One of my favorite teaching blogs, In Socrates’ Wake, has Philosophy prof Adam Potthast asking this question of his colleagues:
(1) What is the place of group work in the philosophy classroom? (2) In encouraging modern pedagogical values of teamwork and collaboration are we holding back or harming our brightest students to some degree? (3) If group work works well in your courses, what kinds of activities do you use (other than ice-breakers at the beginning of the course)? And finally (4) if there are undergraduate or graduate students reading this blog, what are your thoughts?
Potthast was inspired to do this by his students’ (very negative) reactions to the groupwork they had been assigned in other courses, a reaction that seemed persistent enough for him to wonder what situations it worked best in, and whether it was being overused.
There are some really good exchanges here, from undergrads and grad students as well as faculty, but my favorite was Seth Marbin’s citation of “social loafing,” which came from a Wikimedia open-content book, Managing Groups and Teams.
Though I was looking for answers about getting the best work from my groups in my Swift and Literary Studies course, I was immediately reminded of all the most toxic aspects of committee work. Here are some of the explanations offered in the article for individuals underperforming when put together into groups:
Equitable contribution: Team members believe that others are not putting forth as much effort as themselves. Since they feel that the others in the group are slacking, they lessen their efforts too. This causes a downward cycle that ends at the point where only the minimum amount of work is performed.
Submaximal goal setting: Team members may perceive that with a well-defined goal and with several people working towards it, they can work less for it. The task then becomes optimizing rather than maximizing.
Lessened contingency between input and outcome: Team members may feel they can hide in the crowd and avoid the consequences of not contributing. Or, a team member may feel lost in the crowd and unable to gain recognition for their contributions (Latane, 1998). This description is characteristic of people driven by their uniqueness and individuality. In a group, they lose this individuality and the recognition that comes with their contributions. Therefore, these group members lose motivation to offer their full ability since it will not be acknowledged (Charbonnier et al., 1998). Additionally, large group sizes can cause individuals to feel lost in the crowd. With so many individuals contributing, some may feel that their efforts are not needed or will not be recognized (Kerr, 1989).
Lack of evaluation: Loafing begins or is strengthened in the absence of an individual evaluation structure imposed by the environment (Price & Harrison, 2006). This occurs because working in the group environment results in less self-awareness (Mullen, 1983). For example, a member of a sales team will loaf when sales of the group are measured rather than individual sales efforts.
Unequal distribution of compensation: In the workplace, compensation comes in monetary forms and promotions and in academics it is in the form of grades or positive feedback. If an individual believes compensation has not been allotted equally amongst group members, he will withdraw his individual efforts (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).
Non-cohesive group: A group functions effectively when members have bonded and created high-quality relationships. If the group is not cohesive, members are more prone to social loafing since they are not concerned about letting down their teammates (Piezon & Donaldson, 2005).
When we think about dysfunctional academic units, whether departments or committees, it’s usually because dynamics like this have built up historically and become self-reinforcing within the unit. For that matter, when I recall my least functional student groups, it’s usually because one or more members are so socially clueless that they alienate the others and make it difficult for everyone else to complete their tasks. It’s that kind of stress, the stress of having a colleague who cannot be trusted to accomplish what he or she has been assigned to do, that makes groupwork unpleasant for students and faculty alike. Of course, in the academy, we call our groupwork “service.”
So what to do?
In relation to university and departmental service, I’d second the Tenured Radical’s suggestion not to act like an utter and complete asshole. If you’re unlucky enough to be chairing a committee, or several committees, like I’m doing this semester, try to learn how to avoid wasting other people’s time, which would be my definition of bad leadership. I’m still struggling with that one myself.
When it comes to teaching people in groups more effectively, the most important lesson I took away from the Wikimedia articles was about the active role it demanded from the instructor: the instructor needs to establish ground rules, and to make the schedule, tasks, and assignments as clear as possible; to monitor group interactions for any bullying or loafing behavior; to keep up regular evaluations of both individual and group efforts and productions in a timely way; and to be ready to highlight positive contributions or to intervene in negative situations whenever appropriate.
Looking at this daunting list of tasks for instructors, I suspect that the negative reactions to groupwork in undergraduate classes come from students who are looking for instructors, rightly or wrongly, to intervene in situations that they themselves feel powerless to fix. If they cannot get the instructor’s attention, or cannot get the situation resolved to their satisfaction, then students may very well feel that their instructor has abandoned them. Only establishment of clear ground rules at the start, and then continual communication throughout the semester, will prevent those kinds of reactions.
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If you’re at university, you’ll almost certainly be made to work with your fellow students to complete a group assignment at some point during your course.
