“Students don’t like group work, especially the bright students.” You hear that a lot from faculty; it’s a widely held opinion. But how much do we actually know about student attitudes toward working with others? I thought it might be useful to explore what the research reports about group experiences and attitudes.
A well-designed study asked 400 upper-division students about their preferences, feelings, experiences, and overall assessments of classroom group work (Marks & O’Connor, 2013). These students saw the value of group work but were closer to neutral when it came to whether the ability to work individually was more valuable than being able to work in groups: “There is no real consensus whether or not students prefer to work individually or in teams—the results are truly mixed” (p. 149). The thoroughly prepared lit review in this study also supports that conclusion. Marks and O’Connor explain that students come to groups with their own experiences and attitudes, and those can differ significantly. Interestingly, though, this student cohort described their group work overall as a positive experience.
Other research adds another interesting and somewhat surprising dimension to our understanding of student attitudes (Chapman et al., 2010). A 600-business student cohort rated the functioning of groups notably more positive than faculty did. The researchers acknowledge, “Although we expected to find some differences between the groups [faculty and students], we were not prepared for the magnitude of the gaps that seem to exist” (p. 44). The views of the 134 business faculty who responded to the same survey questions were far more pessimistic than those reported by students. In the Marks and O’Connor survey, 71 percent of the students felt their groups worked effectively. And in an earlier survey, only “very few students had extremely negative attitudes” (Chapman & van Auken, 2001, p. 122). The mean attitude for the lowest quartile was 3.11 on a seven-point scale. It was 6.13 for the highest quartile.
So why the big disconnect between what students say is happening in their groups and what faculty think is happening? I don’t know the answer, but it seems to me that the question merits some rumination.
It’s not that student think groups function flawlessly. They are pretty consistent in the problems they report. A recent column highlighted research identifying four problem areas: a lack of commitment to group work, organizational issues, the inability to agree on solutions, and ineffective communication. Lots of other work has established that students object to members who don’t carry their weight, don’t show up to meetings, don’t participate, and don’t deliver the goods. Also, there are also regular objections to group grades.
Are faculty correct in believing that it’s the good students who most strongly object to group work? Some evidence does support that belief. Marks and O’Connor report a .220 correlation between GPA and preference for working in a group—the higher the GPA, the lower the preference for group work. Does that justify not using group activities and assignments or excusing the good students from participating in them? That depends on where students are headed. If it’s toward professions in which they will work in teams, the college years offer a chance to develop those skills.
Maybe students do have fewer negative attitudes about group work than we suspected, but they still have some. So what contributes to those bad attitudes? Marks and O’Connor discovered that only 41 percent of the students in that cohort believed that professors did not use group work to reduce faculty workload. Almost 25 percent thought they did, while the remaining 34 percent was neutral. On the faculty list of reasons to use group work, this would be near the bottom for most of us, wouldn’t it? When you factor in planning, preparing students, monitoring them, and providing feedback, I’m not sure group work is a time-saver. But’s if that’s why students believe we have them work in groups, it’s not a perception that develops positive attitudes.
What the research documents about student attitudes is interesting, but what’s really worth knowing are the attitudes of your students. Both these articles (Chapman et al., 2010; Marks & O’Connor, 2013) contain the survey questions used in the study. They or some subset of them could be used to find out what your students think of group work, and most interesting of all would be how their responses compare with yours.
Chapman, K. J., Meuter, M. L., Toy, D., & Wright, L. K. (2010). Are student groups dysfunctional? Perspectives from both sides of the classroom. Journal of Marketing Education, 32(1), 39–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475309335575
Chapman, K. J., & van Auken, S. (2001). Creating positive group project experiences: An examination of the role of the instructor on students’ perceptions of group projects. Journal of Marketing Education, 23(2), 117–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475301232005
Marks, M. B., & O’Connor, A. H. (2013). Understanding students’ attitudes about group work: What does this suggest for instructors of business? Journal of Education for Business, 88(3), 147–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2012.664579