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“I’d really rather work alone. . .”
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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f students don’t come right out and say they don’t want to work in groups, the nonverbal message comes through loud and clear. “Get together with those sitting near you. I’ve got something I want you to work on as a group.” Some students stretch out, most don’t move at all, some roll their eyes, others tentatively peer at each other, a few inch their chairs closer. It’s not what anyone would describe as an enthusiastic response.
Ann Taylor, a chemistry professor at Wabash College, had a class that was particularly vocal in its opposition to group work. She decided to ask the students why they dislike working in groups so much and they offered this list of reasons, which have been slightly edited.
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 from someone who understands the material explain it to us.
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.
You might consider letting your students generate a list like this. It’s a good way of getting the issues out on the table. Some of what’s on this list a teacher can provide—more time (just not too much), sometimes letting students form their own groups. Better yet, if students have been given the chance to generate a list like this, teachers can respond with a list of their own, which they can give to students.
Reasons Why a Teacher Wants Students to Work in Groups
In most professions you will be working with others in groups. You can learn something about that by reading a book, but you’ll really learn how to do it by being in groups and working with others. It’s better to develop these skills in college, not on your first job.
You can learn from and with each other. In some situations, you can learn better from each other than from your teachers. Students can ask each other questions you’d be embarrassed to ask the teacher. Explain things in language that makes sense to other students. Students can disagree with each other.
In groups you have to figure things out for yourselves. Yes, of course, the teacher can tell you—and I will help if you get truly stuck—but you need practice figuring things out for yourself. When you get a job, is the boss going to be there, ready and willing to tell you everything you need to know about doing your job? When you’re in a group, you’re working on figuring it together. It’s a good intermediate step.
Figuring things out on your own gives you a sense of accomplishment. It builds confidence, in yourself and in your ability to be part of a group that figured it out. When you get the answer from the teacher, you’ll never know whether you could have found the solution on your own.
You need to learn to work with peers. It’s preparation for being a professional. In the group, everybody is more or less equal. No one has more power unless there’s a designated leader. So, how does the group handle problems with individual members—the ones who don’t contribute or do their part of the work? The group works as a unit and exerts pressure on individuals. It’s important to learn how to do that. When you become a professional, you’re not always going to like everybody you have to work with, so you’ll need to learn how to put personal feelings aside.
Groups are greater than the sum of their parts. Groups have more resources at their disposal than individuals do. Group members have different skills, experiences, perspectives, and background knowledge. All of those things help groups with their tasks, but the group benefit doesn’t happen automatically. Group members have to share their expertise. When they do, groups make better decisions and do better work.
Groups make it easier for everyone to participate. Teachers can’t call on everyone. Some students are reluctant to speak in class. Groups are smaller so there’s less pressure and more opportunities to contribute.
Group assignment and activities often give students the chance do the kind of work done in their future profession. Group work is hands on. If it’s a case study, a scientific question, preparation of a report—that’s what professionals do and they mostly do it in groups. It’s a chance to start feeling and sounding like the professional you are about to be.
Non-reasons Teachers Have Students Work in Groups
To make students like group work. No, that’s not the agenda. Many professionals, including a lot of professors, don’t like to work in groups. We’d rather work alone but we’ve discovered even in our profession that provides more autonomy than most we spend all sorts of time in meetings and on committees, and some of the people we work with, we don’t like, and some of the people in our groups don’t contribute or do their fair share of the work. What we and you need are the skills that enable you to function effectively when you’re required to work with others. It’s not about liking group work; it’s about knowing how to do it well.
To get out of work we should be doing. We didn’t have time to prep a lecture. We’re lazy and have the power to make students teach themselves. No, no, no. When you’re working in groups, we may not be giving “stand and deliver” lectures, but we’ve put time in on the group activity or assignment you’re doing. Designing good group work is a challenging intellectual task and so is assessing what you’re learning in those groups.
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. https://doi.org/10.1002/bmb.20511