Groupwork – beyond acrimony

Enduring lessons also often come from group work. Twenty or thirty years from now, you will remember the group project where you had to pick up the slack for a teammate, and the self-respect you developed from pulling through for the team. In professional careers, everyone has to work with others. Even the metaphorical forest ranger alone in his tree house needs to have the support of others. Teamwork requires more than division of labour: that just produces work that equals the sum of the parts. Effective teamwork leads to team output that is more thanthe sum of the parts. It must not lead to output that is less than the sum of the parts! 
In any group, there will be people who are smarter than others, people who are more diligent than others, people with more attention to detail than others, people who have more access to information or resources, and so on. Those superiorities rarely all belong to one person. In a group, each person brings something others do not have. Each contributes a different way. It can be tempting for the person who has the most of something to feel superior to teammates. It is also not unusual for other teammates to perceive self-assurance as condescension and react with resistance, rather than to realize that they are the one who has the most of something else. Groupwork is an essential process of discovery to find out what each of us can bring to a team.

Many people misunderstand the nature of the learning of group work. They think it is a masochistic abuse of students’ sense of security and chances of good jobs by saddling them with loafing teammates. They think it is just a method to reduce the number of term papers to be marked. They think it is chosen to eat up class time. Sometimes it is. Properly designed, group work enables students to get experience working on projects that are simply too big for one person to do alone, to learn from the experiences of others, to get feedback from peers on their own work before that work is submitted for evaluation, and to learn valuable lessons about working with others, among many other benefits. Although the work is being done by a group, do not mistake it for a homogenized learning exercise. Each person in the group will learn different things, if they are open to learning. It is stating the obvious to note that different group members do different things, some work harder than others, and so forth. The purpose of a course is not work, it is learning. For some people, it will be necessary to do more work to accomplish the learning they personally need to do. For some, that learning is about the topic being worked on by the group, and for others, the topic is just work, and the learning is about the group process. It can be a very individualized thing. Misunderstandings about group work can lead to dissatisfaction and frustration, but it is not appropriate to subvert the groupwork intent by converting the assignment to a collection of individual projects to be stitched together at the end.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.