If you were to walk up to ten college students today and ask what their thoughts on group projects are, likely you’ll get ten answers, probably including some variations of the following: “They’re a fun way to connect,” “We get too distracted to get anything useful done,” “They’re a lot easier than having to do a whole project by myself,” “I feel like I’m always the one carrying the team,” and even “I’d rather just do a project on my own so that I’m only responsible for my own grade.”
Why, then, do instructors assign group projects? Are they really a fair reflection of the abilities of those involved?
The benefits of group projects are twofold. Firstly, group projects give students the opportunity to learn about the dynamics that they will likely face in the workplace. Most teams have some mix of flakes, slackers, keeners, and lifers, and the sooner students can learn to communicate and cooperate within the confines of strained group dynamics in a healthy and productive way, the better. Secondly, group work aims to teach students about the benefits of peer support.
Peer support is a major part of success in academia. It benefits both those providing the support and those receiving it.
The student who comes to classmate and says, “I don’t understand this concept; can you explain your understanding of it to me?” immediately puts herself or himself into the position of willingly engaging in learning, and so she or he will be more receptive to the forthcoming information.
The classmate to whom this question has been posed, who perhaps hitherto had possessed only a proficient understanding of the subject matter, is given the opportunity to reach mastery of understanding of a concept that had until that moment been, quite literally, mere words on the page. As one person explains a concept to another, the first person reaches the pinnacle of learning a concept: teaching the same concept.
To teach a concept requires analysis and synthesis, the ability to paraphrase an idea or principle, the skill of drawing parallels and creating analogies. (For more on this, please refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy.) Of course, this gloriously optimistic view of the merits of teaching assumes that the teacher has accurately internalized the information before she or he regales another with it. Is this always the case? Of course not. Especially in the context of peer support, to suggest otherwise would be naive at best.
Suppose then that a student comes up to a classmate and says, “I am having difficulty with this principle; will you tell me what your thoughts on it are?” and the other, similarly, does not have a firm understanding the idea in question. At this point, the second student has a choice: Will she or he choose to answer the question to the best of her or his ability, leading with the obligatory “As far as I know…”? Will she or he direct her or his classmate to someone else more knowledgeable? I hope that the answer is neither of these; not because either option is in itself bad per se, but neither option would allow the speaker to take advantage of a splendid opportunity. The best answer in this scenario is to say, “I don’t understand it either; let us learn about it together!” Then, and only then, has true equality been achieved; then, and only then, are both students displaying a true passion for learning, for exploring, for being strong candidates in their field of study.
Ultimately, group work can be, if taken properly advantage of, a useful tool. It can teach students about cooperation, about positive communication, and about conflict resolution.
It gives students the ability to deepen their understanding of concepts both concrete and abstract. The next time your instructor tells you that he’ll be pairing you up for group work, take advantage of the opportunity for learning before you.