Some people get really enthusiastic about group assignments, while others view them with suspicion and dread. Usually what they fear most is the prospect of working with someone who’s hugely enthusiastic about group assignments.
The science of learning: five classic studies
But does collaboration benefit our learning? Or is a camel just a horse designed by committee? In other words, is group work actually less efficient and productive than an individual performing a task alone?
As is almost always the case when humans are involved, the truth varies. Assuming there are no particularly irksome or troublemaking individuals upsetting the group harmony, there are some ways working in groups can be helpful when it comes to learning, and other ways in which it may be more of an obstacle. So, here are the pros and cons of teamwork.
Humans are, by nature, incredibly social creatures. At a neurological level, we see ourselves as part of a group and worry about the judgment of others. The underlying drive to be part of a group, to be recognised and appreciated by its members, and to achieve high status among them can be a serious motivator when it comes to completing a task.
Some studies suggest that group assignments do indeed directly improve an individual’s ability to learn and perform. “Socially shared cognition” and “transactive memory” are some of the loftier terms used to describe groups working together on an intellectual task. It makes sense that information discussed and delivered by friends and colleagues will be more salient than the same information delivered in a dull lecture while you’re struggling to stay awake.
Individual performance can improve if each person is allowed to focus on what they’re good at
Division of labour
The idea may be fashionable, particularly in higher education, but there is no decent evidence to support the existence of “learning styles”. However, people do excel at different things, whether due to affinity, aptitude, motivation or some other reason.
In group tasks, individual performance can improve if each person is allowed to focus on what they’re good at (such as presentation, analysis, research, and so on). Interacting with others who know a specific area better than you can enhance your own grasp of it, if only because they can articulate it in a way that hadn’t occurred to you before.
When supervisors assign group tasks, they usually allocate the groups themselves, rather than leave this up to the students. This means you meet and work with new people in group assignments. For both introverts and extroverts, this can be a plus. Extroverts are likely to enjoy this anyway, while otherwise-reluctant introverts may benefit from this obligation to interact.
As well as learning new skills and knowledge, group assignments could help you make new friends. This is a pleasant experience, and basic associative learning means we are better able to learn things that are paired with a pleasant experiences. On a more complex, “human” level, things we’re emotionally engaged with tend to be more stimulating and thus easier to learn and recall.
There are some very clear drawbacks to group learning, however. And one of them is that the conclusions arrived at by groups can be a lot less cautious than those reached by people working alone.
If you don’t feel your contribution is noticed, why bother putting in the effort?
Countless studies have shown the effect of group polarisation, where group decisions tend to be more extreme than individual ones. The subconscious desire for group harmony, together with one-upmanship, can lead to more out-there conclusions than each person would agree to alone.
In group assignments, this can lead to wrong conclusions, which means everyone’s marks suffer.
Even if you think you’re a conscientious, hardworking type, you may still be prone to social loafing, the tendency for people to put in less effort when working on a task with a group than they would do if alone.
If you don’t feel your contribution is noticed, why bother putting in the effort? The feeling that others will pick up the slack can limit your own performance.
While working in groups may improve your understanding and knowledge, there’s no guarantee that this knowledge will be correct. Informational social influence is where the groups we’re part of impact on what we know – but this could easily be wrong.
What you already know is the key to learning new things
If everyone tells you peanuts are nuts and not legumes, you’re going to start questioning your own knowledge. If enough people in a group assignment arrive at a wrong conclusion, it could overwhelm your own correct one, which wouldn’t happen in an individual assignment.
The trivial matters
Have you ever been in a group where a ridiculous amount of time is spent on minor matters? Whose turn it is to supply the biscuits, what colour the background of the slides should be, and so on? This has been labelled Parkinson’s law of triviality, where groups spend far more time on easy-but-unimportant tasks than they do on important-but-complex ones.
The latter are challenging and daunting, and it’s harder to show authority or expertise (or even form an opinion) when discussing them. Hence it’s annoyingly common to spend hours debating something inconsequential, while the point of the assignment isn’t dealt with.
These are just some of the ways in which group assignments can impact on how we learn things, for better or worse. Obviously, it varies tremendously within different contexts, while modern developments, particularly technological ones, are changing things - hopefully for the better. (For example, social loafing is much harder to do in assignments based in online documents, where everyone’s individual contribution is tracked and monitored).
So, while it’s hard to say with certainty whether a specific group assignment will improve or hinder your learning, they probably are still worth doing. It’s rare to encounter an employer or institute that doesn’t emphasise “teamwork skills” these days, and in our increasingly interconnected society, learning how to be part of a group is something worth working on, regardless of the task itself.
Dean Burnett discusses how groups affect our thinking and more, in his book The Idiot Brain (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
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