Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.


13 responses to “Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

  1. I agree that collaboration is a learned skill. Also, we run up against individual students’ tendency to finish work at the last minute. That falls horribly apart when you have three or four procrastinators all trying to finish their individual elements at the last moment with no time to integrate them thoughtfully!

  2. Kathryn Temple

    It might be helpful to devote some class time to group work, especially for those of us who work in “non-traditional” environments where students have little time to meet outside of class. On the other hand, I’ve found that the success of group work has something to do with the maturity of the students. My undergraduates at Georgetown don’t do well with group work, while the severely injured vets I worked with last semester (who had very little opportunity to work together outside of class) dealt with it admirably.

    • Laura Rosenthal

      Very interesting. I wonder if it’s possible that as vets they had some training in collaboration and that age might not be the only factor.

  3. Dave Mazella

    Laura, thanks for the kind words about my groupwork post, which I’ve wanted to revisit for some time. I do hope that Roksa’s takeaway was not abandoning groupwork altogether (I suppose study groups represent a special case anyway), but improving the practice and making it more consistently effective.

    I think most of the student complaints I’ve seen come from poorly designed assignments and activities. Addressing the causes, however, is not that big or complicated a problem, once you’ve understood the pedagogical principles behind groupwork and active learning (e.g., provide explicit guidance and structures for group assignments; monitor groups for social loafing; assess students for individual as well as group efforts; make sure that groupwork aligns with your overall course objectives, and so forth). The post and subsequent discussions do review those basics pretty well.

    Another issue is that active learning, even if planned and conducted effectively, demands levels of engagement that some students will balk at and protest, sometimes loudly. I’ve long felt that younger, less mature students have the most problems and the most angst with groupwork simply because they are still operating on “high school rules,” (or other disciplines’ sloppy, lecture-based pedagogy) rather than the expectations for a good humanities student. However, these are also the students with the most to gain from this approach. So I make it an explicit, graded requirement of the course, which most meet and a few do not. But every semester I see that the deepest, most substantial learning takes place among those who take their groupwork seriously and use the class to learn from others and help others learn.

    Finally, I completely agree that appropriate forms of collaboration need to be taught for those to work. On this topic, my UH colleague Jami Kovach passed along a nice article from the Business Communication Quarterly that describes how this can be set up. If I can’t put the link onto the comment, I’ll put it into a post, for anyone who’s interested.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    I don’t think the takeaway was to abandon groupwork. To me, it was (1) not to conflate responsible groupwork with student study groups and (2) that groupwork needs very careful structuring and that participants do not necessarily know how to do it successfully without guidance. The kind of groupwork they studied in “Academically Adrift” was informal student gatherings, but she also warned that you have to do more than tell students to “go collaborate.” Finally, there was a bit of discussion about continuing to value individual studying. I am still thinking about this, and also about what we are calling “collaboration” and what we are calling “individual.” For example, I always require my students to contribute to a blog, both posting and responding. In one sense this is collaborative–ideally, they are thinking together about the material. Still, success at this assignment also relies on (and develops) individual capacities for reading, writing, and thinking.
    PS: the link worked, but the article is not available through it without a subscription.

  5. 1 and 2 both make a lot of sense to me, especially now that I’ve seen a wide range of attempts at it in various disciplines. I also agree with your point about individual studying feeding into collaboration, and vice versa. Where does individual effort end and the collaboration begin?

    My experience (as both a collaborating scholar and a teacher) is that successful collaborations will pull more out of individuals than they would usually do on their own. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to promote learning.

    [If anyone is interested in the Snyder and can’t access immediately, let me know and I can pass it along]

  6. Thanks for your comments. Everytime one of my professors talks about “group work” I GROAN. I really love my interaction with my fellow students, but only on a social basis. For the most part, they have no sense of obligation to others on an academic basis ( if its a social event … they’re there) . Most have never held a serious job with commitments. I’ve been involved with several group projects that would have been “A” level work except for “last minute or “no show” work by others. I always see them as a dead albatross hung about my neck. I profess, I’m pretty much of a self driven individual (no bragg … just fact) and group work is my personal nightmare as far as academia is concerned. When i was in high school many years ago; my instructor and I got a bit side ways because I was such a “laggard” and she told me “the only way to improve a man was to start with his grandmother” — it took years for me to understand what she had said to me. Course, the Vietnam war straightened me out a bit! Ok .. I’ll get off my horse now. Have a greatdae!! G

    • Laura Rosenthal

      Thanks for your comments! It sounds like maybe there wasn’t enough structure in these assignments.

