Why do students hate groupwork?

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.



28 responses to “Why do students hate groupwork?

  1. *Do* students hate groupwork? According to the pedagogy gurus that my institution frequently brings in to advise faculty, the kids these days learn more effectively from each other and prefer, if at all possible, to do so. Based on the say-so of such gurus, I’ve experimented in my classes with the kind of group activities that I would have LOATHED myself as an undergraduate–and to my surprise found that they work better than I anticipate in getting the students engaged with the material. But you’re absolutely right: they require a great deal of planning, structure, and vigilance. My first time with any new group-work assignment, I invariably overestimate how self-directed the groups will be; the second time around I build in a lot more deadlines and make my expectations more explicit.

    One thing I’ve found makes the students more willing participants is a feedback mechanism by which they can tell me if other group members are pulling their weight–and I explicitly tell them that such information is a main point of the feedback mechanism. Even though they don’t end up using it a lot (what can I say? I have wonderful students!) the fact that it’s there seems to make them more willing to invest themselves in the assignment.

  2. Well, I generally get pretty good evaluations, but the one thing some students fix upon is the groupwork; some really do hate it, though I see so many benefits to it that I don’t intend to retreat from it. There’s no reason to overreact to comments like this, but for me this is a sign that I could be doing my end better.

    One mechanism I have is a personal statement that each student makes at the end of the semester listing her own contributions to the group. Though some students will overstate their roles, it’s usually pretty clear who’s doing the work and who isn’t.

    But I’ve had a few students lately who seem either unable or unwilling to perform at even a minimal level. It’s true that I’ve set up the course so that someone who’s genuinely working at a D-F range will screw up everyone else’s business. Once again, though, I’m unwilling to retreat from the groups, because that kind of stuff can usually get pulled up to more acceptable work, if they can stick it out. It’s just that I need to make sure that others are not getting penalized, or being forced to do more work because of their classmates’ cluelessness.


    • Having each student state his/her own contributions is a good idea. I’ve been in groups where I completed the entire thing because the other members did not contribute. The profs had us rate our partners. I always gave benign ratings or said, “I wish we could have done this better.” They always rated me as being a control freak and stealing their ideas, etc etc…something ridiculous. So I always looked like the bad guy.

  3. Ooops, I keep forgetting to sign out before I comment, so don’t be confused by my username. Diogenes1000 is Dave Mazella.

  4. Every semester, I dread the first group work day in each class, since (especially at Queens, where there’s no dorm culture and cooperation is a struggle) there’s always a teasing accusation that I’m “getting away with something” by assigning it. Somewhere, students have gotten the impression that group work is what teachers do when they don’t want to teach and don’t care about outcomes. I don’t mind a little ribbing from my students, but it’s also really important for that first group work day to do some metacognitive exercise at the end that shows them how much they achieved together.

    The truth is, I hate group work. It makes me anxious, as a student and an instructor. I hate spending an hour floating like a cloud around the room, listening in and keeping everyone on track. It’s a thousand times easier for me to lecture for 75 minutes than it is for me to develop purposeful group work assignments. But I do group work because it works.

    In my poetics class this semester, it was finally a group work day that got them to figure out what it means to do analysis. Every group came up with a specific analytical thesis about the function of rhyme with respect to meaning in Poe, and then they presented them to the class. There’s such an attitude of defeatism in a lot of undergrad English students about the possibility of saying something interesting and valuable, and giving them the chance to watch their classmates all doing college-level thinking about poetry was a big moment for them.

    Tomorrow, I’m being observed in my British Lit survey, and it’s our only group work day of the semester. It feels like a gamble, in a way, because there’s a part of me that will never trust group work, despite the fact that I’ve never seen it fail to produce more interesting dialogue than everyone-face-front class discussion.

    I was a such a terrible undergrad. The more I teach, the more obvious this becomes to me. Bad attitude.

  5. Carrie,

    If your teaching posts are any indication of what goes on in your classroom (and I think they are), then you are a careful and conscientious instructor. They’re lucky to have you, and I can say that because I’ve learned from you as well. Good luck tomorrow.


