Friday, May 2, 2014

Group Work


It is no secret that students hate group work (Check References). Mazella (2007) summarizes it cogently in his blogpost some seven years ago. Students often encounter unmet expectations and vexations:
  • Equitable contribution
  • Submaximal goal setting
  • Lessened contingency between input and outcome
  • Lack of evaluation
  • Unequal distribution of compensation
  • Non-cohesive group
Though widely investigated, the misery of group work continues to plague courses, UNLESS group work is carefully taught, designed, supported and supervised (Check Maryellen Weimer's Teaching Professor blogpost, July 21, 2008). Just telling students to collaborate doesn't mean they know how to collaborate. And upon graduation, inequitable group or committee work in adult working life persists in lowering work morale. In my life (stress, MY life), I've only seen folks in the corporate world fired for not producing high-quality work in teams.

As an advocate for diversity and respect for difference, I'm not ashamed to say that the brightest and fastest students are held back and under-recognized because one single grade is given to all group members, regardless of the subpar or missing contribution by loafers. I get it, people have reasons that surface unexpectedly for not being able to participate or not being able to perform at high levels. I'm not unsympathetic to the reasons for some members' inability to contribute. But to say that everyone puts their share in the till and the same recognition is doled out equally to everyone is unmotivating. Why should high quality and low quality performance be equally rewarded? Why would an accelerated high-performer want to continue working in that environment? To say that brighter students would be challenged when they serve as tutors to the slower is simplistic thinking. It shows a lack of understanding of the struggles of accelerated learners. They don't always want to be the tutors or the persons whose "brains are being picked" or who are being taken advantage of (Read "I don't want to be a Smarty Anymore). As for the slower students, they don't want to work at an accelerated pace or to "raise the bar." Some students are contented with just "getting by" (Checklist mentality). How then shall the twain meet? 

Suffice to say, group work remains high on the list of problems my clients face in trying to teach online to large classes satisfactorily. And I try to do the best I can to help them as they experiment with solutions and not give up on group work entirely.

This brings me to the inspiration for this blogpost. Recently, I participated in two short group projects for Tina Seelig's Creativity MOOC. Since it's my second time around, I had some understanding of how difficult it might be to work with folks from different backgrounds and time zones. I was hesitant to be in a group initially since I didn't need to stress myself unnecessarily to be involved in unpredictable group work. There is no grade given and I only wanted to enjoy the course.

However, I found myself invited to a few groups. I decided to commit to one. The group problems I had anticipated reared their heads early (self-fulfilling prophecy?). I decided to pull out of the team due to health concerns (working when I should be sleeping and vice versa). But a few team members contacted me and asked me to return. So I relented and rejoined the group.

The problems my group faced were heightened by short assignment deadlines and cross-continental work (India, Armenia, Mexico, USA (East and West coast times)). I could slacken and not put in as much work as I did -- after all, it's just a MOOC! -- but I was working with very young people for who I felt I should model strong work ethic and responsibility. My goal is to help others succeed. This is not a high-stakes course for me but I worked really hard because I could see that most people were trying to do the best they could.

Both group projects involved us having to brainstorm and implement solutions. For our second group project, we had an ambitious goal - rewrite a song, sing the song and spin a story creatively about the solution in less than a week's time. BUT we did it. Not everyone was able to contribute at the same level for various reasons. But I was satisfied that we pulled it off. It didn't matter to me that some were able to put in more work than the rest. I'm still proud of our humble efforts because we had to work against a number of odds. We made it because we were dependent on each other for success!

My next blogpost will outline our efforts in greater detail. 

References

Mazella, D. (Sept. 29, 2007). Why do students hate groupwork? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://long18th.wordpress.com/2007/09/29/why-do-students-hate-groupwork/

Weimer, M. (July 1, 2008). Why students hate groups. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.teachingprofessor.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/why-students-hate-groups


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