It’s no wonder employers highly value college grads that are already good team players (Finley, 2021), not only because the ability to collaborate is key to professional success but also because developing this skill set is no easy task. As faculty, we know this all too well! I don’t think I’ve met a faculty member who doesn’t have multiple stories about the inordinate amount of time and emotional energy they’ve invested when group work goes wrong. Indeed, some faculty have had such negative experiences that they avoid group assignments altogether.
My own work with faculty and students has taught me that part of the difficulty comes from misguided assumptions. Students bring these assumptions because they haven’t yet learned differently. Many faculty also operate with these assumptions because they haven’t always thought critically about the collaboration process. For instance, it was a good 10 years into a faculty position before I realized that when a student complained that another group member wasn’t pulling their share of the weight, I had to consider not only the person being complained about but also the behaviors of the person doing the complaining. Yes, some students don’t do their share of the work, but it’s also true that other students exert excessive control or are perfectionists or have little patience, making it nearly impossible to collaborate effectively with them.
I’ve collected the misguided assumptions I’ve encountered in the table below and also included a column for what, in my experience, are realities in effective groups. In the past year or so I’ve been sharing this table with faculty. A typical response when I do is “YES! Definitely yes.”
|Common Misguided Assumptions about Group Work||Realities in Group Work|
|Groups have a single leader.||Leadership is distributed among group members.|
|Group leadership is about dominating and directing.||Effective group leaders seek consensus and equitable participation.|
|There is a single best way to accomplish the task at hand.||As in most of life, there is no single right answer. Successful groups stay open to ideas and stay flexible in the face of inevitable obstacles.|
|Persons who are quiet do not comprehend or are disinterested in the assignment.||Persons who are quiet have numerous contributions to make and it is the group’s responsibility to actively make the space for those contributions to emerge and be taken seriously.|
|English language learners cannot contribute to the task at the same level as fluent English speakers.||Fluent English speakers should not assume a lack of understanding or motivation on the part of language learners; often differences in cultural expectations are at play.|
|Intellectual understanding is the most important contribution a person can make.||Intellectual understanding is important but group members that promote consensus building, reflection, empathy, and conflict resolution are especially successful group members.|
|Mistakes and a lack of understanding are problematic for a group’s function.||Mistakes and a lack of understanding are necessary in the learning process. Willingness to ask questions and learn from mistakes are key to successful group function and the production of high-quality products.|
|Group members should all communicate and participate in a specific way.||Persons from different backgrounds have different cultural expectations for communication and participation. Everyone in the group should work to expand the areas in which they are skilled and comfortable. No single communication or participation style should be expected.|
|All members of the group have the same amount of time to devote to the project.||Many students have life responsibilities beyond coursework. While all members of the group need to make substantial contributions to the project, some flexibility around deadlines may be necessary.|
|It is OK in group work to allow other persons to do more of the work.||Not carrying your share of the effort in a group is especially disrespectful and damaging to an academic community. If you find yourself in a situation in which you are having difficulty completing tasks, the responsible thing to do is to speak with your group members and/or your faculty. We can more than likely work out a solution.|
|It is OK in group work to remain disengaged and to follow the lead of others.||All members of a group should engage in the intellectual and psychosocial work of the group. Everyone needs to share their ideas, take responsibility for an aspect of the project, and step into situations and behaviors that may be unfamiliar (e.g., if you are a quiet person, you should try to talk more; if you are an active talker, you should practice more listening skills).|
As I said above, faculty resonate with the ideas in this table. They recognize the ways their approaches to and expectations of working collaboratively are often misaligned with those of their students. They gain some language for better articulating their expectations. They see why some of their strongest students in terms of content mastery are among the worst group members. They discover strategies for handling inevitable group dysfunctions. Some faculty even recognize for the first time their own biases about group work. Many faculty, and I love this, immediately begin editing and adding items to the table based on their experiences, dispositions, and particular disciplines. So the above table is in fact the result of the very kind of collaborative effort in which we want our students to engage.
After the enthusiastic reception and then editing, conversation inevitably turns to how to put the table to use. Not surprisingly, faculty have come up with a variety of approaches:
Most recently, my thinking has benefitted from faculty pointing out ways the table is an equity-minded, justice-focused pedagogical tool because it
It’s funny how the development of this table has been a great reminder that while collaborative work has its challenges, it also brings many joys and insights. I owe thanks to the faculty whose ideas, identities, perspectives, and experiences made the final product richer than I myself could have accomplished. Which brings us back to why employers value the investments faculty make when they include group projects. I hope you find ways to use the information here to make your students’ group work more successful.
Finley, A. (2021). How college contributes to workforce success: Employer views on what matters most. Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://dgmg81phhvh63.cloudfront.net/content/user-photos/Research/PDFs/AACUEmployerReport2021.pdf
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, most recently served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.