  6. I’m a student and I truly hate group work on projects. However, group projects done with people I know fairly well are good learning experiences. Group work is beneficial to students when everyone feels comfortable with all group members. I think instructors should offer the choice of individual or group work for all projects so that students can decide what works better for them at the time.

  7. dave mazella

    m, thanks for your student’s perspective on this.

    These are good points–students generally DO perform better in situations they can create and control.

    The problem is that in any particular class I teach, especially in a commuter school like mine, some percentage of the class will be familiar enough with one another to pick partners knowingly, while another segment will be coming in for the first time, and will be better off grouped impersonally by the prof.

    In a large, “churning” pool of English majors, either system of grouping, voluntary or involuntary, student- or prof-selected, penalizes some group of students.

    On the other hand, group work undoubtedly works better for the full range of students, and is more time-effective for faculty, than relying on individuals to sink or swim by themselves.

    That’s why faculty started developing these techniques, so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole of their classtime exclusively addressing the 3-4 students who are on their way to getting As anyway.

    So I suspect that group work is here to stay, though it will always be in tension with the individualism fostered by our grading system. Perhaps that individualism, which our grading system helps to reinforce, is part of the reason why students resent and resist the group-learning in the first place. Any thoughts?



  8. It’s not that students resent losing their individualism. Its that group projects seem to accomplish nothing but rewarding slackers and making people that actually work do even more work and having someone else get some credit for work they did.

    • Dave Mazella

      Hi VD, this link reaffirms much of what was said above, especially that unequal participation (or “social loafing”) is one of the biggest reasons why groups will fail. A good instructor will head this off by making sure that potential conflicts get resolved, and that individual contributions to the group by members get assessed along with the final collectively produced project. But a successful group can have a huge impact on how much its members learn.

      • This is so true–I have been in some groups where we really do help one another learn, and those have been wonderful. But rarely do they exist, and rarely does a professor go that extra step to see that individual contributions are assessed. And what if person A does an outstanding job but persons B and C do shoddy work? Person A still gets screwed in the end.

  9. As a student, I have to put in a word to teachers…
    If grouping works for your class (most likely a very cohesive and understanding), then I would say grouping works.
    If it doesn’t, they are not very agreeable with each other.

    Never ever put a student into a group with a solid clique, that is the WORST you can do.

    The loner (that’s how I put it in my situation), will be trampled upon and looked down as the insignificant other “person”. It is pretty much like an ornamental and visual figure (sometimes seen as a burden by most cliques, especially if it is in a single-sex school)

    They will DEFINITELY accuse the person of being irresponsive and therefore, “irresponsible” of the group’s well-being.
    It is usually because the group ceases EVERY single opportunity to AVOID contact.

    They pretend that the student is really just an ornament and an inanimate object.

    I am in a school that virtually everyone does not understand (tell m, how is it possible?)
    It is so irritating when this happens! Teachers, I don’t blame you as you guys are hopeless at this situation, it all rests on the students’ relationship with each other.

    What did I do to deserve this? I really have no clue. I harmed nobody and yet they dislike me for some reason. Are they jealous or sth?

    If I am acting high and mighty, it is probably because I have no one to talk to.
    Has that occurred to ANYONE?
    I am practically dying at the key board just thinking about it.

    Final line: It depends on class cohesiveness. If there is just one odd one out, I suggest that no group work is carried out. The class probably chose to ignore and isolate the person. So teachers, respect their wishes to isolate that person and let them be isolated too and know what it FEELS like.

  10. BlippityBleep


    I am a graduate design student and I stumbled upon this entry while searching for tips for working with groups. Specifically, I am wondering about how to handle situations where one person in the group needs to have things done exactly their way and refuses to compromise.

    On numerous occasions there has been one group member who will not be pacified until their own personal style is fully represented. When somebody else with different design tastes shows their ideas this other person will word salad the idea to death to the point where the rest of the group basically says ‘f*ck it, it’s not worth arguing for the rest of the day’ and basically fold. How do you deal with impossible people like this? If there were two people like this in a group then nothing would be accomplished.

