Professors: stop assigning group projects! (Guest Post)

NB: Written by Kevin Thompson on September 2, 2013 and republished with his permission.

This week is the start of grad school. Since I’m also working full time I decided to take it easy and only registered for two classes. I know that is a small sample size, but I’m pretty disappointed to learn that both of the classes have a lot of group projects involved in them. And I remember from my time as an undergrad student that (almost) every professor was assigning group projects too. Ugh group projects suck! I had hoped that I would be done with group projets when I left undergrad behind. Collaborative learning: the go-to pedagogy for lazy professors when service learning isn’t available for some reason.

First, a distinction

I draw a distinction between group projects and group work. To me, a group project is a larger deliverable where the intent is that students will work together over a longer period of time. Group work, on the other hand, is what I call it when you have students break into smaller groups within the class period to discuss something amongst themselves and possibly produce a short deliverable. I don’t have much of a problem with group work and I use it when I’m teaching my classes. Group projects on the other hand have serious problems if you’re actually concerned about the quality of the teaching and the reputation of the institution.

Why group projects?

Before we get into why group projects are awful, we should examine why they are so popular in the first place. The stated reason, which I hear over and over again, is that when students start their careers they will be expected to work together. I’ve also heard it said that collaborative learning is more effective than the old standard of lecturing a student and then testing to see what they remembered. I also think that an unstated reason is that it allows professors to be lazy. I’ve had the pleasure of grading 35 papers and I know how much it sucks. I bet it would be great if I only had to grade 5 papers instead of 35. I also know that grading A papers is easier than grading C or D papers. The paper is easier to read, easier to understand, and I don’t have to provide nearly as much feedback. So it would be great if those 5 papers were all A-quality papers.

Doing a disservice

I’m not just complaining about group projects because I don’t enjoy working with a group. I’m also complaining because I will have to work with these people at some point down the road. First and foremost, I’m an information technology professional; not a college professor. If I do a poor job of teaching a student about information security then I (or someone like me) is going to have to deal with that person’s mistakes down the road. I don’t have the luxury of being insulated from the quality of my work as a teacher. I’m also not suggesting that professors should avoid group projects because I don’t like to hear my students groan when I assign one. I feel that group projects are doing a disservice to the students involved and doing a disservice to the professional community that will take those students when they leave school. Group projects do not actually prepare a student for workplace teamwork, do not teach the concepts of the assignment well, artificially inflate the grades and accomplishments of mediocre students, and unfairly adds additional burden to a small group of students without a corresponding increase in rewards.

Poor approximation of professional teamwork

An entry-level job for a college graduate is going to involve some amount of team work. However, only the dumbest of bosses will assign a group project to a bunch of recent grads. In a professional setting that person will be working with a mix of recent grads, seasoned professionals, and salty old veterans. Those other people are probably competent and interested in the work that they do otherwise they would have found some other job to get into. Most of them also feel like this job they’re doing is the way they make their living and feed their family so they take it very seriously. Many of the incompetent slackers will have been weeded out long ago. The responsibility for completing the project will fall to an experienced professional (manager or project manager) who has the authority to make decisions and isn’t an equal to everyone else in the group. The team will work together by identifying the goal of the project and the specific deliverables that need to be created. They will identify the areas where each person is best suited and plan for the interdependency of their work. Everyone will probably do their work and will even go out of their way to make sure that it is high quality and fit for use by the other members of the team. In Information Technology, there is an incentive to do quality work so that you wont have to go back and rework it six months down the road. In any job there is an incentive to produce useful, high-quality work because you will have to work with these people over and over again for the foreseeable future.

Compare that to a group project in a typical college classroom. The students get clumped together either through random chance or by picking teams like you’re back in gym class. If this is a gen-ed class, there is a very good chance that none of the people in the group are interested in the subject matter at all. This class is not the most important thing going on in their lives by a long shot, certainly not holding the same level of importance that someone places on their profession. The group will probably include people like Norman No-show, Billy Beer-bong, and Mandy Meth-head. When the semester is over you might never have to work with these people again so you don’t really have to worry about maintaining a professional relationship with them. Nobody in the group is an experienced professional and everyone is an equal. There is no person that has authority over the others or has the ability to hand out negative consequences. What kind of teamwork skills is this environment supposed to teach? Seriously, it would be better for students to enter the workforce with no teamwork skills than with bad teamwork skills. Group projects teach roughly half of students that they can slack off and turn in crap and get by just fine. Few of the students are learning how to use communication skills or work with different personality types. They’re too busy doing other students work. When Norman No-show turns in his contribution at the last minute and it’s full of mistakes and incorrect conclusions you can’t communicate your way out of that. Someone that paid attention in school has to fix it before the deadline. Your only option is to take a couple of your room-mates adderall and pull an all-nighter. These group projects are not teaching any kind of teamwork skill that I want in my work place.

