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.
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(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 02:23 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
Three times in four, I ended up doing the bulk of the work.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 02:30 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
I think more the former than the latter, but occasionally we got to help define our groupmates' grades with a survey on who did what. (I assume the teachers compared these between groupmates to figure out who was trying to bullshit them.)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 02:49 pm (UTC)
antisoppist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] antisoppist
I am in my 40s and never had to do group work at school or university. This isn't very useful for your survey but makes me wonder when it first started happening in UK education. My kids do quite a lot of it at secondary school.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 03:08 pm (UTC)
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
From: [personal profile] jenett
Most of my group work was unsatisfactory (of the "I ended up doing most of the work and also having to put up with a whole lot of annoying waiting around for people who were not doing their part") but I had one class in my MLIS program that handled it beautifully. (This was in the fall of 2006, so a while ago.)

What he did really well:

1) Expressly discussed the "You need group skills in future jobs in this field, but the way those work in the workplace are different than they are in class. We can fix some of that with some explicit agreements, but we need to recognise that there's an artificial layer of weird here."

Notable differences he brought up being things like that in the workplace if you have persistent issues with someone not doing their share, there are multiple solutions, there are ways to document what you yourself are doing (1:1 with your manager, email trails, etc.) so you don't necessarily get unduly penalised and usually the tasks are more divided by roles so it's more clear what part each person is doing.

2) He split us up into groups, told us we could swap groups after the first round if we wanted. (Almost no one did, because it turns out the other approaches he used work really well)

3) We had *lots* of group projects: I think it worked out to 8 for 12 weeks of class. Most of them were of the form 'make a presentation to the class about X' with supporting materials. (It was a class in collection development: i.e. how libraries select new items for the collection and remove outdated stuff.)

3) The group work grades mattered in the sense that he had to be able to see you were participating - but he cared a lot less about whether something we tried was 'successful' or came off perfectly than that we had a chance to try things out. And told us that, repeatedly.

I don't remember that we had to do the "how much did people participate" thing routinely (though there was a way to signal if someone really wasn't pulling their part as an optional question) but he did ask for brief reflection on what we'd tried that was new for us this time, and how we thought the presentation went, and what we'd try doing differently in future for something like that.

We sort of started at a default B for this (on the standard US system where a B is perfectly competent but not brilliant) but taking risks even if they didn't work out (but we thought about them after, applied what we'd learned in future weeks, etc.) got us better grades.

He told us that he did this expressly so we could try out different approaches of doing the group work, and take some risks on presentation styles. He let us know after each presentation how we'd done (in plenty of time to adjust for the next one.)

The core of our total grade was based on other individual work: you would damage your grade if you ignored the group work, but not if you gave it a fair shot even if it wasn't successful on an absolute level.

4) He also let us divide tasks up as suited the group - if that was uneven, but everyone was okay with it, that was fine (this is much more normal for job things).

If people wanted to do the same tasks week to week, that was fine as long as it was fine with the group. If people wanted to swap up and try a new skill, that was fine. (He encouraged us to try swapping up occasionally, because it was a low-risk time to try something.)

In other words, he gave us the kind of week to week control you'd get at work in many places. My group definitely had a few rounds of "Next week is really lousy for me at work, can I do X which I find easier for this next presentation?" and we were all fine with it, because those people pulled their weight at other times, or would go "Hey, I don't mind doing this annoying task I can fit into other things, in exchange."

My group settled into a "I like doing X, anyone else want it this week." pattern pretty comfortably, with occasional "I'd like to practice Y, can I do that this time?" once or twice for each of us.

5) My classes were in a program where most people were working at least part time, and getting together outside of class was very difficult (most of us were only on campus for our classes). He gave us enough time in class to coordinate what we were doing so we could do the rest of it online.

We'd meet for 30 minutes (or whatever) at the tail end of class with the time he gave us, divide up tasks, and meet for 30-45 minutes before class to pull it all together, with email and online file sharing in between. But that meant usually one person did the slides, etc.

