Group work

Aug. 8th, 2017 03:18 pm
liv: Cartoon of a smiling woman with a long plait, teaching about p53 (teacher)
[personal profile] liv
I'm on a mission to redeem group work in education. I expect this to be controversial among many of my friends. So if I'm right and lots of you have terrible memories / experiences of being made to do bad group work, I invite you to comment here and tell me what was bad about it. Do you think it's just awful, or are there problems that might be fixed? I believe strongly that while it can be dire, it can also be great, or perhaps I might phrase it as, there are things that look like group work superficially but are actually great.

Because I'm on a mission this may turn into a more formal research survey at some point, but in that case I'll pose the question in a formal context with ethics and everything. Right now I'm just trying to gather some opinions and not just rely on my own ideas. Plus I am eye-deep in paperwork and I could do with some distraction, so do rant away.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:23 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Leo)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
I think it's fine if it's optional, but it needs to be optional, outside very specific settings where the course is meant to prepare students for a specific career that involves group work. In that case there needs to be an effort to put in the same kind of control measures you'd have in a professional group with a good supervisor.

In middle school and high school it frequently turned into other students stealing my things, refusing to speak to me and then claiming to the teacher that I wasn't participating, etc. So, that kind of soured me on the concept. I think this is, bluntly, an unavoidable problem with teenagers; some groups may coincidentally not have it, but there's not much one adult can do to prevent it or to know when it's happening, and because of this reporting mechanisms may just make bullying problems worse.

With college-age adults, you're somewhat more likely to have people who care enough about their grades and the work to focus on getting it done even if they don't like the people they're with very much. But this isn't a guarantee by any means, and there are any number of other problems like half of the group being persistently disorganized.

(My experience last spring: both of the other students in my group agreed to finish their sections of a group presentation by a certain time to let us practice, didn't do it, I had to chase both of them the last week, tell one to find sources other than wikipedia, everyone finished two days before the presentation when we had no time to meet, and then the first one talked through three quarters of our presentation time and the other two of us didn't have enough time to finish. We all got the same bad grade.)

Another problem that happens a lot in college is that teachers assume students will be able to organize outside class time. This assumes a lot about schedules and locations; students who live close to campus or on campus and don't have to work are in a better position than students who commute long distances and work. (I don't know how housing works in the UK, but in the US living on campus is associated with having more money.)

Like, at one point I was in a class where the teacher casually assumed all the students would be able to meet once a week for an hour or two every week outside the scheduled class time; everyone else was free Saturday mornings, I wasn't because of my work schedule. That was fun! A lot of students in my school also commute from the middle of the state, which is an hour or two of driving between home and campus one way. Requiring students to meet outside designated class hours is the same kind of inappropriate boundary crossing as making work dependent on people coming to the bar Friday nights with the office, imo.

I know that the 'prepare for work' explanation gets thrown around a lot, but I don't think it holds up that well. Not all students are going into the same field, you know? Statistically most of us are going into customer service, not office jobs, here. And I don't think the skills involved in presentations - which are almost always what group work means in college - are actually that transferable into work outside of academia anyway.

Besides which, when there's no actual effort to teach group work, nobody learns anything; the students who know how to coordinate groups end up doing what they already know how to do, and the students who don't end up either flailing helplessly or letting other people do all of the work.

Rereading this it comes off as kind of a tract against group work. I want to say that I actually *enjoy* it when things line up well - but that almost never happens, and when it does it's usually because of the stars aligning, not because of things that professors could consistently repeat. So, I'm going to have to repeat that I really don't think it should be mandatory. Even when it goes well, there's usually about five minutes of coordination and the rest of the work is exactly what I'd be doing on my own.

If you *are* going to do mandatory group work, it's my opinion that you need to actually discuss how to coordinate and what expectations are surrounding it (a lot of people just don't realize it's a big deal to not show up to meetings, from what I can tell, for instance - especially eighteen year olds who've never worked); make sure that students have time to meet in class or ample opportunity to figure out who in the class's schedules actually match up with theirs; make sure that relative loners aren't being excluded deliberately from groups; have a reporting mechanism and the time to follow up, maybe break up groups or change assignments, and discuss with students that they're allowed to use it and when; give separate grades; and accept that you may *not* know who did the work without proof, your confidence in your belief to the contrary.

