Editor’s Note:Today we’re revisiting an old favorite on group work. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find links to additional articles on designing effective group work assignments.
Students don’t always like working in groups. Ann Taylor, an associate professor of chemistry at Wabash College, had a class that was particularly vocal in their opposition. She asked for their top 10 reasons why students don’t want to work in groups and they offered this list (which I’ve edited slightly).
- It’s hard to focus during small group exercises.
- We are always rushed.
- Group exercises mean we do the work and the teacher doesn’t.
- We’re trying to work on material we didn’t understand in the reading.
- If we want to work in groups, we can form them on our own; in class we would rather hear someone who understands the material explain it.
- We’re all confused; getting in a group merely compounds the confusion.
- I don’t like the people in my group.
- Group members don’t show up or don’t contribute.
- We’d get through more material if you lectured.
- I can’t sleep during small group exercises.
A few of these reasons have convinced some faculty that not much learning occurs in groups. Others may be a bit more ambivalent but figure if students are opposed why bother with a questionable strategy and have their resistance to deal with as well.
Taylor responds as do many of us who use group work regularly. “Some of these reasons are exactly why I use small group work in class.” (p. 219) Group work engages students and forces them to work with the material. Of course, it’s easier, and from the student perspective preferable, if the teacher provides all the examples, raises all the questions, proposes and evaluates various solutions, i.e., does all the work. All students have to do is copy or download the teacher’s material.
It’s also true that working in groups is harder than doing it on your own. Groups have to cooperate, communicate, delegate, and depend on each other. But for most tasks, groups can do more and do it better than individuals. In the professional world, there’s hardly a career where some (if not most) of the work is done in groups and not necessarily groups populated with your friends.
To students and some teachers, lecture looks like a “neater” way to learn. It certainly is more efficient, but the question is what kind of learning results from lecture? Too often lecture material is memorized—it hasn’t really been figured out, often it can’t be applied and regularly it’s quickly forgotten. Learning most things is a messy process. Confusion, frustration, even despair regularly occur. If students never experience those feelings, they also never experience the thrill of finally figuring something out, of really understanding and of being changed by what they’ve learned.
Does this mean group work should replace lectures? That teacher explanations are always ruled out? Of course not. It simply means that teachers need a repertoire of instructional strategies and that the decision of which to use when should be guided by a collection of variables that does not include whether students want to work in groups.
Taylor says she uses groups over student objections because they work. “By the end of the semester, there are improvements in their performance, teamwork and ability to solve problems. And this is what education is about: students’ growth and learning. Our role as educators is not as a performer or entertainer, but as a facilitator who guides students through the challenges of the learning process, whether they like it or not.” (p. 219)
What may be most useful here is her head-on strategy for dealing with student objections. If you ask students why they don’t want to work in groups and assemble their list, you can respond to their objections. Students may not like all your answers but at least the conversation introduces them to the educational rationale behind having them work collectively and it isn’t because you’re making them do the work you don’t want to do.
Reference: Taylor, A. (2011). Top 10 reasons students dislike working in groups … and why I do it anyway. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 39 (2), 219-220.
For more on group work, check out these articles:
My Students Don’t Like Group Work was originally published on Feb 22, 2012 and was the fourth most popular article on Faculty Focus that year.
Tagged with collaborative learning, evidence for collaboration, group work activities, group work strategies
Diana Senechal is a philosophy teacher and co-ordinator at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering in New York. She is the author of the book Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.
I grew up in a family of professors. I was surrounded by teachers and when I graduated I was keen not to follow a predictable path. Even though I was drawn to teaching, I wanted to see a bit more of the world first so I worked in various fields, including counselling, publishing and computer programming. Then my resistance broke down and the reasons I had for not teaching no longer applied – I hadn’t followed the route that was expected of me.
I’d been teaching for four years when I decided to take a couple of years out to write a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture. In the US the conversation tends to get very loud around certain subjects and when I entered teaching the big idea being discussed was co-operative learning and group work. Without really looking at the disadvantages of these techniques, schools were mandating that group work should be used in nearly every lesson. Some schools were more dogmatic about it than others, but the mantras about how teachers should be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage” were the same as usual. We’d hear about the bad old days where teachers talked incessantly and students were bored stiff, and the good new days with lessons being more interactive and young people learning from each other.
People were taking up caricatures of the past. In my experience teachers weren’t doing all the talking, they were having a conversation with their class and asking questions that took them deeper. What drove me to write my book was the feeling that the other side wasn’t being heard and the importance of solitude in lessons was being ignored.
In some ways, too much of a focus on collaborative tasks is bad for students. To make group work successful teachers have to give pupils a very specific activity to complete, otherwise things get too chaotic, and outlying ideas get shut off. Also, one group member tends to take control and the thoughts of those who are quieter or don’t fit in socially are disregarded. I’m not saying that students can’t recognise good ideas, but they don’t have the broader perspective on the subject that a teacher does. I’ve frequently seen people roll their eyes when someone’s making a point, but actually what’s being said is very interesting. You need a teacher to make sure these ideas are recognised and drawn out.
The limitations of group work have really struck me when I’ve taken part in professional development sessions using this approach. At the end of the day everyone would put their work up on the wall and what was depressing was that it all looked drearily alike – there wasn’t a spark of a good idea.
Sometimes people only trust what’s visible. A pupil who’s sitting quietly looking out of the window is considered disengaged, but this isn’t always the case. Say, for instance, the task is producing a piece of writing. If a student isn’t writing, does that mean they’re disengaged? Or is it that they’re thinking about what to say? What gets forgotten is that talking is not what it’s all about; it’s about having the space to properly think things through and refine an idea.
Part of the reason there isn’t enough room in schools for solitude and intellectual thought is because there’s a focus on exams as an end goal. When I first introduced the new philosophy curriculum we didn’t have tests. One day a pupil said to me, “But professor Senechal, we’ve been trained to think only in terms of the test.” I thought that was so sad. Some students find their way through and realise that the subject is interesting and get taken away by it, but others are trying so hard to do things right that it ends up being a neverending struggle. Young people are under so much pressure to get perfect grades that there’s really no wriggle room for imperfection or taking risks.
It’s not about a particular teaching style. I would hate for my style of teaching to become a model, I think it would be disastrous – I’m very wary of a “solitude movement”. But I would like to see more positive initiatives to make room for solitude in schools. And I would like to see more attention paid to the subject matter itself that’s being studied and for schools to really be lively intellectual places.
At my school I’ve started a tradition of philosophy roundtables for pupils and parents. We start by looking at a text and the discussion goes off in different directions from there. Our next topic of discussion is how you react when you find yourself profoundly wrong about something. What’s so interesting about the roundtables is that there is no division between adults and students, everyone gets involved. We’ve had a sixth-grader contribute and express ideas with a sophistication that’s really been illuminating.
• This article was amended on 22 September 2014. It was a sixth-grader who contributed to the discussion, not a six-year-old.