    Standing your ground is important, but when the other person just throws words at you until you would rather just follow them to shut them up rather than listen to them any longer it becomes a volatile situation. Ultimately the design suffers since the other people in the group just stop caring and the stubborn group member in these situations is most likely not the best designer. Do you have any advice on how to work with this type of person?

    -B. Bleep

    • Well, with me, it all depends on how much the project is factored into my final grade and what else is going on in my life. Example: If I am working with SP (stubborn person) and the project is worth 5% of my grade and I could safely assume that the subpar project would recieve a B minus, I’d just roll with it. Let them do the work and use “group time” to do other assignments.

      If you and the other group members all agree that the stubborn person is a dumbass, just complete the project yourself with the good group members. SP will sit their and stomp his feet and so on, but that’s not your problem. Turn the work in with or without his name attached.

  11. Dear Blippity,

    Thanks for stopping by. There are some indirect and direct ways to ensure cooperation, but their effectiveness will depend on the personalities and interactions of the individuals involved.

    First of all, there should be a grade for their performance in the group, and the degree to which they assisted the group’s efforts. Let everyone know that either bullying or slacking will not be tolerated, and will be reflected in that grade. When giving feedback to a project in process, ask who’s doing what and if necessary make sure that all members are listening to one another’s ideas. Be sure that everyone is honest in assessing their own and others’ contributions, and make it clear that their grade is based on the degree that they are able to collaborate effectively. A self-assessment essay at the end of term sometimes help ferret out this information.

    Be aware that at times you will need to step in and intervene if unproductive dynamics happen, and sometimes you will simply have to separate out and reassign an obstreperous member. I usually form people in groups of three for just this reason.

    Take a look at the links, and good luck. Let us know what has worked for you.



  12. BlippityBleep

    Dear DM,

    I believe your suggestion about a grading system that includes questions about how well members listen to each other would solve the dilemma. I may run the idea by some of the faculty for future group work. Thank you!

    -B. Bleep

  13. Glad it helped. Good luck, DM

  14. As a student preparing to graduate in a few days, I can assure you that group work in college isn’t effective. Group discussion is effective in that it allows students to engage and exchange ideas. Low stakes group assignments can be valuable as well.

    However, there are lots of problems with high stakes group work. The main problem with the whole “we’re preparing you for the real working world” argument is in trying to parallel the real world with college. It’s apples and oranges. In the corporate world (I know I’ve worked in it for more than a few years) we get paid to do a job. That is huge motivation to perform. Even at that, people who can’t or won’t perform are culled from the group one way or another. Even though there is collaboration going on, you are still absolutely stand or fall on the merits of your own work.

    In college, a good chunk of people just pay their tuition and want to skate by with the minimum amount of effort necessary to graduate with that piece of paper. That means that a couple of people do the work to the best of their ability and a few don’t do much and get carried through. That really doesn’t happen in the real world. People like that get fired before too long.

    Then there’s the problem of intellectual property. I’ve had a teacher that forced us to work in groups that were based on 4 people writing separate papers about the same book. These were papers that we were graded on separately. We were all supposed to come together and share our research and ideas. Sounds all lovey dovey doesn’t it. Well guess what. Since people were reading the same book, they came up with really similar ideas and interpretations based on the text. That caused a lot of drama with people making claims that their intellectual property had been stolen by their group mates. It truly was the worst instance of group work idiocy I’ve ever seen in my academic career.

    We don’t have group tests, group GPAs, or group interviews – so please don’t force your students into high stakes group work. The best thing you can do for your college students is to encourage them to stand or fall on the merits of their own work. That is the best skill they can take with them into the real world.

  15. Dave Mazella

    Hi Astrid,

    Sorry to hear that the group work you experienced in college was not particularly helpful. As you’ll see from this thread, group work is simply a pedagogical strategy whose success depends very much on the ability of instructors to structure it properly, and on the willingness of students to work productively within those structures. What you’re pointing out is that, just as groups contain individuals with varying degrees of abilities, they also contain individuals with different levels of motivation, too.

    That is where students need to be assessed individually as well as collectively, since their group work is only one piece of their overall performance. But I would say that all the examples you’ve given of uncooperative behavior also represent examples of unreceptive behavior unsuited to learning. The key is to ensure that such behavior doesn’t spill over and affect the performance or grades of those who are trying to learn.

