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.