When is somebody going to tell teachers that group projects are not such a great idea?
Don’t get me wrong, there’s value in learning to construct ideas and make them a reality together, the whole “two heads are better than one” mantra. But how many of us really enjoy being held responsible for any head but our own?
Returning from fall break, several of my friends have lamented how their group projects are struggling with forward motion. A few days before the project was due, three members of one friend’s group dropped the class, leaving my friend scrambling to finish the project himself. Last Tuesday, my roommate had to drive to campus at 11 p.m. for a group meeting, because one member flat-out refused to meet before their 9:00 a.m. class the following morning (“I can’t get up that early,” was the excuse).
Most groups are easy to summarize: One person takes the lead; one follows whole-heartedly; one person objects to everything (but offers no solutions). and the last two or three remain silent and do nothing but put their name on the final product. No matter what role you played in the project, if your group was anything like what I just described, I’ll bet you weren’t happy with the result. You either felt like you contributed too much or not at all, you either hated the product entirely or knew it could have been better if only this or that, and you realize ultimately that you would’ve turned in something you were proud of if you’d had the option to work individually.
I struggle to think of a group project I participated in that didn’t end this way. This is partially because I’m a socially awkward English major. My classes require long hours spent cranking out papers or reading in solitude. The occasional group project or report is a huge mental shift that, I’ll admit, I can’t always manage gracefully.
But regardless of major or social aptitude, a dislike of group work is common in America. A recent poll from the Graduate Management Admission Council found that, while a quarter of MBA students in the Middle East and Africa favor group work above all other kinds of learning, a mere 13 percent of Americans would agree. In a country that values individual expression, it makes sense that we American students would rather not share our successes with others – or be dragged down by someone else’s failure. Of course, our stubborn preference for originality won’t change the fact that employers, especially businesses, value workers who play well with others. As much as I hate to admit it, teachers have their reasons for assigning group projects. They’re not going anywhere.
The Washington Post recently published a teacher’s list of realizations after shadowing two students for two days. After 14-years of teaching, she never realized how difficult it can be to just sit and pay attention to lecture. What else have teachers not realized? I don’t think they fully understand the amount of stress and suckitude that goes into group projects – especially in ACE courses. Because unlike in the working world, where you’re getting paid to work through disagreements and make something spectacular, and unlike a course that’s critical to your degree, most people in an ACE course just don’t care. No matter what the project is, working in a group is difficult for a number of reasons, and they become exponentially harder than needed when there’s even one member of the group who doesn’t care. Most kids who take an ACE course are there because they have to be, not because they want to be.
I’m not saying that professors should restrict their teaching methods to lecture and individual response. But there are some serious problems with group work teachers seem to disregard. An associate professor at Wabash College received from her Chemistry students a list of reasons why they objected to her assigned group project, including “We’re trying to work on material we didn’t understand in the reading” and “Getting in a group only compounds the confusion.” I’m currently in one course where I dread small group discussion because we don’t actually talk about the reading like our teacher thinks – it’s one or two of us trying to explain to the rest of the group what actually happened. I find most of the students are too embarrassed to admit their confusion to the teacher or even to each other, and we sit in awkward silence instead of sharing ideas and perceptions. It’s painful.
The small group assignment or discussion should not be so common – especially in courses that aren’t major specific. Teachers should instead encourage open class discussion where we dig into what’s confusing us while we still have at least one person who “gets it.” As students, we need to be more vocal about what we’re confused about, and what we’re intrigued by. From there, we can find others who are excited about the same line of thinking and explore it further together. When the answer actually matters, real learning can take root. Maybe if we can get to a place where we actually care, group work won’t suck as much.
Annie Stokely brings books to social functions. Follow her on Twitter @Anna_Bee_94. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org