I’ll be honest that this is a topic in which I have a significant bias; as a student, employee, really as a human in general: I hate group work. Considering the fact that I’m also very social, extroverted and work in group settings in every area of my life this is also deeply ironic.
But there it is, the honest truth. I hate group work and I’m not afraid to say it. I hate that in every situation in my life I feel taken advantage of in group situations. I’m always the one taking the lead (even if I wasn’t supposed to), doing the majority of the work and encouraging or supporting others to complete theirs. And to be honest, it’s exhausting. There have been a few group work situations in my life where I’ve felt adequately supported by other group members, but those have been few and far between. For this reason, I don’t assign it much in my classes, and rarely evaluate it.
Due to my obvious bias, I also genuinely feel that it can be overrated in terms of a learning strategy for students – especially if students are of significantly different skill levels. When I assign group work and see my strongest students groan and roll their eyes I totally get it. They know that regardless of what the task is, they are going to be in for more work than they bargained for and others will be jumping at the chance to ride their coat tails.
Nevertheless, group work – or it’s new, flashier term, “collaborative learning” is all the rage, and continues to be touted as an “essential skill for the 21st century“. Yes, humans are social and we must work in groups in various situations in life, so this is a skill that education should tackle; but how can we as educators do it in a way that both supports weaker students and challenges stronger students all the while ensuring that an equal amount of work is completed by all group members?
I already know the response the aforementioned rhetorical question would garnish from teachers with a socialist perspective: “fair doesn’t mean equal”. This is also often the statement that is forced down the throats of strong students when they complain about weaker students not pulling their weight in group tasks, and I completely agree with them. When your share of “equal” is always larger and others are benefiting from your work and success, that analogy gets old pretty quickly.
Why are there different expectations for students based on their work ethic, skills and output, yet the entire group is rewarded with the same “evaluation” – when in reality it was completed mostly by one or two students?
How can teachers make the most of group work to ensure effective learning for all students?
These are big questions that in my teaching experience I’ve found hard to answer. I’ve tried many group work strategies to try and make it work: creating group roles, specific tasks within a group, creating group combinations based on both mixed and same skill levels, conferencing with groups, evaluating groups, hovering over groups, using group work for formative learning only, evaluating group members individually (which is basically impossible), etc.
Nevertheless, regardless of the strategy I’ve put in place, the same result occurs: my leaders take over and instead of having 25 students actively involved in learning I have 5 with a periphery of others hanging in the wings. Am I just doing it wrong (or teaching it wrong)? Or is group work really, just…..overrated?
I’ve also thought about how group work translates to the workplace or home. Do the dynamics really ever change? In other situations the same situation tends to play out: the strongest leader/hardest worker takes over and others fall into place as those who are delegated to or benefit from the hard work of the leader.
I’ll be honest – I’m still waiting for the day of feeling fulfilled by working with a group with members that are equally engaged, invested and productive. Will this day ever come? As an adult, I don’t feel like the group dynamic has ever changed and it’s something that continues to frustrate me in many aspects of my life. Based on this assessment – how can I defend it as an effective learning strategy for my students (especially my leaders)?
My jury is out on this one. How do you feel about group work as a teacher, employee or human? Have you found a strategy that works? Comment below!