  7. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins

    Collaboration “as a learning outcome goal in itself” is something our department recently included in its 5-year-plan brainstorming session. It’s something I’m interested in thinking about largely because I have no clear ideas about it already. For a while now, I have made efforts to acknowledge and engage the collaborative aspects of what many would consider “independent” scholarly work — specifically the conversations, in person and in print, that situate and generate every idea that takes shape in “private” thought and writing. I try to emphasize this in the classroom by crafting assignments (usually not group work) that ask students to consider how, say, a paper topic emerges out of the collective thinking we have been doing in class. But, personally, I’ve never co-authored a paper or anything like that, and I’m a bit wary of committing to a departmental vision of (for example) encouraging grad students and their supervisors to present more co-authored work to show a commitment to collaborative practices, without understanding what co-authorship is or aims to do (especially as a mode or measure of professional development). (Maybe this is an assessment issue; as far as I’m concerned, the best graduate supervision IS a form of professional collaboration, but we assess the outcome of these processes as if they reflect the individual achievements of, first, students, and second, maybe, their supervisors.)

    • Hi Gena,

      A few thoughts. I don’t think you have to treat collaboration as an entirely new topic for you to think through on your own. It may seem relatively new to Humanities scholars, but other disciplines have long embraced it for their research and pedagogy, largely because, IMHO, it’s the best way to approach complex, longstanding, multidimensional research problems. On the pedagogical side, there’s a lot of research that talks about it as a “high impact practice” that helps students learn by watching others learn, giving them additional practice, and by explaining things to their peers. A lot of suggestions for implementing it responsibly can be found in a good, accessible book like McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. (This online excerpt of Barbara Davis’s book is also very helpful.)

      Research paradigms, especially those tied to consequential academic decisions like P&T or merit raises, are in some sense higher stakes for us, which is why Profession devoted its latest, excellent issue to accommodating Digital Humanities to existing evaluation procedures (cf., among other discussions, EMOB’s discussion). Nonetheless, the importance of collaboration to DH, its strong emphasis upon process over product, and its alternative forms of dissemination challenge conventional, monograph-based practices of peer evaluation and the assumptions grounding them, as Stanley Fish argued today, in fact.

      In some respects, collaboration is a threshold concept for faculty as well as students: it creates anxiety, but also forces a broader, more integrative view of how one’s work relates to others in the same group/community/department. I don’t know how curricula can be created, implemented, or modified in its absence. It does demand more engagement at the department level, but the alternative is a department of unrelated, entrepeneurial research efforts that could be expanded or cut at will. But it does demand mutual trust and transparency on all sides, and an investment of time in substantive deliberation about what the “public good” would look like in a particular academic setting.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    I guess I’m going to take the position here that students are well-served in developing both kinds of skills. The crucial point to me about collaboration is that it doesn’t come “naturally,” and that if we expect it we have to figure out how to teach it. Gena, you seem to be talking about your graduate program, which I think is a little trickier. Ultimately, faculty collaboration is crucial to the success, I think, of any institution, which is part of the appeal to me of learning outcomes assessment. It has to be collaborative to have any meaning. Graduate students would benefit from learning collaboration skills. But I think you’re right that at least in the current climate, you wouldn’t be putting graduate students in a good position by encouraging them to do co-authored projects or group projects unless they also write a traditional-type dissertation. Most of the digital humanists I know established their credentials by writing or editing books, although they often do other things as well and sometimes those books are available digitally and benefit from digital communities. The graduate students I know of in my department in digital humanities are all working on regular single-authored dissertations (although again they might be doing other things as well and might find inspiration in communities, but as Gena points out this is central to many kinds of scholars). But I do know of one person who was promoted to Full on a web edition, so maybe there are more cases like that out there that I don’t know about.

  9. I am a student who cannot stand group work. Part of the difficulty is that I find everyone has different times when they like to work and that people work at different paces. I don’t mind group work that takes place in the classroom, but if we are required to meet outside of class, it’s very hard. Also, I have been in groups where ideas keep changing and I find myself having to do parts of the project over and over again. I think that for group work to be a successful growth experience, it should take place in the classroom with the teacher walking around to the different groups to make sure things are moving along and offering support. Also, some thought should go into who is in which group. Generally though, for homework and papers, I prefer working at my own pace and using my own ideas.

  10. @A Student: My own experience is that groupwork outside of class is certainly more difficult when students work or operate on different schedules; for that reason, I have students commit to timebands outside class meetings that then become their group’s default meeting time. I also provide in-class time for groups to do logistical and organizational tasks. This reduces the potential for conflict. As for selecting members, I will remove or reassign dysfunctional members of groups if necessary, though this happens rarely now that students know they are being graded on their contributions to a group. But as my original post indicated, there are times when a group falls into conflict or faces an uncooperative member, and my job is to make sure it doesn’t hinder others’ learning.

    As for your final point, I understand your desire to work at your own pace and use your own ideas, but what employers tell us over and over again is that they are looking for people who can work well with others. How might we prepare students better for that reality in the workplace?