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.
My 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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”.