    I think that groups work best when there is a definite product that everyone contributes to, or a public presentation that everyone participates in. That is where the analogy (admittedly, only an analogy) between work place and school space operates best: in the work place, your track record, your products and your self- or group-presentations are the contexts within which you are evaluated. There is no equivalent to a GPA, that I can imagine.

  16. Hi Dave,

    I see what you’re saying, but I would add that I think that student centered pedagogy is important. Pedagogy that considers student preferences and that allows them input into their own education has been proven to be most effective means to encourage learning.
    I think that if instructors took a survey of their students learning preferences, high-stakes group work wouldn’t rate favorably. My personal experience bears this out in that I have never known anyone that likes high-stakes group work or that feels that they benefit from it. Many people just don’t learn optimally that way.
    By the time students are seniors in college, we’ve experienced a vast array of pedagogical approaches to group work, and yet any announcement of a high-stakes group project is met with a collective sigh of frustration.
    My observation is that students enjoy and value group discussion and low stakes group assignments, but do not enjoy or benefit from high-stakes group work.
    The university culture of competitive entrance exams, rating people’s performance with grades and GPAs, and of rewarding high performers with honor rolls and dean’s lists inherently fosters an environment conducive to individual work. I think that’s part of the reason why the growing emphasis on group work is so frustrating for students. We are being bombarded with mixed messages.
    I think that if professors see that their students “hate group work”, maybe they should ask them why and offer the option of individual work. It’s unfair to force group work on people who don’t learn optimally that way. I’ve seen lip service done to student-centered pedagogy at the university level, but have only rarely seen it implemented.

    • Dave Mazella

      Hi Astrid,

      I think it’s worth remembering that there is a very extensive, very solid body of research about the value of “collaborative learning,” largely because of its ability to overcome the disparities in motivation that inevitably occur in any classroom environment, as well as its ability to exploit the social dimensions of learning, which are as important for college students as for second graders. The individualist view of student performance is important, but partial. Though assessment inevitably takes place at an individual level (ultimate grades are assigned to individuals), much of the learning in any course takes place in individuals’ interactions with one another, even if the only two individuals are student and teacher.

      It’s for this reason that collaborative learning been treated as a “best practice” or “high impact” practice ever since the days of the Boyer Commission, though I think it demands considerable thought to be integrated effectively into one’s classroom, so that there are safeguards against counterproductive behavior like inter-group conflicts, social loafing, and so forth.

      In general, the more effectively the instructor explains the rationale, and then provides the necessary feedback to counteract anti-social behavior, the happier students are with this aspect of the course. I’m not sure what you mean by “high stakes” group work, except that group work needs to be graded to be taken seriously, but my take in general is that students are better served with smaller, more frequent, and therefore lower-stakes assignments than the other way around. But this issue is distinct from the question of group work.

      I invite you to look at some of this literature. In terms of following students’ preferences, I like to announce at the beginning of my classes that there is an emphasis on group work (though group work represents only a portion of their grade), so that those who completely hate it can opt out and take another course. In general, they do not feel this way by the end of the semester. And even a single student’s tutorial will operate to some degree outside her preferences: there is the content to be covered, and the need for that student’s work to be assessed. But I have seen the benefits of teaching this way for over a decade, and in my experience they far outweigh the potential problems.


      [some of these comments reedited for the sake of clarity–DM]

  17. I know “high stakes” is a subjective term, but I would consider any group work that substantially affects my grade to be high stakes. What is substantially? I personally would consider anything that comprises 10% or more of my grade to be substantial. But that could be a question to pose to students.
    I’m aware of plenty of pedagogical theory that elevates collaborative learning. I’m a fan of some of Berlin’s work. I think that he makes some valid points. I think that collaborative learning is definitely useful in terms of group discussion and activities. But I still think that it is unfair to have a substantial portion of student’s individual grades rest on the performance of other people. The collective approach just doesn’t work in our highly individualistic societal and educational culture. I think that the collective, collaborative learning approach would be more appropriate in an environment like UC Santa Cruz that doesn’t evaluate based on letter grades.
    Also, in the current era of higher education funding cuts (at least in my state anyway) that are causing a severe reduction in the number of classes offered, I think announcing at the beginning of the semester that there will be a group work focus and telling students if they don’t like it they can take a hike isn’t really fair. Our options may be limited to that one class, or if we have other options, those professors might very well have a similar policy.
    Ultimately I think that Freire was right in suggesting that students instinctively know which learning methods best suit them, and that students should have input into their own education. I just think that it would be nice if professors would survey their students to actually determine how well their pedagogical theories work in reality. If more university professors would do that, I think that a massive rethink of the efficacy of high stakes group work would happen in academia.

