“This assignment will be a group work”.

When I as a bachelor and master student heard the teacher utter this sentence, two things immediately came to my mind: (1) not again and (2) if I can choose my own group member, who should I choose? Everyone of course reacts in different way to the prospect of group work, but I do not think that my reaction is uncommon.  

For a variety of reasons group work is despised by students and celebrated by teachers. In this short reflective blog post, I want to give a brief reflection on why I think group work is so despised among many students and what can be done about it.

But first, why do so many students dislike group work, and why are they, like me, so keen on choosing their own group-members? Part of the truth can probably be found in the meme below:

The phrase “it is funny because it is true” has been so accurate; who can’t recall—or admit that they have been—one of these in a group work? While the people who are free-riding on the works of others can be annoying in the group, I don’t think the free-riding itself is the biggest issue. For me this was never that much of a problem: if people do not want to help, fine, there is usually enough people to carry the project over the finish line and deliver the end-product. The annoying part, I believe, mainly comes after the group work: when everyone, even the free-riders get the same grade.

To grade the end product as something that everyone in the group is equally responsible risks leading to that one diminished the individual contributions and the learning process itself. To solely grade the end product is a primary example of when the goals with the assignment, for example to increase collaborative learning and cooperation skills, does not correlate well with what is graded. In this case the assessment of the groupwork interferes with the groupwork by creating the wrong incentives. To think about what type of grading that will stimulate a great learning environment for group work could therefore be one way to make students hate group work a little less.

However, before answering the question about what type o grading that should be done, instructors should ask themselves another question: is a grade needed at all? Jesse Stommel, founder of the critical pedagogy lab, has been leading the way on ungrading, arguing that much common grading not as much about “giving feedback or encouraging learning and more as a way of ranking students against one another”. Stommel instead points out that there are other forms of assessment that can be done when necessary, such as grade free-zones, self-assessment, and process letters.  I particularly found the self-assessment very interesting. Self-assessment is when the students, in dialogue with the teacher, gives themselves a grade based on their performance. I think this can be particularly helpful in group work, where the students would be able to think and reflect about how they contributed to the group and—equally important—what they learned from the process.

In conclusion, the problem of group work may not be as much in group work itself but rather about how it is graded. It is therefore important to first think about if grading is needed for the particular assignment and, if it is needed, what type of grading that will stimulate a productive collaborative learning environment.  If one succeeds with this student may not only start hating group work a little less—they might even enjoy it.

Why everyone hates group work (and what do about it).