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Groupwork: the paradox of learning through aggravation

Long after marks have been forgotten, the lessons of some assignments will be remembered. When we get the expected satisfactory results, we often think no more of it: the outcome was as expected. If the good mark means we think no more of the assignment, then we may also never think again of the material we learned to be able to complete the assignment. Sometimes the very reason we do well is that the assignment required us to demonstrate something we already knew or a skill we already had, in effect, not learn anything at all. Of course, this is not the purpose of an assignment.

When we get better results than expected, we don’t ask any questions to find out exactly which goldmine we have struck, perhaps fearing that it was a mistakenly good mark. Let sleeping dogs lie! But when we get unsatisfactory marks, we often reflect on it, and ask what could have made a difference. That lesson will often stick with us longer. Those lessons are often about personal preparation, scholarly diligence, abstract reasoning and use of theories, and communication of our ideas, as much as the facts and ideas themselves. In professional careers, facts and ideas come and go, but preparation, diligence, abstract reasoning, and communication are enduring. There will always be new laws and regulations, new statistics on most prevalent hazards and injury types, so factual knowledge about those things is as perishable as the mushy goo in your crisper that used to be a head of lettuce.

Read more in the groupwork category for advice.

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.

Buying in to the good of the group

(power is over-rated)

For groups to work well, the members must buy in to the importance of succeeding as a team rather than the importance of protecting their individual reputations (or in the case of an assignment, their individual marks). Protecting the individual means keeping a second set of books to be able to cut the ties with other members if the going gets tough. Groups that are not wholeheartedly committed to success as a group often end up resorting to backstabbing, seeking to be evaluated individually, or seeking to have teammates penalized.
It is tempting to say that in a course, the group has no authority over the teammates therefore it is artificial compared to the work world where people can be fired. Being able to fire someone gives you positional power. In fact, at work, most group work is with people over whom you will have no more authority than you have over classmates. You must collaborate on the basis of personal power, not on the basis of positional power. Even with your own subordinates, if you don’t have the personal power to make them want to achieve your goals, if you are getting things done only by using positional power (the ability to fire them), you are very close to the door. (Guess which door.)

Functional groups look for complementary roles

Functional groups find ways to go around, over, or through the weaknesses of members. If you have a teammate who cannot proofread her way out of a paper bag, you proofread her work. If you have a person who collects factual information like nobody’s business, but cannot see the big picture, you break the project down and give him a self-contained piece to do, then help him knit that material into the report as a whole. If someone has poor English writing skills, you can encourage him or her to get assistance from the Writing Centre, but also have the group team up to edit his or her section. Over the years, I have received many papers that contain really great ideas, but the English is terrible. I have to penalize the English, but the group doesn’t. The group can and should edit not just to repair the contributions from individuals, but also to make the “voice” of the paper consistent. In doing this, functional groups are sensitive to the members’ contributions, and involve all members in the final edition. This way, each person sees how their own material was made better by the group process. The functional group turns in work that is more than the sum of the parts.

Functional groups are not just lucky

It is tempting for dysfunctional group members to think that they would have had an effective group “if only” they had not been stuck with person A, B, or C. Groups are formed different ways, but I often assign groups using a combined randomization / balance process that attempts to ensure that the academic strengths and weaknesses of the various groups are somewhat evenly balanced. Functional groups, therefore, are not just the groups that get all the “smart” students. Functional groups work on the group relationship, and it pays off.

Groups can have a discussion at the outset about ground rules. How often do you agree to check your email? Do you commit to attending class on all of the groupwork time slots, at least? Will you have “afternoon tea” at the campus pub on a weekly basis to touch base and report on status? How will you deal with suggestions in the group setting? Can everyone set their egos aside and treat suggestions as constructive and not criticism?

If someone seems to be loafing, it can be that they just don’t know how to contribute and are intimidated by the others in the group meetings or discussion forum. Functional groups tackle this with strategies: draw them in with a specific assignment. Work with them in pairs and keep an eye on them, rather than sending them off on an individual chore. Have them critique and edit things done by others. If all of those efforts are fruitless and a conclusion of deliberate loafing is inevitable, a functional group can avoid being distracted by the problem by formalizing the group’s disappointment with a written request for explanation and change of behaviour.

Functional groups put in the time

It goes without saying that the group can start working as soon as the assignment is given. (As my assignments are described in the course outline, there is no excuse for last minute drama.) Functional groups start thinking and collecting information immediately and give themselves time to do good work before the time crunch with midterms and assignments in other courses. Even those who prefer to work at the last minute can do great work in a functional team simply by scheduling the “last minute” to have a definition other than the “due date”.

Starting early as a group also helps the group dynamics get through the forming and storming stages and actually work as a team. Functional groups celebrate the contributions of the members, get together out of class time to practice and give feedback, and generally consider themselves to be a team. The buzz on the Blackboard group page is obvious, and even though there are no points given for those activities, when group assignments are marked, these are always the groups that rise to the top of the term-work leaderboard. The quality of the work speaks for itself.

Dysfunctional groups divide and conquer

and end up being less than the sum of the parts

In a dysfunctional group, the group mark is often lower than the average individual marks. The members actually make each other worse. Dysfunctional groups take their direction from the person who shouts the loudest rather than the person with the clearest understanding of the mandate, best judgement, or most persuasive logic. This results from two complementary weaknesses in the group. One is that the people who are shouting the loudest have missed the point. This could be that they have been indoctrinated in lower levels of the school system to treat assignments as a formula rather than a minimum requirement, or they want to do the assignment with the least amount of work. If they get enough teammates on board with their proposed approach, they can often shout down the wiser suggestions.

Taking leadership from the wrong direction

(the loud-shouters, not the smart-thinkers)

A good clue that you are on the express train to Dysfunction Junction is if the emerging group leadership are asking questions based on the concept “do we have to”? As a general rule, in both individual and group assignments, even if you do not “have to”, if you can think of that thing as a possibly relevant thing to do, you almost always should do it, because that could be the thing that makes the difference between a C and a B (if in fact you do have to do it) or between a B and an A (if you don’t have to do it, and you do it, then it gives a good impression of your initiative). It may be true that the majority of the group are not interested in the element being proposed by some of the members. Why not agree that members explore the various angles and elements and bring them back to pool the knowledge? Try to find ways to incorporate multiple perspectives within some kind of a unifying framework. Discouraging group members from adding new layers to the project is a red flag of dysfunction.

Being smart is not enough

(you also fail when you give up on the team)

The complementary factor that leads to dysfunction is that the people with the wiser suggestions give up trying to persuade the others or cannot put their ideas across persuasively. The A+++ student doing a group project on a topic that is years beneath him or her is not going to learn anything new within the content material in the topic, but that does not mean there is nothing to be learned. For those with great ideas who just cannot get the teammates on board, the learning goal is all about teamwork. There is no point having good ideas if you are not persuasive, so if you are the person with the best ideas, it is perhaps time to put “get better ideas” on hold, and start learning “get more persuasion skills” at the top of your learning priority list. Look for strategies to bring the team back from the brink of dysfunction. For example, sometimes the problem is that the majority of the group just cannot visualize the significance of the suggestion. Rather than giving up on the team and just keeping out of the drama, those who know better can take extra personal initiative and develop the proposal a little further so that the other teammates can appreciate what it means to them. Those who know full well that the group contributions are poorly written and formatted can take the initiative to offer to proofread the final edition rather than taking the hit when the inevitable deductions are made. This is an example of taking one for the team, going above and beyond for the good of the team. Even if one does not get any extra marks compared with the others on the team, one gets extra marks by bringing the group mark up.