This was huge - recognising the other stuff going on in our lives that meant we weren't going to go to campus to meet up, or were not going to all be free at the same time except for the actual class time we'd agreed on. This is a thing I think a lot of other group work has failed at for me. It meant people could work at their own pace and in their own best way, with a little time for coordinating provided in class. It took out a lot of the frustration of group work for me, because I wasn't waiting around for people to read things, or process through them.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 03:38 pm (UTC)
lilysea: Serious (Default)
From: [personal profile] lilysea
I *****hated***** group work.

My last university group project (in which we were stuck in lecturer-allocated groups, without any say in who was in what group) involved:

- people being snippy, passive aggressive, snide etc (and several worse things)

- people being contemptuous to other group members

- people being verbally abusive to other group members

- a male member of the group making sexist remarks to female group members

- people just not turning up to meetings that we had scheduled/agreed on as a group, without telling the group in advance that they weren't turning up

- people literally saying to the rest of the group "lets just do a half arsed project and get a C-, rather than work hard and get an A+". 50% of our group agreed with this statement, 50% didn't. Friction ensued.

- me doing 98% of the work, and not being thanked by anyone for doing it.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 03:39 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
In school, I didn't like group work because nobody liked me, so I was never part of the group to begin with, and participating was a doomed endeavour. Possibly teacher input and guidance on working in groups might have helped, but that never really happened. I also didn't have the maturity to see, and nobody would acknowledge, that a school project is not life and death, so it doesn't matter if it doesn't go perfectly or the idea is idiotic.

If I have to do group projects now, like in a French class or something, I've got the skills to find out how the assessment will be done, make sure I show my part to best advantage so I get a decent grade, and not get invested in the project as a whole because it doesn't matter that much. Often it's pretty crap but I've sucked it up because I need the French and the class is free.

In work contexts, again, I've learned how to maximize what I want to get out of something and how to assert when a thing isn't working, and how to get less emotionally invested so as to accept Good Enough in place of Perfect.

These last two are me doinf self-management. I have a feeling that management of some kind is critical to people not getting left out or tormented for trying to participate. If you're trying to teach group-working skills, you have to TEACH, you can't just dump people in groups and expect it to work. If you're not trying to teach that, and you're just short-cutting assessment or something, it's not going to work for everyone plus you aren't really doing your job.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 03:40 pm (UTC)
jenett: Big and Little Dipper constellations on a blue watercolor background (Default)
From: [personal profile] jenett
It was such an exception to the usual run of group work (and even other group work experiences in that same program, though I had a gap of nearly 5 years between starting my degree and doing the last 4 classes, and the really awesome class was the first one I took when I started back.)

I do think the 'lots of projects' helped a lot, and also that our core grade wasn't based on the group work, but on individual parts, which made a lot of the group stuff less fraught.

He's still teaching in the same program - if you'd like me to do an intro by email at some point, let me know. I'm pretty sure he'd be delighted.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 03:42 pm (UTC)
lilysea: Serious (Default)
From: [personal profile] lilysea
Oh, I should note we didn't have any formal mechanism for complaining about group members not doing their work,

but I was so incensed that I spoke quietly to the tutor after class and named names, and she went "Yeah, I could tell from both the written report and the writing style of the oral report that it was all your voice/tone/words and not anyone elses. We can usually tell who did the work and who didn't."

We still all got the same grade, though, workers and nonworkers.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:00 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
My problem was being told that the purpose of groupwork was something other than what it was. "You have to produce this project" was infuriating when That Was What I'd Be Judged On and It Had To Be Good Enough Or Consequences and I was the only person doing work; being told that it was actually about skill development and management and so on, more usefully, rather than "you'll be judged on the finished product", would... have helped me [as an autistic abused child] Rather A Lot. I mean I'd still have hated it because I'd still have been being put in groups with people who bullied me and there was no safe way for me to say I wasn't okay with this and I was terrified of what would happen if the project wasn't "good enough" and entirely willing to believe people would sabotage it to get me into trouble, but...