If that seems like too much work, well, that's why I don't like doing it either. Making group work optional avoids a lot of those problems, though; if people can just leave dysfunctional groups the problems will mostly be resolvable without you.

ETA: The other thing is that from the conversations I've had, my impression is that students who *do* like group work often like it specifically because they associate it with relaxing and chatting with their friends while whichever organized person they've snagged does the entire project.

Which, letting people get into those habits is the polar opposite of preparing them for work; it's going to get the ones who don't expect to do work in trouble when they take that approach there, and it conditions the students who do the work into believing reporting mechanisms are useless and this is how it will always be, so it will save time if they just cooperate.
Edited Date: 2017-08-08 04:28 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:36 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
A more succinct version of what I was trying to say with less detail:

In any mid to large group, there are inevitably going to be some people who are terrible to work with. Some of those people are irresponsible and try to make other people work for them; some of them are extremely disorganized and can't coordinate with others; some lack skills they've never been taught to use; some are intentionally cruel; whatever.

In a good work environment, there are mechanisms for reporting cruel or particularly irresponsible behavior, and there's time to resolve a problem situation, and people aren't really graded in most jobs the way they are in school, so a bad project doesn't have longterm negative consequences for the people who aren't the problem. Dealing with group problems is also hopefully a large part of the supervisors' job. Everyone's work schedule is usually similar, and your meetings are during work hours.

In a class environment, nobody knows each other or who those people will be, professors look at dealing with group problems as a waste of time or not their problem - and often genuinely don't HAVE the time - meeting time has to be arranged around class during people's wildly disparate schedules maybe between people who live multiple hours' drive apart, there's no way of getting rid of someone who is an obvious problem, students are graded on individual projects so bad work on one person's part because everyone else's problem, and there's somewhere between a few days and a month or two to identify and resolve problems.

Class environments just are not good environments for trying to resolve the problems associated with group work, and there are inevitably going to BE some problems, so every time you do a mandatory group project you make at least a couple of groups of students miserable and they probably end up with worse grades than was necessary. How big of a deal that is depends on the specific form of the misery and the specific grade - and whether those students are eg. going to school and living on scholarship money that's grade dependent or something - but you can't control those risk factors easily, either.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-09 02:42 am (UTC)
slashmarks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
For the sake of clarity, it's not that I think bullying is inevitable in every group of teenagers; it's that I think it's inevitable in *some,* because teenagers are people like everyone else, and there's no actual way of identifying those groups or fixing the problem within an institutional context. (It's related to the problems with high rates of abuse and assault in institutions used to house disabled people and prisons.) The problem is with "high school," not "teenagers."

In more naturalistic environments, people handle bullying and cruel behavior by changing social groups or avoiding the perpetrators, which is impossible in settings with strict control of movement. Both perpetrators and victims are aware of this, and it encourages the perpetrators to manipulate the movement control. So any given problem behavior becomes a lot worse.

So I don't think that avoiding all social situations where bullying might occur is necessary - but I do think that limiting social interactions where people can't opt out or walk away is. By definition mandatory group work is one of those, because even if you get to choose your group, you can't generally leave it after everyone else's are formed. If members have the option of dropping the group and working by themselves, that's less true; you're still penalized for having to start over mid-project but it's not impossible.

ETA: This is less of a problem with college because every part of college is less coerced than high school. People choose to go in the first place; they can generally withdraw or drop a class into late into the semester (at least here, I have no idea how this works in the UK); and the consequences for skipping class are at worst failing and at best minimal. It's not good if students have to withdraw from a class they need mid-semester because of bullying, and it can screw with financial aid, but ultimately it's an option. This is very different from the vivid awareness that if you stop going to class the cops are going to be called that kept me going to school as a teenager.
Edited Date: 2017-08-09 02:49 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 07:47 pm (UTC)
ayebydan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ayebydan
You worded this perfectly. Very accurate reflection of how I experienced things as well.

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