What Group Assignments Taught Me

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.

Motivation

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.

Performance

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.

New friends

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.

Group polarisation

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.

Social loafing

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.

Informational influence

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.

Get involved with the Use your head series by joining the discussion on #useyourhead or pitching your ideas to natalie.gil.casual@theguardian.com

What are the challenges of group work and how can I address them?

Unfortunately, groups can easily end up being less, rather than more, than the sum of their parts. Why is this?

In this section, we consider the hazards of group projects and strategies instructors can use to avoid or mitigate them. Find other strategies and examples here or contact the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence for help.

For students, common challenges of group work include:

  • Coordination costs
  • Motivation costs
  • Intellectual costs

For instructors, common challenges involve:

  • Allocating time
  • Teaching process skills
  • Assessing process as well as product
  • Assessing individual as well as group learning

Challenges for students

Coordination costs represent time and energy that group work consumes that individual work does not, including the time it takes to coordinate schedules, arrange meetings, meet, correspond, make decisions collectively, integrate the contributions of group members, etc. The time spent on each of these tasks may not be great, but together they are significant.

Coordination costs can’t be eliminated, nor should they be: after all, coordinating the efforts of multiple team members is an important skill. However, if coordination costs are excessive or are not factored into the structure of group assignments, groups tend to miss deadlines, their work is poorly integrated, motivation suffers, and creativity declines.

Instructors should note that coordination costs increase with:

  • Group size: The more people in the group, the more schedules to accommodate, parts to delegate, opinions to consider, pieces to integrate, etc. Smaller groups have lower coordination costs.
  • Task interdependence: Tasks in which group members are highly reliant on one another at all stages tend to have higher coordination costs than tasks that allow students to “divide and conquer”, though they may not satisfy the same collaborative goals.
  • Heterogeneity: Heterogeneity of group members tends to raises coordination costs, especially if there are language issues to contend with, cultural differences to bridge, and disparate skills to integrate. However, since diversity of perspectives is one of the principle advantages of groups, this should not necessarily be avoided.

Strategies: To help reduce or mitigate coordination costs:

  1. Keep groups small.
  2. Designate some class time for group meetings.
  3. Use group resumes or skills inventories to help teams delegate subtasks.
  4. Assign roles (e.g., group leader, scheduler) or encourage students to do so.
  5. Point students to digital tools that facilitate remote and/or asynchronous meetings.
  6. Warn students about time-consuming stages and tasks.
  7. Actively build communication and conflict resolution skills.
  8. Designate time in the project schedule for the group to integrate parts.

Motivation costs refers to the adverse effect on student motivation of working in groups, which often involves one or more of these phenomena:

  • Free riding occurs when one or more group members leave most or all of the work to a few, more diligent, members. Free riding – if not addressed proactively – tends to erode the long-term motivation of hard-working students.
  • Social loafing describes the tendency of group members to exert less effort than they can or should because of the reduced sense of accountability (think of how many people don’t bother to vote, figuring that someone else will do it.) Social loafing lowers group productivity.
  • Conflict within groups can erode morale and cause members to withdraw. It can be subtle or pronounced, and can (but isn’t always) the cause and result of free riding. Conflict – if not effectively addressed – can leave group members with a deeply jaundiced view of teams.

Strategies: To address both preexisting and potential motivation problems:

  1. Explain why working in groups is worth the frustration.
  2. Establish clear expectations for group members, by setting ground rules and/or using team contracts.
  3. Increase individual accountability by combining group assessments with individual assessments. 
  4. Teach conflict-resolution skills and reinforce them by role-playing responses to hypothetical team conflict scenarios. 
  5. Assess group processes via periodic process reports, self-evaluations, and peer evaluations.

Intellectual costs refer to characteristics of group behavior that can reduce creativity and productivity. These include:

  • Groupthink: the tendency of groups to conform to a perceived majority view. 
  • Escalation of commitment: the tendency of groups to become more committed to their plans and strategies – even ineffective ones – over time. 
  • Transparency illusion: the tendency of group members to believe their thoughts, attitudes and reasons are more obvious to others than is actually the case.
  • Common information effect: the tendency of groups to focus on information all members share and ignore unique information, however relevant.

Strategies: To reduce intellectual costs and increase the creativity and productivity of groups:

  1. Precede group brainstorming with a period of individual brainstorming (sometimes called “nominal group technique”). This forestalls groupthink and helps the group generate and consider more different ideas.
  2. Encourage group members to reflect on and highlight their contributions in periodic self-evaluations. 
  3. Create structured opportunities at the halfway point of projects to allow students to reevaluate and revise their strategies and approaches.
  4. Assign roles to group members that reduce conformity and push the group intellectually (devil’s advocate, doubter, the Fool).

Challenges for instructors

While group assignments have benefits for instructors, they also have complexities that instructors should consider carefully, for example in these areas:

Allocating time: While group assignments may save instructors time in some areas (e.g., grading final projects), they may add time in other areas (e.g., time needed up front to identify appropriate project topics, contact external clients, compose student groups; time during the semester to meet with and monitor student groups; time at the end of the semester to ascertain the contributions of individual team members.)

Teaching process skills: Functioning effectively in teams requires students to develop strong communication, coordination, and conflict resolution skills, which not all instructors feel qualified to teach. Many instructors are also reluctant to devote class time to reinforcing these skills and may be uncomfortable dealing with the interpersonal issues that can arise in groups. In other words, dealing proactively with team dynamics may push some instructors out of their comfort zone.

Assessing process as well as product: Assessing teamwork skills and group dynamics (i.e., process) can be far trickier than assessing a team’s work (i.e., product). Effective evaluation of process requires thoughtful consideration of learning objectives and a combination of assessment approaches. This creates layers of complexity that instructors may not anticipate.

Assessing individual as well as group learning: Group grades can hide significant differences in learning, yet teasing out which team members did and did not contribute to the group or learn the lessons of the assignment can be difficult. Once again, this adds complexity to group projects that instructors often underestimate. 

Find effective strategies to help faculty address these issues in the design of effective group projects.

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