Student attitudes about group work have been an ongoing concern of faculty. Some students don’t like group work, and those negative attitudes have the potential to compromise learning and the quality of the experience for everyone involved. For that reason, it behooves teachers to keep abreast of research findings that explore student attitudes about group work in general and aspects of it specifically.
A recent study (Schlee et al., 2020) compared two cohorts of upper-division business students, 246 of them surveyed in courses taken during the 2017–2018 academic year and 303 enrolled in classes between 2005 and 2007. Students in both cohorts answered the same 10 survey questions. Students in the recent cohort belong to Generation Z (Gen Z), and those in the earlier cohort fall into the millennial group. “Millennials are often perceived as enjoying group work because it is collaborative, it is characterized as being ‘fun,’ and provides more opportunities for creative work and interpersonal communication” (p. 39). Baby boomer parents tended to protect their children more than Gen Z parents have, plus the Gen Z cohort has experienced more disasters, including regular school shootings. For those reasons Gen Z students tend to be more anxious about associations with others. Although these kinds of generational groupings help faculty get a handle on student characteristics, they describe some (but not by any means all) students born within a designated span of years.
The survey results confirmed a significant difference in the attitudes of the two cohorts. Responses to three prompts illustrate the key differences: (1) “I enjoy the comradery of working with group members,” (2) “I am anxious when I join a group because I fear that group members will not produce up to my expectations,” and (3) “Group projects bring out the worst in people” (p. 142). Students in the recent cohort rated the first question lower, rated the second question higher, and more strongly agreed with the third question than the earlier cohort. Differences in responses to all three questions were statistically significant.
A factor analysis revealed three factors that combined to explain almost 60 percent of the variance in the ratings. Factor 1 researchers “labeled as the fear factor because it represents students’ concerns about the contributions of other team members, as well as a general dislike for group projects. In contrast, Factor 2 represents enjoyment of camaraderie, leadership, and creative problem solving” (p. 143). Factor 3 identifies a need for more faculty guidance: “In the 2017–2018 sample, students were more apprehensive when it came to the contribution of other team members and desire[d] more guidance from their professor. But, at the same time, they enjoyed many of the aspects of group projects” (p. 143).
Are these changes in attitudes the attributable to generational differences or to experiences students are having in groups? Since the early 2000s research has been confirming that the majority of faculty do not provide students with much guidance about working in groups or managing complex group projects. Without training and a basic understanding of group dynamics, students often struggle in groups and those experiences foster negative attitudes.
The two cohorts virtually agreed in their responses to one question: “I learn more on group projects than when I study for exams” (p. 142). About half rated on the side of learning more on the projects, and the other half rated in the direction of the exams. That’s not a ringing endorsement for the amount of perceived learning happening in groups. The literature is full of assertions proclaiming the learning potential of groups. But potential doesn’t guarantee learning, and the research on how well students learn content and collaborative skills via group work is mixed. Student concerns and the research serve as a reminder that group work must be carefully designed, students taught how to work collaboratively, and the effectiveness of group activities and assignments assessed.
In situations where people share work responsibility, trusting others is key. Many students feel lots of discomfort when they must depend on others. Even so, learning to trust others and support their efforts are essential professional skills. I remember wanting to be a professor so I could do my own thing. Despite having more freedom than a lot of professionals, I ended up working in way more groups than I anticipated, and with others whose attitudes and expectations varied. I’ve learned to trust, but so tentatively.
Schlee, R. P., Eveland, V. B., &. Harich, K. R. (2020). From Millennials to Gen Z: Changes in student attitudes about group projects. Journal of Education for Business, 95(3), 139–147. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2019.1622501