In Defense of Group Work

Posted: October 3, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Group Work Cartoon

During my sophomore year of college, my Environmental Science professor assigned a project for us to get in groups as “political parties” and present on environmental issues. I hated group work and I pleaded with my professor until he let me work alone.

Each group had to name their party.

I called myself the “One Man Party.”

(Hard to believe I wasn’t more popular in college.)

On the surface, I claimed I hated group work for all the same reasons my students complain about it:

  • “I can do everything better by myself.”
  • “People are lazy and will stick me with all the work.”
  • “I don’t want my grade to depend on other people.”
  • “It’s hard to coordinate time outside of class to work on projects.”

Those reasons can sometimes be true. However, for me, there was a far more likely reason I feared group work:

I was terribly shy.

I knew no one in that science class. The idea of asking “strangers” to let me in their group was horrifying. I wished the teacher had just assigned groups. Or, I wished some other group had noticed me sitting there with that sad, lost look on my face and asked me if I wanted to join their group. When neither happened, I protested.

I railed against group work many times in college and high school. However, it was amazing that I never protested when I was in a group with friends (people I was comfortable with) or girls I had a crush on (people I was terrified of, but with whom I needed an icebreaker).

For all the students who claim to dislike or even hate group work, there may be some deeper elements contributing beyond those surface-level complaints:

  1. There may be some social anxiety, like I had, that wasn’t specifically about group work, but about communicating with people in general.
  2. We may have had a bad experience that has soured our outlook. We fear that one student who won’t do anything NOT because it has happened in every group, but because that situation burned us once before.
  3. As people, we will glorify our own successes and emphasize the failures of others. We remember the time we did well on a group project by ourselves, and we’ll forgive ourselves if we don’t do well in that same situation because we were stuck doing it alone. But if a group member doesn’t pull their weight in one project, we never let them live it down. We want it etched on their tombstone.
  4. We don’t want to admit that we have played all of the roles, both good and bad, throughout all of our group work experiences. “I’m ALWAYS the one who does ALL the work.” Are you really? In my own experiences, I have had groups where I was the leader, ones where I was the slacker, and everything in between.
  5. Finally, one of the biggest reasons we dislike group work is because we STINK at it. And we don’t like things we’re bad at.

Thus, we need to learn how to work in groups.

Think of a good restaurant. You walk in. A host seats you. A waiter comes and takes your order. The bartender mixes the drinks. The chef make the food. The runners bring out the food.  The busser clears the table.

On the surface, it may seem like all of those people are working solo and doing their own tasks.

NO! That’s group work! Or, let me rephrase: that’s group work when it’s done correctly! It is a group of people collaborating to produce one final goal: a good dining experience for the customer.

When group work is being done well, it ceases to be a bunch of people working on a variety of tasks and becomes ONE unit working toward a common goal.

If the entire staff was hanging out at the front waiting to seat people and no one was serving or cooking, it would be a disaster. This is obvious; we all know this. Yet, too often, we don’t apply this understanding to group work done in an academic setting.

We need to learn how to establish leadership and structure in our groups in order to be efficient and effective. We must determine the goal and formulate a plan to get there. We need to make decisions on how to communicate.

Then, we must establish what roles are required and which group members are best suited for the roles. For example, on a football team, a great quarterback should be a leader, have a great arm, be smart, be mobile enough to elude pass rushers. However, take that player and slide him over to Left Tackle and he will be terrible, because a LT needs an entirely different body type and skill set.

When you find people who have the skills for each position and place them in the correct positions, that greatly impacts the team’s ability to succeed.

Yet, despite all I’m saying, one of the biggest complaints I hear from students about group work is not that group work doesn’t happen in the real world, but that it is not the same in academia as in the real world, because in the workplace, people have an incentive (keeping their job) to do their work and do it well. Students sometimes assume that all the hiccups and heartaches we encounter in the classroom suddenly smooth out in the workplace.

Wrong. Wrong. WRONG.

All of the same problems we fear in class can (and will) happen in every workplace: someone will carry too much weight; someone will slack; someone will get bossy; someone will mess up; someone will miss deadlines; someone will not answer e-mails or phone calls.

When this happens in the classroom, we want to throw the “bad” student under the bus for the sake of our grade.

Yet, in the real world, we can’t just throw our hands up, complain, whine to our boss, quit, and let the business fold. We find a way to keep working and finish the job.

So, it’s not that the same problems don’t occur in the real world; it’s that, through practice and experience, people who have honed their skills working with groups will know how to troubleshoot those problems when they happen.

And that is why we need practice in groups in the safer confines of our collegiate setting so that we can be fully prepared for group work when it really starts to count the most.

After all, whether you realize it or not, no matter what field you’re going into and what job you want, you will be working with other people for the rest of your lives.

  1. Letrecia Williams says:

    I really needed this post about having a different attitude towards group activities, I’m the student who despises group activities. i am always under the impression that i can always do better work by myself. most often times working in group is a hurtle because of the unexpected. i know for me i don’t like working in groups because you always have the one group member who never wants to pull their own weight. i feel constantly when in group settings to take control of the situation by being the leader but then you have the conflict of being bossy or too aggressive also there may be another person in the group that may have that same take charge attitude.participating in group activities is really difficult also for me because if you are in the group setting and it is totally weighed on the work as group its even more difficult because your grade is apart of what others. but this post is about defending group activities and in reading this maybe Ive discovered somethings about myself, i think that with my group participation i am a little afraid of what people will think of me because i can be aggressive at times and impatient with others who don’t take there work as serious as i do. its hard to focus on the task at hand when you worried about if people will think that your bossy. Ive always blamed my aggressiveness on me wanting to be the best but maybe its been my downfall in realizing my backing down from group activities.

  2. Leticia says:

    WOW! Mr. Paul….I wish I would have read this or for that matter known about this site, the day before my first class with you. Good insight and you covered all the reasons, people or for that matter myself dislike group work. Now that I think about it I don’t dislike…….

  3. Lyssa says:

    I’m so glad i read this… really need to see this. Thank you paul

  4. Rahman Rufai says:

    I concur with your concepts. Two good heads are better than one, and as the saying goes there is strength in unity. Group participation makes work interesting and less boring with different ideas working for a common task. Thank you and this note is a must read for all students.

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