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Point: The case against group projects

Students are not individually accountable

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Point: The case against group projects

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Bhavya Pant, Collegian columnist

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Few things about education irk me quite as much as group projects do. This is partly because not once in my time as a student in high school or college have I had a group project experience that I can look back upon fondly.

The way I see it, group projects can either go one of two ways. The first is that they are designed to underspecify the division of labor, i.e. a large task is assigned and a group of people are left to figure out among themselves who does what. In this case, there is strong incentive for freeloading and one or two people end up doing the majority of the work while others reap the benefit of a joint grade, knowing that even if they don’t pull their weight, the most conscientious of the lot will ultimately get the job done. This is obviously frustrating for that one person who does the work of five, all-the-while jumping through the unnecessary hoops of setting up unresponsive Slack groups, Google Docs and weekend meet-ups that nobody can make.

I’m not trying to paint a good versus evil scenario here. Most courses at a four-year university like the University of Massachusetts include both underclassmen and upperclassmen – a motley crew of people including eager freshmen, majors for whom the class is a core requirement, those taking it as a “light gen-ed” and seniors on the brink of graduation who are all but ready to bid this place adieu. To assume this eclectic bunch looking to get very different things out of a class will collaborate equitably on an assignment is simply naive.

This is where the “in the real world, you don’t get to pick who you work with” argument frequently made by proponents of group projects falls short. Unlike in a professional workspace, where the consequence of an individual not pulling their own weight are uniform across the board (the possibility of losing your job), in a classroom setting, getting a bad grade could be disastrous for one student and go unnoticed by another. For this reason, the claim that group work increases individual accountability in the classroom is a myth.

To combat this issue, professors sometimes clearly specify the division of labor in a group project i.e. assigning one sub-task to each member of a group. This is the second option for how group projects go. This over-specification in turn incentivizes specialization, wherein each individual takes charge of a sub-task they’re already skilled at, rendering the “group” aspect of the learning process futile. For a journalism course last semester, I was part of a group of five people responsible for creating a video essay. Now, in an ideal world, we would all conduct research on the topic, consolidate our findings and try our hands at the useful skills of audio-visual editing. Instead what happened was that I, the student journalist, wrote the script, the two who were comfortable being in front of the camera acted it out, the one who was a photographer for campus media filmed the footage, and the one who worked in the digital media lab edited it. In short, we each took the path of least resistance, carrying out tasks we were already quite comfortable doing and in the process, learned nothing new.

Mandatory group projects continue to constitute a significant portion of the final grade for some classes on campus. Yet what exactly they are adding to the learning experience is quite unclear. Nearly all professors I’ve had already give students the option of collaborating on assignments. To then additionally assign group projects with pre-determined pairings is unnecessary and counter-productive. A study conducted by the University of Denver found that “students learn more course content through individual projects than through group projects.”

Collaboration and effective communication are no doubt important skills that would be better taught by providing students the option and encouragement to collaborate than the sword of group projects hanging above their heads.

Bhavya Pant is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].edu.

1 Comment

One Response to “Point: The case against group projects”

  1. NITZAKHON on April 8th, 2019 6:53 am

    Sooner or later you will have to work in groups; it’s a natural event in the working world, if you volunteer… groups are everywhere. How will you start to learn how to handle that if there are no places where you don’t practice it?

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