Part 2: Here is more evidence that group learning fails students

(Editor’s note: Bruce Gans wrote a piece opposing group work on July 11, 2014, for the Pope Center. George Ehrhardt counters with his own article here. The following is Gans’ defense.)

Professor George Ehrhardt has written a thoughtful riposte to my recently published argument that group work is a waste of time. Having been asked to respond by the Pope Center, I found my first thought was that Professor Ehrhardt and I share the same larger goal—to best serve students’ interests in getting the best education.

My aim here, however, is threefold. The first is to address those readers whose experience of group work is consistent with mine—to arm them with additional evidence to liberate them from the intimidation of conventional wisdom and peer pressure and thus discard the practice.

My second aim is to encourage believers in group work to reflect upon the problems that I and others raise and question whether their group projects need to be revised to best educate their students.

The third purpose is to let fall another drop of water on the forehead of the practice of making the assignment of group work a pre-condition of getting tenure and avoiding the pedagogical remediation watch list.

Toward these ends, therefore, the defense calls to the stand professor Jason Fertig of the University of Southern Indiana who has published a profound, original, and phenomenal essay entitled “The Folly of Team Projects.” In it, Professor Fertig critiques “[t]eam projects, team presentations and team research papers” and finds his attempts to design a high-quality group project equivalent to forcing “a square peg in a round hole.”

Over and over, Professor Fertig observes, the best students routinely do not earn the best grades on team assignments. He writes that ”A” students “put their names on papers that they would never dream of submitting for individual assignments.”

According to Professor Fertig, the best students do their own work “to their standards, and sit back and assume that the rest of the team will do their part.” He also found that when a student is placed in charge of a team project, this leader “will inevitably contribute more to the project than other students” and then watch the other students do whatever they do, assemble the completed parts, and submit the result. Faculty members do not give team leaders the power of a supervisor’s power to order team members to perform up to standard, nor are leaders graded on having done so without the formal authority.

Instead, members of the group are evaluated individually. This of course defeats the original pedagogical intent to teach the group head leadership skills and responsibilities. Professor Fertig concludes, “This turns the whole idea of ‘team project’ into no more than a façade.”

In Professor Fertig’s view, an equally fundamental flaw in team projects is that they “result in grade inflation for weaker students.“ The reason? “While many students submit team projects below their individual standards, the collaboration rarely results in F-level work. It takes a real effort to fail a team project because one member usually does not let that happen.“ The consequence is that group projects “do more to bolster the grades of weaker students than help the stronger students…. F’s become D’s and D’s become C’s” because grades of the weaker students are raised by those from group projects. Professor Fertig confesses, “I regrettably pass weaker students onto other professors solely because someone else’s work helped them get through my class.“

Professor Fertig wrote that, having concluded from long experience that team projects “did more to damage learning than to aid it…I decided to drop team assignments in favor of traditional essay exams and individual papers, and the early results on student papers and evaluations suggest that I was a better educator for it.”

He goes on to say that in research institutions, group work is assigned no matter how worthless a teaching tool because “the notion that a professor will shun research to take a day or two to do nothing but grade papers is career suicide, regardless of the quality of the research or the teaching ability of the individual.”

Equally disturbing, when Professor Fertig brought his concerns about group work to his colleagues, he was advised to solve the problems by just factoring the team project in as a minor element of the student’s grade.

While Professor Ehrhardt is no doubt sincere and diligent in his group work pedagogy, I judge it indisputable that, as Professor Fertig has found, many faculty assign group work to minimize their workload at the expense of student learning.

There are, however, additional disturbing elements of group work that deserve consideration. One is that it replaces the educational emphasis on the individual with that of the group and ignores the reality that a classroom where a faculty member lectures constitutes a group attempting to master a body of knowledge together.

Contrast that with a course this author enrolled in to train faculty in how to teach online courses. Colleagues were arranged in online groups and assigned a multi-element task. We divvied up elements, assigned one to each member of the group, and reassembled the results.

Our group flunked, however, due to a fundamental procedural failure. That is, the instructor had, without our realizing it, intended for us to work on every single element collectively, discuss every single finding as a group, and vote on each self-evident conclusion. Since the assignment’s individual elements involved matters cut and dried and not open-ended philosophical ones, the instructor in effect wanted us to spend exponentially more hours for which there was no conceivable practical function. One got the impression that the instructor and the school out of which such an assignment design arose required this because it was equally important for the group assignment to “build community,” to forge us into a band of brothers.

Quite apart from the frustration and futility of attempts to schedule all twelve members to be present for every online element of the work, this group work ideology appears to underlie the insistence upon it.

In other words, it doesn’t seem to be a strategy to most effectively educate students and develop their intellectual skills. Rather, it seems a device to force people who are thrown together for the purpose of accomplishing a practical task into the unnecessary position of becoming ersatz family members.

Above all, the main problem with group work is that it robs students of the rare opportunity to be challenged to learn as an individual and go mano a mano with one’s own abilities, dedication, and mastery of the materials as best one can.

It replaces that with something that is invariably an obstacle to learning and destructive of it, namely the way a person happens to relate to a group of people and how the others relate to him. Here a student’s learning is subverted by having to cope not with the struggle to learn, but to relate to the know-it all peer, to the peer who is genetically driven to insist on always being in charge, to the peer who is unmotivated or arrogant or insulting or incompetent.

And, on the other side of the coin, in group work students have to cope with their own shyness, lack of social self-confidence, and the need to not jeopardize the approval of the others, none of whom are responsible for awarding the grade.

For over a decade I listened to students report to me that the problems and shortcomings of group work discussed here, including science classes such as Professor Ehrhardt has mentioned, are the rule, not the exception. So much so in fact that for students the frustration and disappointment of group work are taken as a matter of course because in their experience it is the nature of the beast.

Group work may be all that Professor Ehrhardt argues it is but in the experience of Professor Fertig, this author, other faculty and legions of students, the beauties of group work are those of the Phoenix—often cited, never seen, a figure of legend.