know that Sian Bielock mentions it in her book Choke.

  • Barbara

    Great article review. Because I am a fairly new educator, I am interested in anyone's opinions regarding, the following question. If I want to include group work is it better to give the students some rationale for the purpose of the group work, or is it better to just assign it?

  • Suzanne

    I had to read this post. I have experienced both sides of the coin on this one but have not entirely thrown out the group work. I teach at the university level in a very multinational classroom. The dynamics are interesting – typical American students despise group work while the Asian, Middle Eastern, and Africans students enjoy it. Yes, there are the common complaints stated above but I have to say, it is absolutely a joy to see a group of Asian students huddled together trying to solve a problem. They do not give up until they all understand how to solve it. Group think is not part of their genre. Maybe as Americans we let our independent nature take over our sensibilities, when the group work should be seen as a learning opportunity where people share ideas, work toward a common goal, and support each other until there is deeper understanding. Needless to say, group work remains a 50/50 proposition in my classes.

  • Matt Birkenhauer

    Of course, there are two kinds of group work: That work done in the classroom (which the teacher can monitor closely), and group projects which are assigned outside of the classroom and are ongoing. As a teacher of mostly first-year students of composition, I frequently use the first kind of group work. But I sometimes wonder if, for first-year students at least, there ought to be a moratorium on the second kind of group work, as students are still learning to be students. For those students who are not responsible, everyone in the group—including the hardworking, responsible students—get “punished" because of the slackers in the group.

  • Matt Birkenhauer

    As for Maryellen’s point—and I hear this often in defense of group work outside of the classroom, that “In the professional world, there's hardly a career where some (if not most) of the work is done in groups and not necessarily groups populated with your friends,”– this is only partially true. As my wife (who works in the corporate world) points out, these are “vetted” groups of seasoned professionals who were vetted by the hiring process itself ; also they are often groups of seasoned professionals who, by the time they work with each other, have already had to work with others under such situations. To compare this to many of the first-year students at a typical large state university is, I think, a stretch . . . .

  • The key to me is the last paragraph of the post – a conversation addressing student objections to group work. In many situations (classroom or not) the action of "acknowledging the hard" can make room for moving forward. In this case, a brief class discussion could include why groups often *suck* to work in, why it still might be important, and some strategies for making group work more tolerable.

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  • KarenH

    Not sure why you are comparing group work with lecture. Group work is inquiry based; and there are many wonderful individual inquiry based activities as well. Lecture is a completely different issue. Lecture is the opposite of inquiry based learning, not the opposite of group work.

  • JSmith

    I have worked in the professional world in team-based environments, and I'm now doing a masters program. I can tell you with all honesty that the "group work" that happens in college is in no way comparable or relevant to what I've seen professionally. Here are some reasons why: 1. people in a real job have more "skin in the game" and much more motivated to work hard and contribute. 2. there is usually a common work space/work hours that people work together in a real job-which makes the process much more effective. 3. in a real job, there is some oversight and someone who has the authority and desire to call out slackers and has vested interested in the work being done–this is directly the opposite of what I've seen with many professors who want nothing to do with "group drama" and tell us to work it out among ourselves, which means that those of us that are competent usually end up carrying those who aren't.
    Group work as it is usually designed in college encourages social loafing. Slackers aren't pushed to strain themselves to produce work of high quality. High performers cannot explore their own potential.
    The best thing that professors can do for their students is to instill a sense of self motivation, self reliance, and individual competence, because those are the people that succeed in the professional world and contribute the most to the teams that they work in.
    Also, from a pedagogical standpoint, if your students tell you that they don't value the group work that you are assigning and that it doesn't work for them, you should listen and make some adjustments. Usually, the only people who "like group work" are the people who are lazy and incompetent and look forward to a free ride on someone else's work.
    I'm a big believer in the work of Paolo Friere who talks about students knowing what works best for them and how they learn best.
    One way that I could see group work being useful is if each person writes their own paper and then presents their work in a group format-something similar to a paper roundtable at a conference. That way there would be collaborative learning, but each person has to bring their own work to the table.

  • 21cif

    Numbers 4 – 6 make perfect sense to me. I have often felt this way in online classes. It seems to be an easy out for the instructor. I can think of a particular instructional design course I took that was in an eight week format, had a very poor book as a text, and was rushed through with different people in the group doing varying levels of work and all was very chaotic. I can sympathize with numbers 4-6, but as a teacher myself, I can also see the value of asking if something is not clear or if material is confusing. In this way a teacher could easily lead a small group learning session tailored to the small group.

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  • Jane

    Give me a break. Group work is "inquiry based"? What a steaming load. Maybe if they're advanced undergrads or grad stuents. But most of the time its clueless students spouting off nonsense.

  • Wolf Tickets

    I think it's lame when all teachers do is moderate group discussions, without providing much lecture/input (Teachers take on the role as a 'moderator').

    With the crazy tuition that students have to pay, it's to understand why students would feel robbed by seminar styled classes.

    Students, who are forced into a role that they may despise/have no interest in (basically teaching fellow students) also lowers the energy/enthusiasm for truly doing the group work as intended.

    As for this sentence, "if the teacher provides all the examples, raises all the questions, proposes and evaluates various solutions, i.e., does all the work."… Yes, teachers should be the one's who communicate their knowledge to students. I think some teachers are a little disingenuous when they give group work as a means to not have to work as hard, especially when they add little to the conversation as the group moderator.

    Personally, i would rather interpret/play with the information I learned from a world class lecturer than rely on peers to learn a concept that everybody maybe struggling with, don't fully grasp. Furthermore, It's annoying when teachers make students basically do their job, by having them create questions from the textbook to present to class each week.

    The consistency, from which people who are not teachers, present materials for learning is not nowhere near that of the teacher, because they do not have that training. I personally think a hybrid may be suitable, but too many of these seminar style classes that graduate schools offer feel like a rip off. In fact, sometimes it feels like it's just being because the faculty is undermanned, so these style of courses relive some of the burden on teachers/ allow them to take on a heavier case load.

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