Carrying group projects: a different kind of back pain

Group projects have been incorporated in many classroom curriculums to improve teamwork and prepare students for large-scale team projects in their future occupations. However, despite the experience they provide, the process in which these “group” projects are completed seem to have become increasingly individualized, which is quite the contrary to the intended purpose of such activities.

English teacher Ms. Karlin explains the costs and benefits of assigning group work.

“When most of us think of group work, we think of a task that is not ‘group worthy,’ which is why the project inevitably ends up being completed by one or two people. I have unfortunately assigned many of these (and will likely do so inadvertently in the future) and have seen over and over how detrimental they can be. But if a task legitimately necessitates the collaboration of a group of people and is ‘group worthy’, according to [Stanford Professor Rachel] Lotan’s matrix, then the benefits are incredible. Students learn to work with and rely on one another, which breaks down many of the cliques and barriers that exist within classrooms. Students are exposed to a variety of voices, thereby teaching them to think critically about their own. Students recognize their own strengths in a class setting as well as others’ strengths. The list of benefits goes on and on,” she said.

Despite competent groupmates or partners, many students have trouble figuring out how to work together. What is it that causes such a huge barrier between students that otherwise turn in outstanding work?

In a poll of 219 Dougherty Valley students, approximately a third stated that there was little to no teamwork occurring in group projects. Meanwhile, only five percent stated that people usually all did their own parts and the group project worked harmoniously. Additionally, in almost every classroom surveyed, at least one person mumbled something along the lines of, “I usually have to do the entire project myself”.

In some cases, the inability to produce desirable work is due to procrastination. In others, it can be due to the lack of a sense of responsibility. A lack of communication between members plays a huge role in how the process and progress of the project rolls out, which, for many, is usually a problem that occurs in groups where the students aren’t close with one another.

“Working with people I was unfamiliar with was the main cause [of the bad experiences] because we often couldn’t communicate effectively and the procrastinators ended up affecting everyone’s grades,” agreed a senior. “With friends, I tend to understand everyone’s strength better so we divided the work more effectively and cared about each other and the grade.”

The bottom line is, as long as there is a member that decides not to do their part or put in effort, the rest of the group suffers the consequences.

However, even if everyone wants to collaborate on the project, the amount of work and lack of time (due to AP classes or extracurricular activities), prevents students from being able to meet and complete the work. The inability to coordinate with fellow groupmates ultimately causes some students with relatively less surplus time to have to work on a larger percent of the project in comparison to other students.

When done properly, group work can be a valuable and advantageous experiences for students. There are many students who believe they are helpful when it comes to preparing them  for real-life situations in the workplace.

“I think working with all different kinds of people has definitely prepared me with the skills to handle real work situations. You have to be ready to expect the unexpected and know how to adjust to it!” said senior Angela Luo.

In future situations in college and the workplace, where there are larger scale projects, there will definitely be different amounts of effort contributed by each team member, so it may be argued that these experiences serve as preparation. However, this severe lack of interaction and communication seems to have become a trend that is not only not going away, but also spreading. This becomes the main cause of strong frustration and resentment between group members, especially for those that have to do more than others.

“Group projects have definitely brought to light how I am not always in control of the situation and how there will always be those that don’t please me … It’s like [they think] I can always do their work for them,” mentioned a discontented senior.

Despite what many students think, teachers actually do recognize and understand the negative stigma and frustrating experiences of group projects for students.

Karlin recognizes this too, stating, “When I was a student, I dreaded group assignments for the most part. As a teacher, I often agree with students’ sentiments about group work. Unfortunately, group projects tend to amount to a group’s share of work falling on the shoulders of one or two students in the group. This is of course not the intended outcome, nor is it a positive or fair experience for any of the participants in the group. The students doing all of the work feel overwhelmed by the work and resentful of the others, while the other students do not end up experiencing the learning process as the teacher planned. These types of group projects end up cementing unhealthy cliques within a classroom. Students start to group their peers into categories: she is ‘lazy or unmotivated’ and she is ‘smart’. These generalizations end up being pretty difficult to break.”

“I assign group projects because students get so tired of sitting and absorbing a teacher’s words. The lecture and notetaker construct seems so outdated to me. I wonder if it ever worked!” history teacher Mrs. Amini extends. “Asking kids to consider real world problems and giving them the information and instructions they need seems to mimic what really happens in life.”

Doing her best to make group work a worthwhile experience for her students, Karlin explained, “The leader of my education program … Rachel Lotan, spent most of her academic career researching group work to determine whether it is effective or ineffective. Her work shifted my paradigm about group work. I learned from Rachel that the most significant variable in group work is whether the assignment is worthy of being given to a group of people or whether it should be completed alone … I will be the first to say that I have had negative group work experiences in my classroom, but my goal is always to incorporate groupworthy tasks into the classroom because I sincerely believe they enrich the education and experience of the students involved.”

Karlin mentioned that Lotan “and her colleague Cohen created a sort of checklist to determine whether a task is ‘group worthy.’ This checklist includes:

“Does the assignment itself — not just the rubric — actually require multiple people to work together, or is it just a lot of work that one person could theoretically do alone?

Is it open-ended and authentic enough to benefit from multiple perspectives instead of one?

Are there multiple ways students can show competence on the assignment?”

But, having slacking teammates or negative experiences may not be a completely bad thing. After all, there will definitely be others just like that in the workplace. Enduring the experience may be just what one needs in order to deal with the problem properly in the future.