Saturday, May 26, 2012
Group Work: Friend or Foe (published in Veritas 5/4)
_____Say the words, “group project,” and most students will groan. However, some students – the slackers – will rejoice because a group project is often an opportunity for them to kick back, relax, and earn the (hopefully) good grade of the group while putting in little to no work of their own. What is the motivation behind assigning group projects? Well, according to kidshealth.org, group projects prepare you for real life when your job will require you to work with others. However, many professors believe that this is an outdated philosophy. I do not mean that group skills are not important in real life or that appropriate social skills are unnecessary to collaborate effectively. I simply think that group work is overrated when it comes to teaching these skills. _____There are a number of different types of group work, including group projects, partnered presentations, and small group discussions. Regardless of the type of work, the members, structure, purpose, and setting are key factors that determine efficacy and success. First, there is the issue of group members. We’ve all been there: being in a group with a slacker is wholly frustrating. Well, unless you’re the slacker, but I would bet those students are not reading this. There are few ways to remedy this problem. In educational settings, the best method is most likely utilizing peer evaluations, where each member submits a score for each peer, based on his or her contribution. In job settings, this is likely not possible because the boss is only concerned with the product and does not have to assign individual grades based on peer evaluations. In both settings, where group work is asserted as being conducive to collaboration, such experiences can result in a great deal of fractionalization, whether because of frustration with the slacker or burnout from doing a disproportionate amount of work. _____Second, there is the issue of structure. How are leaders determined? How is work divided and delegated? On the very low-structured end of the continuum, every aspect of how the assignment is completed is determined by the group itself. Internally, a leader is determined in one of three ways: a natural leader is comfortable with this role and volunteers, the most interactive and vocal member is seen as a leader and is pressured into this role by the other members, or the person who cares the most about performance takes responsibility for it. In educational settings, natural leaders are most likely the most successful, although this does not eliminate all problems. In job settings, leadership tends to be competitive – more like the third option – in that the leader will most likely receive the most credit (or the most critique). As far as division of labor, this is primarily determined by the efficacy of the leader, although even the best delegation skills can be squandered by a surplus of slackers. _____In contrast, on the very high-structured end of the continuum (which I personally have never encountered), every aspect of how the assignment is completed is determined by the person who holds a formal title above the group members. In an educational setting, this would be the professor and, in a job setting, this would be the boss who is assigning the project. In regards to group projects specifically, this would be less like a group project and more like individual work completed on the same topic or issue. While it would still require communication between the members in order to coordinate their efforts, it could reduce the possibility of unnoticed slackers and frustrating fractionalization. _____Third, there is the issue of purpose. What is the goal of the group work? Common goals in include discussion and partializing certain amounts of work. In both educational and job settings, it seems that discussion would be more easily attained and effective. Being in a group is appropriate for reviewing learned material, discussing new theories, and brainstorming new ideas because it increases the number of perspectives and adds new ways of thinking. Otherwise, group work is typically assigned so that one person does not have to do everything. This seems somewhat silly for small amounts of work, but can potentially be helpful for large amounts of work, which means that it is important to consider if it would be feasible and more effective for one person to complete the assignment. This also leads back into the question of how work is divided and delegated because projects with a large amount of work create an opportunity for slackers, which can lead to burnout among the other, overworked members. _____Fourth, there is the issue of setting. Setting is important because it is related to motivation. For example, if group members are not invested in the project, it is unlikely they will be very motivated because these tasks tend to be seen as just more hoops to jump through. This is probably most common in general education courses and jobs that lack sufficient incentives. In contrast, if members are similarly motivated and share the goals of doing well and learning much, they are more likely to collaborate effectively. This is probably most common in core major and elective courses and jobs with a strong employee community. Another facet of setting is how well the members know each other, which determines decision-making if people are allowed to pick their fellow members. Although students tend to organize by convenience for class discussions and short-term work, most students prefer to be able to choose their fellow members for long-term projects. However, such choice is helpful only if the students know each other well enough. _____So, what can we learn from this? I, personally, have learned that group dynamics is a topic that does and will continue to interest me, albeit a frustrating one (see: http://carpathiabenatar.blogspot.com/2011/04/group-projects.html). Beyond this, perhaps we will decide that group work is a bit overemphasized in the world, whether within educational or professional settings. I find this especially odd in light of the strong value of individualism that is prominent in the U.S. While group work could be a method of determining skill through competition, I do not think it is effective. Further, long-term and intensive group projects are most likely not the best way to teach skills of cooperation and collaboration, although they may be helpful for completing a large workload. _____Lastly, the most important lesson is that goals, methods, and outcomes must be as congruent as possible. If the goal is collaboration skills, similar assignments about the same topic within a small group can provide opportunities for sharing information. If the goal is delegation and leadership skills, assign one person to be the leader who delegates and holds others accountable. If the goal is simply to get a great deal of work done, make sure that each member has a generally equal workload. As far as dealing with slackers, they will be found throughout the world and in a wide variety of settings. Coping with them is beyond the scope of this article, so perhaps I will tackle this topic in a future blog post. For now, non-slackers and over-achievers alike… stick together, cooperate, collaborate, and add something of worth to the world.