Why I assign the group work that I hated as a student

Photo: Group presentation, by LBB Jauno speciālistu sekcija via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I was an undergraduate, I hated group work.  As a professor, I assign it. Hypocrisy? Cognitive dissonance?  Cruelty?  Well, I don’t think so.

I hated group work for two reasons.  First, I had high grades and was unhealthily obsessed with them – and I reasoned on statistical grounds that because the average student got lower grades than I did, a group project was likely to bring my grade down.  Second, I was (and am) an introvert who much preferred solo work to the discussion and negotiation needed for group work.

My first objection (grades) to group work wasn’t necessarily incorrect in the moment, but it was longer-term foolish.  Yes, adding a do-nothing, care-nothing student to a group can reduce the overall quality of the work – if the rest of the group members don’t know how to deal with that.    But when groups work well, they harness complementary strengths and the result is better than any group member could have produced alone.  This is why all the committees I serve on are more than just me, and it’s why nearly all my papers (and all of my best ones) are co-authored.  It’s a point that’s so obvious to me now that it’s a bit embarrassing that I once thought you could predict a group grade by averaging the solo grades of its members.  Oops.

quietMy second objection (introversion) was understandable, but badly misguided.  Yes, as an introvert I had very strong preferences about the situations in which I learned: solo work over group work, written over oral reports, and lecture over discussion.  I’m not alone there – a point that was recently brought to mind when I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  It’s an interesting book, well worth reading even if it occasionally frustrates by presenting anecdote as data and opinion as fact.   Quiet works best as an affirmation of introverts: they (we) are common in society (something I wish I’d understood as a young person) but undernoticed and undervalued.  Quiet also argues that modern society has an “extrovert ideal” and is set up not only to favour extroverts, but to encourage introverts to adopt extrovert behaviour and even to try somehow to transform themselves into extroverts.  Our educational system is central to this, with pedagogically-favoured teaching techniques such as group learning and much “active learning” favouring extroverts or demanding that others impersonate them.

The obvious reaction to all this, of course, is the idea that educators should accommodate the learning preferences of introverts on an even footing with those of extroverts.  This idea comes in two versions, weak and strong.

  • The weak version is for the instructor to make sure that learning and evaluation occur in a mixture of introvert-favouring and extrovert-favouring situations, so that neither group is relatively disadvantaged. Some for me; some for you.
  • The strong version is for the instructor to accommodate the preferences of each group all the time. This means, for example, allowing either solo or group completion of a project, or presenting the same material in lecture and complementary discussion sessions.  This notion of accommodating learning preferences* extends beyond intro/extroversion, of course.  It suggests slide design with both verbal and visual representations of material, hands-on and textual presentation of the same material, podcasting to supplement live lectures, and so on.

It’s the strong version that I wanted, as a student.  And indeed, if our primary concern is for all students to absorb and retain as much of the course material as possible, then the strong version is the way to go.  That was my (mis)conception of courses when I was a student: if I took organic chemistry, I thought the point was for me to learn as much organic chemistry as possible; if I took entomology, as much about insects as possible.  But now I’ve been on the other side of the podium for a while.  I’ve realized that what matters about a course is not so much the content it packs into your brain (most of that will be gone, or at least fuzzy, a few months** after the final exam) – it’s how it equips you for later life.  Occasionally what “later life” needs is the content of a course, but more often it’s your ability to tackle a field or a task beyond the rote you’ve learned.  The point of my entomology course, for example, wasn’t really for me to learn all about the insects; it was for me to learn tools and strategies for tackling any group of organisms I might (later) need to know about.  It’s far less important, therefore, for us to teach students facts than to teach them how to learn.  If only we know how to do that!

This notion of preparing students for a life of learning seems obvious, but it took me a long time to come to it.  Academics – and there are plenty – who insist every student needs to learn Piece Of Biological Content X (Photosynthesis! Mendelian genetics! Vertebrate zoology!) haven’t come to it yet.  And to bring all this back to my once-hated group work: it means teaching extroverts to function well in situations that play to introvert strengths, and introverts to function well in situations that play to extrovert ones.  That’s why a mix of solo term papers and oral group presentations, for example, isn’t just fair to both introverts and extroverts, but actually helps both in the longer run.

As a student, I might actually have been right that being forced into group work was hurting my performance, reducing both my grades and the amount of subject matter I learned in each course.   But that wasn’t the point.  Group work was building my capability to manage heterogeneous groups of people, to discuss ideas with my peers, to negotiate cooperative work, and so on.  More broadly, it was teaching me to harness the strengths of groups even if that wasn’t my preferred way to work.

I think of my distaste for group work every time someone tells me that students are adults, and should be treated like consumers who know what they want and what they need.  I didn’t know that.  Fortunately, when I was a student I wasn’t allowed to avoid group work; and whether my own students like it or not, as a professor, I’m going to keep assigning it.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) October 18, 2016

*^Not learning “styles”, which have been fairly well debunked.  Learning “preferences” certainly exist.  I have them, and I bet you do too.