  18. Also, there are alternative ideas. Collaborative pedagogy is an interesting idea, but it isn’t gospel and it isn’t indisputable. There are plenty of people in academia that challenge it. For example, Michael Delucchi from the University of Hawaii did a 2003 study on the efficacy of collaborative learning. The results raise doubts about the effectiveness of collaborative learning pedagogy.
    His article about the study is titled “Collaborative Learning or Free Riders Fantasy? The Impact of Group Projects on Exam Performance in Social Statistics”

  19. I don’t understand the actual value in group assignments.

    My biggest stresses at Uni are group assignments. I can handle mind-bending exams, atrocious student accommodation and living conditions, the almost slave driving paid work to achieve the most minimal level of survival.

    What I can’t handle is despite how much effort you put in, not matter how hard you try, there’s ALWAYS a problem with group assignments.

    Non-contributing members.

    Non-existant members (“Oh hey you guys finished that 5000 word essay? Great, can you tag me on the bottom please?”)

    Domineering turd jockeys who insist on doing things a particular way.

    Passive, non-involved rock faces who read out text straight from a textbook in their group presentation.

    Narcissistic immature dick socks who believe those graced by their presence are spiritually enlightened.

    Honestly, it’s starting to take it’s toll on me. Everytime I hear the mention of “group assignment” I shudder in revulsion.

    What’s the actual value in group assignments? Because if there is any, I’m having an extraordinarily hard time seeing it.

    • Dave Mazella

      Hi Lucas,

      As you can see, this is one of the longest-running threads on the Long 18th, mostly because people find this blog by running a Google search for “I hate group work.”

      First of all, if you are interested in the value of group work from the perspective of the empirical research, you’ll find a good guide in Prof. Barbara Davis’s online guide to Collaborative Learning, taken from her Tools for Teaching book (1993), which is now a standard resource on the topic. The purpose of this chapter was to ensure that teachers understand the purposes of group teaching, and set it up in a more productive way.

      What I’ve found is that many teachers want to do groupwork in their courses without quite knowing how to set up both the groups and the individual assessments that ensure that everyone contributes as equally as possible. There’s debate about this, but certainly group-work demands that teachers assign concrete tasks to groups, follow up to make sure there’s no freeloading or acting out, and then allow students to self-assess or even assess one another. One colleague told me that she’s allowed students to “fire” uncooperative members. Certainly individuals need to be assessed according to the work they contribute, with consequences for what they do or do not do.

      If you’re in a class without these kinds of structures, the only way to deal with this is to alert your prof about what’s happening and request that she intervene regarding this or that student. Potentially you could ask what kinds of impact cooperation or noncooperation would have on their grade; and suggest that if group work is important enough to be included in a class, then it deserves consideration as part of the final grade.

      Good luck,


  20. I like pairing up with control freaks when I’m too busy to work on a project. I just sit and say, “yes, yes, yes” and let them believe I’m contributing.

    • I realize that this is freeloading…but sometimes you just can’t win when you’re stuck in a group with a control freak. Always make sure to ask, “How can I contribute?” They will assign you a nominal task to do but then complete it themselves. Sometimes they’ll complain that you didn’t contribute, but at least you can cover your butt by “trying” to contribute.

      Seriously though, collaborative learning is nice in theory but doesn’t work in reality. Our profs tell us that in the real world, we need to work well with others. BUT in the real world, I would not choose to do research with people who believe that cutting and pasting an entire website into a Word document constitutes “research.” Nor would I choose to do research with someone who takes over projects and then complains about it (the martyr complex).