Gas station without pumps

2012 January 15

Individual work in collaborations

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:09
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I have protested in this blog before about the excessive use of inappropriate group work in schools, though recognizing that there are projects that are big enough or varied enough that groups are the appropriate way to tackle them.

A much more eloquent article on the subject by Susan Cain was just published in the NY Times: The Rise of the New Groupthink.

There are nice sound bites like

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.

She does suggest that on-line brainstorming may work better than in-person brainstorming, quoting Proust’s description of reading as a “miracle of communication in the midst of solitude”.  Her prescription for effective teamwork seems reasonable to me:

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

I certainly have found that my best collaborative work has come out of fairly incidental contacts (meeting someone from another department in a hallway, chatting after a research seminar, talking with a student in someone else’s research group), followed by days or weeks of intensive work on the problem.

My sabbatical this year has been going through fertile and dead periods.  The dead periods have been times when I was not getting any contact with students and colleagues, and was not getting anything done.  The fertile periods were intense bursts of activity by myself after a chance contact with someone sparked an interest in a particular problem.

Most recently, I’ve been working on putting together a bioinformatics protocol that will let us reconstruct the cagY genes from hundreds of strains of Helicobacter pylori using PacBio sequencing.  Most of the sequencing technologies are not suitable for this gene, as it has long blocks of many repeats that vary from strain to strain.  Because the tandem replication is very recent (divergence between the strains may be only a few generations earlier) and there is selective pressure to maintain the open reading frame, the different repeats are often identical for long stretches, making short-read data nearly impossible to assemble. Even Sanger sequencing to confirm the gene assembly is difficult, as it is hard to find unique primer locations.

I started this project as a result of a short discussion with a couple of H. pylori researchers, but I spent weeks writing programs and Makefiles, testing them, twiddling parameters to see if they were robust, and so on.  I could not have done the work without the collaboration (I needed someone who had a difficult, interesting problem and the data to work on), but I could not have done the work if someone had kept interrupting me or making suggestions either.  The project would probably have died halfway through if I had had to do it with my usual teaching load, as I was spending 12–16 hours a day on it for weeks.

I need to alternate between working alone and contact with others. Sometimes talking through a problem with someone who understands and can ask good questions helps me clarify my thinking, after which I need hours or days to work out the details, after which I want to share again.


  1. I just blogged about the same article, (
    and came to a similar conclusion. Nice read!

    Comment by teachcmb56 — 2012 January 15 @ 15:04 | Reply

    • Having just read your post, I’m not so sure that we are in agreement. I’m closer to Susan Cain’s position, that “group work” has been vastly overrated and poorly taught and is rarely as effective in the “real world” as those who tout it claim.

      Your example of group-written essays in your class leads me to suspect that you are overusing group work to reduce your grading load (a goal I can sympathize with, though not the method you are using to achieve it).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 15 @ 20:20 | Reply

  2. In all my classes last semester, I established groups of 4. Sometimes students worked individually, sometimes with a partner, and sometimes in these groups. One of the benefits I believe I saw was that students seemed to take more risks because they felt safer. I’ve always tried to establish a safe atmosphere in my classes, but me trying doesn’t make it so. When they’ve worked with a group for a while, and know that others are struggling as they are, it helps them take the risk of acknowledging their confusion, and trying to work through it. I think I saw significantly increased success. (I have always graded students individually.)

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 January 15 @ 18:27 | Reply

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