Gas station without pumps

2012 October 29

More on group work

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:23
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I have often spoken out about the mis-use of group work in today’s schools, grouping kids together to do projects that could more efficiently be done individually. (See, for example, Group work)  I’m not opposed to group work that is genuine (for example, in theater, sports, or engineering senior design projects).  Nor am I opposed to pairing students in labs to share equipment.

My objection is to the idea that forcing kids to work together on projects that they could more easily do separately somehow prepares them for the workforce, or is “good for them” in some other way.

Another person who sees group work in a similar light is Katherine Beals. Her latest post, Out In Left Field: Real-world group work, talks about how groups in the “real world” of work are organized, and how greatly this differs from the usual school “group work”.  The basic idea is that most “group work” in the real world consists of occasional group meetings separated by intense individual work, and that groups are often highly hierarchical.  Who the boss is and how effective they are makes an enormous difference in how well a group works.


  1. When I first started at my institution, we got an NSF grant to better prepare STEM students for the workforce. We concentrated on mostly non-technical things like communications skills and teamwork issues. For the team one, we were all set to make changes to our curriculum until we realized that academics don’t often know much about working in teams. We brought in some consultants from 3M (our grant partner) and learned a lot about how teams there function. We trained a lot of our faculty through that process and only then did we make curricular changes. We focused on issues like: if one member fails, often the team fails. There needs to be individual responsibility and individual work between meetings. Meetings are for check ins and for strategic decisions. We haven’t always been successful, but occasionally I win over those students who hated group work in high school.

    Comment by Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist — 2012 October 30 @ 04:38 | Reply

    • In the senior design course that I co-taught a couple of times, we used Teamwork and Project Management, 3rd edition as a text to help students learn about team formation and management. I found the book itself badly written, but it has a lot of pointers to better written material elsewhere. We assigned the students in groups to research the content of each chapter and present to the rest of the class (practicing library research, group cooperation, and presentation skills—in addition to anything they learned from the material itself).

      The students had one quarter to form their teams and propose their engineering projects, then another quarter to do the projects. The projects were large enough that they could not have been completed in that time frame by any one of the students, so the group work was genuine. Some of the teams functioned very well, others fell apart under the time pressure. Groups with individually competent students that coordinated loosely were more successful than more tightly integrated teams of less competent students. Groups with huge differences in ability were most likely to fall apart, as the weakest members didn’t do what they said they would, and the stronger students resented having to clean up the mess at the last minute.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 30 @ 09:39 | Reply

  2. What do you think of the pair-programming literature, which suggests that students working in pairs learn CS better (presumably because they have to self-explain the concepts) and are retained better?

    Comment by Mark Guzdial — 2012 October 30 @ 17:13 | Reply

    • I’ve not read the pair-programming literature, only 2nd-hand and 3rd-hand reports of it, so I don’t have a strong opinion. I’ve often wondered how the learning was measured, since I have little respect for tests as a measure of programming ability, and the actual programming was done in pairs, not as individuals. I would expect pairs to program better on average than individuals, even if the only effect were from each pair’s work being done by the stronger of the two individuals.

      Since I’ve not looked at the original literature, I don’t know whether the studies are robust or not. Can you recommend one or two studies that you think are particularly well done? I wouldn’t have the patience to read more than that without a pressing need.

      I will be using some paired practice in the Applied Circuits lab I’m teaching next quarter, but that is largely because the lab space is so small that students have to be paired in order to have enough bench space. I do expect some improvement at the bottom end of the class from stronger students helping out lab partners, but I plan to make sure that partners change on each lab, so that no one is disadvantaged consistently by a partner who does too much or too little.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 30 @ 17:46 | Reply

  3. […] week, Gas Station without Pumps had a post about the problems with group work.  I just did a group project in my CS class which I […]

    Pingback by Assessment, Group Work and other vexing issues » Geeky Mom — 2012 November 5 @ 08:46 | Reply

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