Students don’t learn much

Collaborative work is not collaborative learning. Sure maybe with some hands on labs or something where everyone can conribute ideas towards solving a problem all of the students can learn the whole concept. But when you give a 20 page assignment to a group of five students the first thing they do is cut it up into smaller pieces and dole out the work. So even if you had a magical group where everyone pulled their weight and produced quality work, you would have five students that each understand one-fifth of the concept. So in the best case scenario, a group of students will learn an important subject not from their learned professor but from another student that knows as little about the topic as anyone else in the group. That’s not teaching, that’s pawning your responsibilities off onto someone that isn’t qualified to do the job.

That was the best case scenaro. What usually happens is that a group if formed up and the work is divided up evenly. Billy Beer-bong volunteers to take all the easy stuff, Mandy Meth-head turns in incomprehensible gibberish that she vomited onto a page in between trips to the club, and Norman No-show turns in the first draft that he produced at 10:00pm the night before the assignment is due. Only the one or two good students in the group will ever read the entire finished report. So many of the students really did only learn about 1/5th of the concept. Billy Beer-bong had incorrect conclusions so he didn’t even get his whole fifth. It is incomprehensible to me how you can hand off the work of teaching to people that are barely out of their teens and know nothing about a subject and expect them to come away with even a rudimentary understanding of the topic.

Grade inflation

My dad has been complaining about grade inflation since I was in diapers. Normally I might think he’s just being a cranky old fella that thinks things were much tougher when he was in school. But grade inflation is a well-documented phenonmena. I’m not going to say that group projects are the sole cause of grade inflation, but I am going to say that it is a major contributing factor. Pairing a C student up with an A student usually results in an A paper and so the C student become a B student and a B student becomes an A student. If you have a class that is mostly group projects you can turn a D student into an A student.

I graduated Summa Cum Laude by the skin of my teeth. If I had gotten one more B in any of my classes I would have been slumming with the Magnas on graduation day. So even in my gen-ed classes I was busting my hump to make sure I got an A. And when I got paired up with Norman No-show and Billy Beerbong I tripled my worload to make sure that we got an A on those projects. That extra work made the two of them appear to be better than they actually are. I would guarantee that I have not had a unique experience, this happens all the time. So a lot of people are having their grades artificially inflated. That’s really unfair considering that the job market for recent grads is really competitive. Getting into grad school can be pretty competitive too. It stinks having to compete with people whose grades are just as good as yours even when those people earned their grade. It’s even worse when the person was gifted their good grades through your hard work.

Unfair Burden

We all know it: group projects force one or two students to do extra work to make up for the lack of productivity from other students. Instead of calling it collaborative learning, it should be called academic food stamps. Some professors try to compensate for the shared grade problem by allowing the group members to evaluate each other. So a student that doesn’t pull his or her weight can get graded down. Perfect, right? Problem solved. Except that giving Mandy Meth-head a D on the assignment doesn’t give me back the weekend I spent fixing up her awful contribution. It’s not like the professor is going to take her points and give them to me so I can slack off on the next assignment. Or tell my next professor to give me some points in that class because of my awesome achievement in this class. Even if you penalize the non-performers, the good students have to do a lot of extra work and they get nothing for it. Those students could have done a lot less work on an individual assignment and gotten the same A.

Enough is enough

Group projects are creating nothing but problems for students. They force some students to work their butt off with no additional reward and let other students get grades they don’t deserve. And for all that the students don’t even get the benefit that they’re supposed to get from group projects. Maybe group projects can be an effective teaching tool, but it has to be used by a professor that really knows how to use it. I would say that most professors do not know how to use group projects responsibly. I know I don’t, and that’s why I don’t use them. It’s time for more professors to make that same choice. Group projects need to go the way of PowerPoint lectures. Oh, you’re still doing PowerPoint lectures? Well … crap.