Most Teachers Do Group Work All Wrong

Students’ grades should never be dependent upon the work or lack of work of other students. No exceptions.

Ever since group work came to the fore of preferred pedagogy, this issue has remained ignored. Most teachers don’t even think about it when they’re assigning group work. They simply put the kids in a group (or perhaps even worse, let the kids choose their own groups) and let the chips fall where they may.

This is a spectacularly bad idea and incredibly poor teaching.

And everything I say here is true of college professors as well, who have jumped on the group work bandwagon without a thought of the actual pedagogy.

Why should students’ grades only reflect their work?

Really? That’s a genuine question? Okay.

  1. Report cards are legal documents that reflect that student’s achievement at that grade level. It should not reflect the work or lack of work of another student. Those grades influence admission to colleges and grad schools. They matter. For good or ill, they matter.
  2. Students do not have control over other students. They cannot force other students to work, nor can they force them to do quality work or turn it in on time. Consider: Can you force your students to turn in work on time? If you can’t, how do you think their peers can?
  3. When grades are dependent upon the work of others, students who care about their grades are more likely to dominate the project because they don’t want to earn a poor grade. It skews the dynamic.
  4. It creates conflict in the classroom, rather than cooperation, which was, typically, part of the goal.
  5. Self-organizing is not usually effective. Consider what happens when a group of adults is asked to break into even an informal group and get something done. Has that happened at a recent PD? Does it always go well? And these are professional educators. Students are not going to do it well.

An illustrative story

When my youngest son was in 9th grade, his teacher (the same one I told this story about) gave the students an assignment to do a group project creating a mythology video. This project was mostly to be done over the Christmas break. That is another no-no.

My son was put in a very large group (maybe nine students?), some of whom were in different class periods and some of whom he did not know. He was the “leader” of the group.

He could not even contact some of these kids. How could he find them? He didn’t even have phone numbers for some of them. As a teacher at the school, I had access to their addresses, so I drove him to their homes after school. We only found one at home. For over a week, he struggled to even connect with the other students. He left notes for them with their assistant principals, he tried to find what teachers they had for other classes. He did everything he could possibly be expected to do and far more.

Finally, with the break approaching, he went to the teacher and explained the problem. Her response? “If you complain to me about your group one more time, I’ll lower your grade a full letter grade.”

I came unglued. I mean, un.glued.

Finally, he just decided that they would do the project with the kids he could actually contact, which was about four (and then himself). The other four students who had done absolutely no work earned A’s. Those kids didn’t even know what the project was.

Just think about that for a minute. Just think of all the damage that was done through that one experience.

It gets worse

Later that same school year, that same son, who is by nature a real go-getter and self-motivated, was assigned a group project on Asia by his pre-AP Geography teacher. Remembering that his oldest brother had had a certain set of countries for the same project five years earlier, he volunteered for the same set of countries.

This project was to be done over Spring Break. See a pattern forming?

In any event, he told his group, “Don’t worry about it. My brother did this project five years ago. We’ll just use his stuff.”

And he did. He got all of his brother’s work – PowerPoints, a poster, even a set of six flags of the countries that had been sewn – sewn! – and he turned it all in. No one else in the group did a thing, and he did very little work to gather it. His grade: an A. The grades of all of the other students in the group who had done absolutely nothing? A’s.

This same son has had the same issue in college. The professors just throw out some group project and expect the students to make it happen. It’s ridiculous!

They seem to think that because students can all work in the same Google doc, everything’s fine. They seem to think that all that is required in assigning group work is to tell people, “You’re a group. Do this project.” Um, not even close.

As late as his senior year of college, he had to turn in his own version of a project because the group chose to do such a poor job that he wanted to prove to the professor that he could do better.

Friends, this is not okay.

Where the teachers and professors went wrong:

  • They did not divide responsibility for the work
  • They set up the assignments poorly in several ways.
  • They did not teach the logistics of working in a group.
  • They abdicated pedagogical control of the assignment.
  • They did not have a path for appeal.
  • They did not include self-reflection about the work experience.
  • They did not have accountability for the people who didn’t pull their weight, instead punishing or threatening to punish the students who reported it.
  • They expected students to organize themselves outside of class.

Why it matters

I’m out to make the world safe for the gifted, and this is a huge issue in Giftedland. Gifted students often get a bad rap because they are accused of being bossy and arrogant when they work in groups. You would be, too, if the teacher set the thing up so poorly that authoritarian dictatorship was your only option if you cared about your grade.

Those students then believe that they hate working in groups. In actuality, they probably mostly hate working in poorly designed groups.

If we never give them a well-designed group, we’ll never know.

To this day, if you tell me I have to work in a group, I instantly feel defeated. That matters because then they don’t want to go into careers where they have to work with others, fearing it will be more of the same.

Is post traumatic group work disorder a thing?

I’m a little famous for showing this phrase at sessions I facilitate:

When I die, I want the people with whom I worked in small groups to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.

Here’s the actual image I printed out for my desk:

meme of when I die quote

Wrapping Up:

Working in groups is becoming more important in many careers, as well as at school, so students need to have effective experiences with them in school so that they are prepared for them.

That same son is an Army officer today, leading a platoon of soldiers. You can bet your lifesavers he’s doing a better job than the mischief that was perpetrated on him.

Students who have horrible group work experiences learn lessons alright, but they’re not the lessons the teachers intended.

We can do better, so let’s.

If you’re interested in exactly how to do better, I’ve got three options for you.

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