Students and their parents both grumble about group work. It seems unfair. Navigating interpersonal challenges feels like a drag. I even hear from people who, despite being many years away from their own school projects or their children's group assignments, still have strong opinions about group work in schools. So today I thought I would explain why group work comes up over and over again in elementary and secondary education. I also want to reassure my readers that teachers understand that our students struggle in some ways with group work. Fortunately, educators are structuring projects in a way that helps students obtain the greatest benefit while avoiding most pitfalls.
What's the point of group work?
There are sound pedagogical reasons for group projects. The most compelling reason is that group work is a way for students to help each other. Even during an hour-long class period in a small classroom of 15 children, a teacher has fewer than four minutes she can devote to each student. When students can assist with understanding directions, surmounting technological glitches, problem solving, and editing, it gives the teacher more time to assist with the most critical challenges.
Project-based assessments are an alternative to quizzes and tests. Projects allow children to "show what they know" in a way that can be more interesting and motivating than traditional assessments. (When interest and motivation are higher, it boosts student achievement while creating a more positive classroom environment.) Projects do, however, tend to take a lot of hours to complete. Assigning students to work in groups usually helps reduce the time burden on each individual. Group work helps schools to conserve resources too—art supplies, lab equipment, computers, etc.—when there are not enough supplies or space for each student to work independently.
Group work is also a way of accommodating students with learning differences. Every classroom has students with diagnosed learning disabilities whom teachers are legally and ethically obligated to support in their learning. One way to help learners of all abilities is to create heterogeneous groups where one student's challenges are supported by another student's strengths. Groups provide much more consistent support over the course of a project than a single teacher could ever give. As well, Groups balance the strengths and challenges that typical students may face. Some will excel at or struggle with reading, verbal expression, following directions, writing, creativity, computation, planning, or organization.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that group work can help children to develop social skills and work habits that are helpful in the 21st century workplace. However, the teachers I know tend to view learning workplace skills as an added benefit rather than a primary goal.
What about introverts?
Yes, some children will do their best work on their own. Others will find that working on their own just feels more pleasant regardless of the quality of their work output. Teachers are usually aware of different learning styles and learning preferences. No curriculum is going to be a perfect fit for every student all of the time. Alternating between group and individual learning activities throughout the year helps to ensure that all students have a chance to work to their strengths.
But freeloaders in groups are a pain.
It's true that no one likes a freeloader. Yet, most elementary and secondary group projects are structured in a way to minimize the amount of coasting any one student in a group can do. The first defense against work being divided unequally is that teachers typically assign students to groups. This avoids distractions that arise from social cliques working together and divides the slower workers and work-avoidant students equally among groups. Teachers may also assign roles and even require that those roles rotate throughout a project, which creates accountability for completion of specific tasks. One child might be the note-taker for her group while another is responsible for doing research, for example. Feedback is another tool for helping students work effectively in groups. Many assignment rubrics now include a category for how well each student performed in his or her group. Teachers have several ways of assessing this category. Using class time for projects allows teachers to directly observe how students work. Teachers also use midpoint and post-project surveys to evaluate group work; in such surveys, students rate themselves and their partners based on defined criteria. Last, some projects are divided up in such a way that, while work is completed in groups, individuals are graded separately. In such cases, a hard-working student who understands the material cannot receive a poor grade because of someone else's failure to complete work.
On the whole, group work is more beneficial than problematic.
While working in groups does introduce a certain potential for stress, the benefits to a classroom far outweigh the drawbacks. Teachers "get it" too; they want to avoid conflict with students and with parents over perceptions of unfairness. They also want assessment grades to accurately reflect student abilities. After all, the gradebook is meant to tell us who has achieved mastery and to determine the focus of future instruction; few are so cynical as to want assignments or grades to be a demotivating punishment.