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:04 pm (UTC)
monanotlisa: Diana as Diana Prince in glasses and a hat, lifting the rim of the latter rakishly. HOT! (Default)
From: [personal profile] monanotlisa
I've found group work in a homogenous group fine and even fun -- homogenous with regard to enthusiasm and intellect, and perhaps there are other vectors I can think of. (These are obviously not commonly found in secondary or even tertiary education settings; I have had great results in grad school, though.)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:12 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Actually, side note to the abused-autistic-child thing -- it wasn't even necessarily or always that I was the one doing all of the work, it was still absolutely panic-inducing to be in a situation where I had to rely on other people, because other people weren't reliable. Doing well academically was Required; group work took away enough of my control of the situation to be terrifying.

(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 04:30 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
Higher risks for one team member than the others, essentially, which is a definite problem (c.f. Gurwara's experiment in SFP - Kab will get the reference, but people who don't read SFP won't have a clue what I'm talking about).
Edited Date: 2017-08-08 04:42 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: 2017-08-08 04:40 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
Aaaaiiiee people!!! Says the introvert.

I never really had any group projects, but I can point at a potentially interesting example. Each year the US Navy's Naval Postgraduate School has a group project for the people on the Total Ship Systems Engineering course: they are presented with a set of requirements and then they have to design a warship to meet them, and on occasion they then have to present that ship design to the professional heads of the USN.

The project reports through 2006 are available here: They can be densely technical, and there's not that much on the group dynamics, but even with commissioned naval officers on a postgraduate course, there's occasional griping that teams they were cooperating with didn't pull their weight.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 04:46 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Leo)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
I've always hated self-eval surveys because giving myself the grade I actually deserve is borderline-immoral behavior in my culture, I *have* to underestimate myself and overestimate other people. Professors usually don't understand that they should bump up my estimation of myself and down my estimation of everyone else to get my real opinion.

Which, there's no reason they would; but I'm still not going to write down my real opinions, that would be like, idk, not washing my hands or punching someone in the face or something.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-08-08 05:11 pm (UTC)
hilarita: trefoil carving (Default)
From: [personal profile] hilarita
Oh you need to be so careful here!
I'm one of the set of people that loathed, detested, hated group work at school; however, I've had very little problem working in teams at work. It may be possible to arrange group work in a way that makes it more like work and less like school; unless you can manage that, I'd really steer clear.
For people with social and academic anxiety (this isn't a complete list of people hit hard by group work), it's very hard to construct group work in a way that doesn't either tank their grade or unnecessarily escalate their anxiety. Others have pointed out that it's hard to construct group work in a way that respects that people may have different ways of using their out of class time (drinking, travelling home, gaming, sleeping...), noting also that this may end up hitting traditionally excluded groups harder.
One interesting model is taken from - the second year computer science course in Cambridge. Reports of it are actually surprisingly positive about it. I think one thing that helps is that it's basically part of the practical assessment, which is only pass/fail - there's none of the tension between the people who want to aim for top marks, and the people who are just scraping by. (The 'ticks' mentioned in the document go onto your practical record, and provided you've acquired all the ticks, you're OK. It's meant to be that you should pretty much always pass the practical assessment.) It's designed to look as much like a real professional project as possible. It also includes a (short) code of conduct.
I also had a piece of 'group work' with the Open University. It was for the User Experience and Design course, where we had to sketch a UI for a thing, and send it off to another student to review (I got a similar piece to review), and then we had to rework (or not) our design based on the review, and explain our design choices. This worked quite well, because these formed parts of three assignments, so there was a strong incentive for you to do the review for the other person, because it was part of your own grade. Because this went to your tutor first via the VLE, if any of the criticisms were inappropriate, there was presumably the opportunity to remove the offending items. You were also reviewing against a checklist from the course notes, so the comments weren't too likely to stray off-piste, and you didn't know whose work you were reviewing, so you were less likely to get some kinds of bullying behaviour.
One place in school where group work often worked right was Drama. I suspect this was because the Drama teacher had in fact done a lot of work on learning about group dynamics and facilitation, to the extent that I could even cope with working with people who bullied me outside class. However, this involved a lot of time doing work with the teacher in the room with us, so that there was a smaller chance of bullying and slacking happening.
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