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Stop pretending group work emulates the “real world”

By Kristy Koehler, December 9 2019—

Have you ever participated in a group project that you’ve actually enjoyed? Whenever I see a course outline with a group project, unless the course is absolutely necessary to my graduation, I immediately withdraw. I absolutely loathe the entire process and the arguments for why it exists in the first place are baseless and farcical.

Group work, according to some professors and experts in teaching and learning, prepares students for “workplace culture.” No, it doesn’t. Professors and administrators, stop touting this as gospel and students, stop believing it. If you think group projects emulate the “real world” work environment, you’re deluded — or haven’t been in the work environment for a hundred years. 

Before you try to tell me that “academics work together all the time” and “you have to learn to get along with all kinds of people,” let me take you through the fallacy of those arguments. 

Yes, academics work together. They publish work together and collaborate all the time. But that association isn’t forced. Bob from sociology didn’t pull Susan from psychology’s name out of the dean’s hat and get told that tenure is contingent on publishing an article together. And, at the office, the director of marketing isn’t getting told to complete a project with Sharon from accounting who thinks you can cure cancer with kale and believes the earth is flat. 

I agree that we must learn to get along with all types of people. But, universities are not kindergartens. First through seventh grade are for learning to share toys and play nice with one another. In the workplace, monetary value to the company is dependent on projects reaching completion — the boss doesn’t want to conduct a social experiment, she wants to get things done and make money. The modern workplace assesses competencies and synergies and places people in working groups and committees who will collaborate effectively and impactfully. In the workplace, there’s a hierarchy and the boss assigns someone to be in charge, so if your group work in classrooms is trying to emulate the workplace, you’re doing it wrong.

Also, let’s not forget that I’m getting paid to work collaboratively in the “real world.” I’m certainly not going to take my work home with me for free and have Bill from payroll come over after dinner to get it done. But, in university group work, I’m expected to take time after class to coordinate schedules with other people, a feat that can be hard when university isn’t your only commitment. 

I’m aware that all classes require work outside of class time, but the freedom should be mine to determine when exactly that is. Group work is detrimental to mature students and those who have to work in order to pay for their education. Those of us who have to work full time cannot simply “make time” for school at a time that is convenient for others. Our mortgages, our bills and in some cases, our families, depend on us working full-time hours that cannot be changed on the whim of a project.

If a group project or presentation is the equivalent of being tied up and repeatedly punched in the face, a group essay is having my teeth systematically pulled out with rusty pliers and then having my tongue cut out — in more ways than one.

How can any professor who believes in academic freedom possibly think that people can write a paper together? My writing is my voice — and it’s mine alone. Asking randomly-selected people to write together removes the voice of the individual and replaces it with a sanitized voice of the collective.

Rather than fostering a collaborative environment, group work stifles academic thought. I understand the theory — everyone shares their ideas, learns something from everyone else and is better for it since their mind has been opened to new ways of thinking. Utopia isn’t possible. Theory isn’t reality. The fact of the matter is that someone loud is always paired with someone quiet and the traits of the individual are sacrificed to present a united front that doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. No thanks.

I’m also not advocating for solitary scholarship — there’s plenty of good to be had in bouncing your ideas off of others, of engaging in debate and discussion. But at the end of the day I, like many others, repudiate the notion that my ideas should be dumbed down or altered to accommodate someone else’s comfort-level within the group.

I have yet to hear of a group where someone doesn’t say “I did all the work and my partners did nothing.” I’m sure they exist, but they’re few and far between. Group work encourages lazy students to ride the coattails of high-performing students and high-performing students often have to reduce the quality of their work because someone might not understand.

Group projects that take place without a means of peer evaluation are a special kind of ridiculous. Professors do not have the time, or often the wherewithal, to evaluate individual performances and cannot possibly know or be able to consider the level one participant performed at relative to another. In a classroom, you might get away with it. In the real world, you’ll be fired.

A significant amount of stress is added to students who are forced to engage in group projects. Unless it is absolutely necessary for a particular class or project, group work should never be foisted upon students.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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