**^Yeah, I know. But I couldn’t bring myself to type “minutes”.



15 thoughts on “Why I assign the group work that I hated as a student

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    Looking back at my college years, though I learned a lot of facts and some subject-specific skills, the most useful things I learned were how to assess other peoples’ research (which sources have the markers of “good work”), how to compare my own observations to good work in that field and draw valid inferences, how to enter a new field and rapidly attain competence in it, how to keep a level head when a shiny! new! observation or idea sets off fireworks in the brain…and the relatives of these skills.

    Many times in my non-academic life I’ve needed to adapt to wildly changing circumstances and learn new skills and new content, using them to attain either assigned or independent goals, and it is the relative ease (I finally realized) with which I can dive in, find the “good” sources, discard the woo-woo, and then absorb the new stuff that has made my life easier, happier, and more productive. Most of those skills came from my first college experience, and were enlarged and improved by a) a visit with one of my profs a year after graduation (possibly the most influential 20 minutes of my life) and b) by the second degree in a different field, and then a couple of years of grad school.

    What that visit with my prof (Dr. K.F, Drew, then chair of the history department at Rice University) did was cement (with reinforcing rebar) a commitment to systematic lifelong learning under all circumstances, whether in or out of formal classes. I even wrote up a plan to support that goal and though (age doing what it does) and still use it (though modified by the need to write books on deadline.) And that system has kept my curiosity wide awake for decades–and improved my quality of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. LAH

    Part of the problem with assigning group work in the college classroom is that we assign groups at random, thinking that this is the best way to assure diversity. Fail. How would you like to serve on a committee assembled at random? Co author a paper with a scientist, any scientist? Be on a team with someone with great but irrelevant skills? I experimented with this once, having students rate themselves on a number of different skills relevant to the group project and spread out the kids with good analytical skills, writing skills, communicating skills across the groups. Didn’t do it enough to figure out if it made a difference (or deal with the accuracy of student self assessment). My $0.02,

    Liked by 3 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Brilliant idea – in principle, this should really enhance group function. In practice, I wonder if it can be pulled off, and it sounds like you aren’t sure either? Accuracy of self-assessment would be one thing, for sure; I’d wonder also about students who simply misrepresent. Still, might be better than random? Food for thought!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. sineanahita

        In grad school, my statistics professor gave us a quiz during the first class to test our stats and math skills. He then assigned us to groups based on our skill level. We took exams together, and we got a group grade. I did not have strong math or stats skills, so the class was a semester long nightmare for me. (We’re talking hives and sobbing during office hours here.) During the final exam, our group was discussing which technique to use to solve the problem, and the really strong stats students (both men) argued for a particular technique. I had so little confidence in my skills that I did not even mention my view that a different technique would have been appropriate. As it turns out, I was right, and they were wrong. And because of the group grade, all of us got a C on the exam.


        1. sineanahita

          Now I am wondering whether there are different sets of group skills that would serve students better in different disciplines. Are the group skills necessary in a sociology class different from those in a statistics class? And I wonder what would have helped me as a graduate student struggling in an advanced statistics class. I was certainly confident enough in my other classes to do group work, but that danged stats class… I still get the shivers when I think of that semester.


  3. sleather2012

    I used to run three student workshops (population modelling of a pest species with a group presentation at the end )in a row. The first one I would let the students choose their own teams. (The group work was assessed by staff and by students from other groups and also within the group, including self-assessment). For the second workshop, I selected the teams, this time putting all the extroverts together and all the introverts together.. The idea behind this was to encourage the introverts to take leadership roles and to make the extroverts realise that sometimes you do have to defer to other team members 🙂 The third workshop I again selected teams, but this time based on the various skill sets the students had, so should produce best results. It seemed to work and Workshop 2 always produced some very interesting interactions. Looking back on this, perhaps we should have done an ethics assessment 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Dean

    Group assignment is still the lazy teacher’s way to reward the indolent and punish the dedicated. It has nothing to do with teaching skills for the workplace or encouraging introverts to come out of their shells. Introverts can stand in front of an audience and give a presentation just fine, thank you. What they don’t need is the fatigue that comes from having to stay up late the night before to do the work that the incompetents and lazyboneses were supposed to do and didn’t. Please stop being part of the problem.


  5. alequo

    As an introvert new to teaching I’m enjoying reading some of your thoughts about this subject. I’m currently both a student and a teacher so I have to do group work and assign it. As an introvert I hate doing it and I hate assigning it because I’m conscious that some of my students might have to go through some of the horrible experiences I’ve been through.

    When I was doing my undergrad degree I had to do two group presentations. For both, students were allowed to work with whoever they wanted which left me with the embarrassment of not having a group and having to ask to be put in one with people who didn’t want me in their group – both were horrible experiences which did nothing for my confidence or “real life” skills.

    There’s this assumption among teachers that students will automatically learn something by doing it when actually students would benefit from being taught HOW to work on projects, HOW to manage groups, HOW to compromise, HOW to delegate, HOW to deal with conflict, etc. Asking them to do group projects when they have no previous understanding of how (successful) group projects work is like expecting someone to learn how to swim by throwing them in the ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, very good point about the “teaching” half of learning via group work. I’ve heard from colleagues who have interesting ideas about this (and group assembly) but it’s not (yet) a strong point of my teaching. Thanks for commenting!


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