Improving Group Work in the Academic Setting: Suggestions for Professors and Students
Lydia Eckstein Jackson, PhD*, Ye-Eun (Maria) Kim*, and Callie Garlick
Allegheny College, PA
Groups are a fundamental part of human life: They allow us to feel belonging, divide complex tasks, and establish our social identity (Johnson et al., 2006). Yet, despite its designation as a “high-impact educational practice” (Kuh & Schneider, 2008), group work is often met with annoyance by students.
Problems of Group Work
When individual contributions are unidentified, group members may feel less evaluation apprehension, which can lead to social loafing (group members exert less effort than they would working alone; Ingham et al., 1974). These “free-riders”—people who contribute little, but benefit from the group—are an all-too-common source of frustration, especially when students are evaluated based on the group’s collective output.
Moreover, groups are susceptible to groupthink, which occurs when group members discourage dissent for the sake of group harmony (Janis, 1971). Groupthink can lead to poor group decisions that are never challenged by divergent viewpoints. When group members are wary of sharing differing thoughts, groupthink suppresses creativity and idea generation, which are greater in groups with more diverse perspectives (Nemeth & Ormiston, 2007). Moreover, groupthink is promoted by time pressure (Neck & Moorhead, 1995), which further restricts creative thinking in groups (Amabile et al., 2002).
Benefits of Group Work
Certainly, under the right conditions, multiple heads can be better than one. Group work can facilitate creativity among group members (Nijstad & Stroebe, 2006), allowing for more complex solutions (Laughlin et al., 2006). In an academic setting, groups can help students learn skills that are expected of college graduates, like negotiating different viewpoints, coordinating and addressing complex problems, and honing technological and interpersonal skills. Moreover, they prepare students for academic and nonacademic careers because the ability to work in teams has become a highly desired skill (Herk, 2015). Indeed, that science publications are cited proportionally to their number of authors serves as a testament to the power of collaboration (Wuchty et al., 2007). Clearly, effectual group work is a worthy pursuit.
Advice for Professors
1. When possible, allow students to pick group members and topics; students will be more likely to engage in the work and less susceptible to social loafing (Karau & Williams, 1993, 1997).
2. Include reflective work. Have students report their own individual contributions and those of their group members, perhaps through online peer assessment platforms such as Teammates.
3. Consider the use of team contracts that specify the group’s self-generated timeline, roles, norms, and repercussions for failing to meet agreements.
4. Have deadlines for interim drafts and progress reports to prevent rushed, last-minute work.
Advice for Students
1. Encourage group members to critically evaluate the group’s work and share positions and concerns that may differ from the consensus. Consider assigning a “devil’s advocate” for this purpose.
2. Allow time for numerous meetings so that group members have enough opportunities to share new ideas or doubts.
3. Keep group discussions impartial. Continually affirm that all positions and ideas are valuable and welcome.
4. To foster creativity, have group members work independently before gathering as a group to share ideas.
In sum, we argue that group work remains an important learning tool. By following a few simple guidelines, both students and professors can maximize the many benefits of collaborative work and minimize the problems of group work that contribute to its poor reputation.
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* Note: both authors contributed equally to this work. This post is based on a paper the student coauthors wrote in their Introduction to Social Psychology class.