What are the benefits of group work?
“More hands make for lighter work.” “Two heads are better than one.” “The more the merrier.”
These adages speak to the potential groups have to be more productive, creative, and motivated than individuals on their own.
Benefits for students
Group projects can help students develop a host of skills that are increasingly important in the professional world (Caruso & Woolley, 2008; Mannix & Neale, 2005). Positive group experiences, moreover, have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success (Astin, 1997; Tinto, 1998; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006).
Properly structured, group projects can reinforce skills that are relevant to both group and individual work, including the ability to:
- Break complex tasks into parts and steps
- Plan and manage time
- Refine understanding through discussion and explanation
- Give and receive feedback on performance
- Challenge assumptions
- Develop stronger communication skills.
Group projects can also help students develop skills specific to collaborative efforts, allowing students to...
- Tackle more complex problems than they could on their own.
- Delegate roles and responsibilities.
- Share diverse perspectives.
- Pool knowledge and skills.
- Hold one another (and be held) accountable.
- Receive social support and encouragement to take risks.
- Develop new approaches to resolving differences.
- Establish a shared identity with other group members.
- Find effective peers to emulate.
- Develop their own voice and perspectives in relation to peers.
While the potential learning benefits of group work are significant, simply assigning group work is no guarantee that these goals will be achieved. In fact, group projects can – and often do – backfire badly when they are not designed, supervised, and assessed in a way that promotes meaningful teamwork and deep collaboration.
Benefits for instructors
Faculty can often assign more complex, authentic problems to groups of students than they could to individuals. Group work also introduces more unpredictability in teaching, since groups may approach tasks and solve problems in novel, interesting ways. This can be refreshing for instructors. Additionally, group assignments can be useful when there are a limited number of viable project topics to distribute among students. And they can reduce the number of final products instructors have to grade.
Whatever the benefits in terms of teaching, instructors should take care only to assign as group work tasks that truly fulfill the learning objectives of the course and lend themselves to collaboration. Instructors should also be aware that group projects can add work for faculty at different points in the semester and introduce its own grading complexities.
Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Caruso, H.M., & Wooley, A.W. (2008). Harnessing the power of emergent interdependence to promote diverse team collaboration. Diversity and Groups. 11, 245-266.
Mannix, E., & Neale, M.A. (2005). What differences make a difference? The promise and reality of diverse teams in organizations. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(2), 31-55.
National Survey of Student Engagement Report. (2006). http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2006_Annual_Report/docs/NSSE_2006_Annual_Report.pdf.
Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Group assignments are the worst. Give me a ten-paper paper to write, a test to study for—anything other than a group assignment. Please.
As a college student, you’re going to be assigned group projects, and probably at least a dozen of them throughout your whole academic career.
I understand the logic behind these group assignments, I do: out in the real world, when you’re working your real job, you’re going to be tasked with projects that’ll require you to work collaboratively with other people. It’s a huge part of the modern working world, and college tries to prepare you for that.
But in college, you’ll come across many students who don’t care about their grades or that class they’re only taking to fulfill a general-education requirement or your own personal goal of getting into graduate school. In a world of procrastination, laziness, and conflicting schedules, how in the heck do you survive group assignments?
I know that I myself usually end up being that one person who does all the work because the others are slacking—and it’s frustrating and stressful and, quite frankly, unfair. What choices do you have when your group mates are being unresponsive and uncooperative and you just want to get a good grade?
Here’s some advice on how to handle group projects from a seasoned group member:
Define tasks & set up deadlines. The very first thing you should do when you meet with your group is to come up with a list of tasks and divide them up evenly amongst the group members.
This will ensure that each member is responsible for contributing something concrete to the group’s assignment, as oftentimes problems arise when multiple people are tasked with completing one scarily large goal (which lets members believe that it’s someone else’s responsibility, not their own).
Setting deadlines—especially quick deadlines (e.g., weekly), as to ward off procrastination—will also aide in getting tasks completed on time so that the group can remain on track.
Meet in Person. In today’s world of text messaging, email, and Facebook, it is tempting to try to complete an entire group assignment via Google docs.
However, meeting in person will put greater responsibility on all members—they will have to show up to the meeting, they will have to dedicate time to this project, they will have to prove that they’ve been contributing to the overall work load. It’s much easier and much more tempting to slack off when you don’t have to meet with your group members face-to-face.
Be firm. Nobody likes to be the bad guy, which of course is how you feel you come off when you nudge or pester your group to stay on track. But it has to be done.
Be friendly but firm when reminding group members of upcoming deadlines, and if somebody in your group is slacking, talk to them directly. It helps nobody if you sit around and brood over the fact that your group members aren’t pulling their own weight. Never do their work for them without talking to them first.
Evaluate your teammates fairly. Oftentimes at the completion of the assignment, a professor will ask that you evaluate your group mates in terms of how much they contributed to the overall project.
Be honest and fair in your evaluation, whether you were the person who put forth the most effort or the least. The members who slacked obviously deserve lower grades than the members who put forth the effort, but your professor won’t know this unless your evaluation is accurate.
If the professor doesn’t ask for a group evaluation yet you feel that your group should have one, you should meet with your professor outside of class to discuss. It is also a good idea to give feedback to your professor in terms of how well the assignment lent itself to a group-project format.
Group projects are all about teamwork. If you’re putting forth your best effort, it’s fair to expect your group mates to do so as well.
In college, unfortunately, these types of projects don’t always go over smoothly—and it shouldn’t be that one or two people are doing all the work, while the rest receive the credit. If you’ve always dreaded group assignments before, hopefully these tips can help you out the next time you’re faced with collaboration-by-force.
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