Students often bemoan group projects, and with good reason. It’s difficult to work with different personalities and to ensure that every member of the team contributes somewhat equally. But the fact of the matter is, it’s important to practice this in an academic setting, as working in a group is the norm in many jobs.
Whether the project itself is a group effort, or it is led by one individual in collaboration with others, one cannot escape working with others to accomplish important tasks. Even when I worked one-on-one with clients as a counselor, I still had to collaborate with other counselors and staff members on treatment planning and ensuring that our clients received the best care. Today, I work on research projects in teams, bouncing drafts of manuscripts back and forth across the globe by email.
I have thought a lot about the skills needed to be successful working in teams, given how many psychology courses I have developed and taught over the years. While mastery of concepts and theories is important for any class, I have always felt that it is just as important to also learn how to work, learn and problem-solve with others.
The benefits of working in a group are numerous. Group work fosters negotiation skills, clarity of communication, and the ability to seek consensus. Unfortunately, many undergraduate and even graduate students do not often take courses or participate in many projects that give them opportunities to learn and practice such skills. Indeed, the traditional lecture style course often includes an “all-knowing” professor standing at a podium, spouting off information for the next test. There may be some interaction among students here and there, but they are all expected to learn independently from their own textbooks and lecture notes.
For a social psychology laboratory that I have taught for almost 10 years, I co-authored a lab manual which includes activities that require students to work in teams. For example, the final research project requires teams of 3-4 students to develop a research hypothesis, design a research study and collect data, analyze the data together, and finally to write up and present their results to the class. They are able to take this class in a traditional classroom lab setting, as well as online, where students share documents and participate in live or staggered chats with group members using discussion boards. The form of team work that I use in this lab is called cooperative learning, which is a term that educators use to describe working with other students in a non-competitive way to reach academic goals.1 Each team member takes on responsibilities in the group, and students are dependent on each other to get the work done. Many times, instructors use collaborative learning as a way to enhance how much students learn about the topic in the class, but the interpersonal skills people learn while working with others should not be dismissed. 2
I have found over the years that there is great variability in how “excited” students are about group work in the classroom. This is disconcerting, because these attitudes can impact classroom performance in a negative way if students are then not motivated to work with and learn from their classmates. Research has shown that when students believe that the tasks and abilities that they will learn in the group context are important, then their pre-existing negative attitudes about group work do not have a negative effect on their performance. 3 The benefits of group work are not as quantifiable as quizzes or exam scores, but the skills that students learn with cooperative learning can be transferred more easily to other situations, and result in higher level reasoning and generation of new ideas.4
I find myself spending a considerable amount of time explaining the benefits of group work to my students in order to motivate them to see value in it. Cooperative learning is not just a way to increase mastery of a subject; the skills that students learn can and should be seen as an end in and of itself.
Keep the conversation going! Let is know your thoughts in the comments below, and share this article with your peers and colleagues the next time you hear someone complain about a group project.
1Slavin, R. E.(1990). Cooperative Learning. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
2Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Kirkus, V.B. & Miller, N. (1992). Implications of current research on cooperative interaction for classroom application. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz & N. Miller (Eds.), Interaction in cooperative groups, pp. 253-280. New York: Cambridge University Press .
3Peterson, S. E., & Miller, J. A. (2004). Quality of college student’s experiences during cooperative learning. Social Psychology of Education, 7, 161-183.
4Johnson, D. W.& Johnson, R. T.(1989). Cooperation and competition: Theory and research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.