Are Group Assignments a Waste of Time?
by David Buck
Are group assignments effective pedagogy or a waste of time? This is the question asked by researcher Michael Thom (2020) in his recent paper examining the scholarship on collaborative pedagogy. To be clear, I’m being literal here. The title of his paper is “Are Group Assignments Effective Pedagogy or a Waste of Time? A Review of the Literature and Implications for Practice.” I was excited when I found this paper because I’m a social scientist, and a fundamental element of scientific epistemology is that you should seek out evidence that could disconfirm your hypothesis. That’s part of what distinguishes science from simply cherry-picking anecdotal evidence. The premise that most of us start with is that collaborative projects and group assignments are high impact practices, so early on I started searching for articles that might run counter to that premise. I guessed by the title of Thom’s article that it wasn’t going to be the gushing praise of collaborative learning that I’d come to expect from some of the more prominent names in the field.
Thom starts by discussing something that you probably already know if you’ve ever had students do group projects in your class: Students don’t really seem to like them very much or see the educational value in them (Bacon 2005). For example, in one study of students sampled across multiple years of a cross-disciplinary course, students reported that they perceived the collaborative assignments in the class as having less value than both individual active learning assignments and traditional lecture (Machemer and Crawford 2007). It’s easy to understand why students may not be thrilled about group assignments: the potential logistical frustrations associated with scheduling and differing locations, the risk of freeloaders not contributing or being unreliable, the concern among high achievers that their performance may be impeded by low-achieving group members, and the risk of different group members’ personalities clashing and creating conflict. Compared to group work, individual work is safe.
Students not enjoying collaborative work is unfortunate because it could lead to demotivation and disengagement. But if it leads to actual increases in learning, then maybe we could at least argue that although it may be a bitter pill, it gets the job done. However, Thom goes on to discuss how the research on actual learning from group assignments is a lot weaker than we may like to acknowledge. A lot of research is based on nonexperimental self-reports of learning (for example, anything coming from NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] data). Nonexperimental research makes it hard for us to make robust causal claims, and self-reported data may not be the best source of evidence for learning because we tend not to be very good at judging how much we’ve learned. If you ask people to reflect on an activity that required a lot of time or effort (and that they didn’t enjoy), they may exaggerate their reports of how much they learned as a form of dissonance reduction. Thom’s critique of the research is not intended to be comprehensive, but it is compelling enough to make one reexamine assumptions and want to look back with a more skeptical eye.
And I think that’s really the purpose of Thom’s paper. He doesn’t answer the question posed in the title with a definitive “they’re a waste of time” or “they’re effective pedagogy.” Instead, he encourages the reader to think twice about cavalierly including them in a course, and he closes with five points of consideration for instructors who still want to use them:
- Don’t use them in every class. It’s easy to think of our classes as isolated worlds, but students may be enrolled in four or five of those worlds at a time. When students have different group projects in all of their classes, the frustrations around the logistics of collaboration become even more of a problem. Consider whether an assignment that requires significant outside-of-class group work is appropriate (and adds significant value) to your course and try to coordinate within programs to avoid students experiencing “group fatigue” (Gillespie, Rosamond, and Thomas 2006).
- Teach about how to be in a group. Don’t assume that students know how to work effectively in groups, how to communicate, or how to manage conflict. Make these explicit learning goals and take the time to teach these skills before the collaboration starts. This of course requires instructors to invest time and possibly cut other content (this is another reason why point 1 shouldn’t be ignored). If you aren’t willing or able to invest the time, maybe don’t utilize group work.
- Shorter is better. This may be surprising because it runs counter to one of the features of high impact practices articulated by Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider (2017) —that a HIP should involve a substantial investment of time. I think I’ll try to look into this more later, but the research that Thom presents suggests that longer term assignments are less effective. Possibly this is because they create more opportunity for obstacles, conflicts, and disengagement.
- Keep groups small and let students pick them. Logically, smaller groups have an easier time coordinating and have less likelihood of free riding, but Thom’s argument that students should self-select groups I think requires a little more scrutiny. He does present research suggesting that self-selected groups perform better than teacher-selected groups and have less conflict, but these groups are more likely to be homogenous, and self-selection doesn’t really mirror how groups are typically formed in the workplace. If your goals include having students interact with people different from themselves and simulating real-world experiences, teacher selection might be preferable. It also means you may need to spend more time on the setup of the assignment because of the greater potential for conflict.
- Include individual accountability. Whether this accountability is achieved through individual graded work that is submitted to the instructor or through peer evaluations, you want to make sure you create a scenario in which students feel like their individual performance is being evaluated. Moreover, this shouldn’t all come at the end. If a student turns in a weak individual assignment or gets a bad peer evaluation near the end of the group work, the group still suffered, and all you are doing is adding a penalty to an individual. Think of this individual accountability as formative rather than summative. Use it at multiple points in the process to catch minor problems before they have time to become bigger issues and to teach students how to collaborate more effectively while the collaboration is ongoing, rather than just to punish poor collaboration after the fact.
- Bacon, Donald R. 2005. “The Effects of Group Projects on Content-Related Learning.” Journal of Management Education 29 (2): 248–267. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562904263729.
- Gillespie, Diane, Sally Rosamond, and Elizabeth Thomas. 2006. “Grouped Out? Undergraduates’ Default Strategies for Participating in Multiple Small Groups.” Journal of General Education 55 (2): 81-102. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27798042.
- Kuh, George, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol Geary Schneider. 2017. “HIPs at Ten.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49 (5): 8-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2017.1366805
- Machemer, Patricia L., and Pat Crawford. 2007. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning in a Large Cross-disciplinary Classroom.” Active Learning in Higher Education 8 (1): 9–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787407074008.
- Thom, Michael. 2020. “Are Group Assignments Effective Pedagogy or a Waste of Time? A Review of the Literature and Implications for Practice.” Teaching Public Administration. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739420904396.
David Buck, associate professor of psychology, is the 2020-2022 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Buck’s CEL Scholar project focuses on collaborative projects and assignments as a high-impact practice.
How to cite this post:
Buck, David. (2020, August 6). Are Group Assignments a Waste of Time? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/are-group-assignments-a-waste-of-time