Part 1: Why having students work in groups can be a good pedagogical approach

(Editor’s note: The following article is George Ehrhardt’s response to Bruce Gans’ July 11 article against group learning. Gans replies in Part 2 of this debate.)

Is group work a useful teaching tool? A recent commentary by Bruce Gans insists otherwise, claiming that group work “accomplishes little beyond giving faculty time off from the hard work of instructing.”

To support this claim, he relates examples of ineffective group work, stories that should be familiar to any college professor. While his examples are indisputably bad teaching, he misses something important that makes group learning useful.

To begin with, we should recognize the place of group work in the hard sciences. Contemporary lab work at all levels, from undergraduate to star researchers in academia and industry, is typically done in groups. The value to science of group work is old news, and Dr. Gans’ essay implicitly recognizes it in the headline referring to “college humanities classes.”

Nevertheless, that qualifier appears nowhere in the essay itself. In fact, he broadly and uniformly condemns group learning per se.

This raises many questions: why would it be appropriate in hard sciences but not in the humanities? How is group work different in the two situations and why does that matter? What marks the boundary of its appropriateness (i.e. is it only acceptable in chemistry and physics lab, or are there other places as well)? What about the middle ground; should social science instructors use group work? 

Dr. Gans’ essay suggests he believes we should draw a high fence around hard science labs and resist using group learning anywhere else. I think he’s wrong. Group work can be useful because it allows students to do things they could not do alone. 

We should be careful to avoid mixing the terms group “work,” “projects,” and “learning.” While he uses all three terms, Dr. Gans narrowly circumscribes his examples to students talking in small groups, which might be group “learning,” but it isn’t a “project” (at least not one worthy of the name). The key difference, I think, is between thinking or talking on the one hand, and doing on the other.

Perhaps a counter example may help. In my political science research methods course, I teach students how to write a “methodology” section, describing how they accomplished their research. To give them something to write about, I assign them to conduct a simple generic versus brand-name taste test on some random food product with a small sample of participants. It’s a simple experiment, just enough material for them to write their first methodology with, which they each write individually.

Practically, though, doing the experiment alone would require an experimenter to juggle many different things at once: explaining the procedure to participants, recording data, dealing with the food samples (i.e. keeping track of which blind sample is which). One could do it alone, but each distraction increases the chance of experimental error and the chance that the student will not accurately remember what he did. 

In short, students can do it better in a group, which is one reason group work is so prevalent in actual research labs, of course. Sure, I could show them a video of someone else’s experiment and ask them to individually write a methodology section about that, but it would miss so much. Doing it as a group project makes them design the experiment, design a data spreadsheet, and experience that they can do research themselves. 

Group work allows useful educational experiences that they couldn’t get (or would get an inferior version of) by themselves. The methodology write-up, on the other hand, isn’t doing, it’s thinking, and here I agree with Dr. Gans that it is best done alone. 

At a minimum, it’s safe to claim that group work is useful in classes that use experimentally gathered data. This would include both hard sciences and many of the social sciences, such as economics or political science. 

I don’t think group work’s usefulness ends there, however, and would offer two more possibilities. The first is research more generally, not just experimentally.

Gathering enough information to be worth writing about is (in my experience) more difficult and time-consuming than the actual writing. The short time span available for most projects (less than one semester) makes this problematic, especially for undergraduates. When students collaborate on gathering information, however, they can get enough in that limited time to have something interesting to (individually) write about.

For example, in my Religion and Politics course, each student visits a local church several times in the first 10 weeks and takes ethnographic field notes on political/social references (sermon content, bumper stickers in the parking lot, etc.). Individually, that would not be enough to reach meaningful conclusions, but as a group, the class produces upwards of 200 pages of field notes. I collate everyone’s notes into a single volume and they use that to discover things about actual religion and politics where they live, instead of summarizing someone else’s words about far away places. Without the group project, that would be impossible to do in a semester.

Another use of group work that fits into class-time is the study of group dynamics itself. Foreign policy scholars describe international negotiations as a “two-level game,” where negotiators must not only deal with their foreign counterpart, they must also negotiate with competing domestic constituencies to ensure an agreement will be ratified.

The difficulties in this process explain why international agreements are so difficult to achieve. While I can explain this in a lecture, I find that a well-designed group simulation, with each student playing a different (and competing) role allows students to viscerally experience the frustration and horse-trading that inevitably occurs in international negotiations. The same is true for a variety of collective-action-problem situations.

I suspect Dr. Gans wouldn’t object to any of the group projects I’ve described here, so why make an issue out of distinguishing between group talking and group doing?

Successive waves of faddish pedagogical “reform” have left quite an array of practices, imposed by policies like the evaluation criteria Dr. Gans mentions. It is easy for traditionalists to wave grumpily and dismiss the whole endeavor, but that only reinforces the stereotype of traditionalists as closed-minded Luddites and makes it easier for reformers to ignore their criticism.

As even the most ardent Burkean knows, traditions are not frozen in stone; they are always open to thoughtful change.