Group work or group hassle?
Photo by Kyle West
By: Monica Takahashi
Group projects are becoming an increasingly unavoidable element of university. Nowadays, it seems as though group work is included in every course. There has been also been a simultaneous rise in project-based programs, especially at McMaster University.
Different courses treat group work differently. Some require students to answer a difficult problem that should, in theory, be easier to solve through collaboration. Other courses assign projects with a heavy workload under the assumption that this workload can be managed effectively by a large group of students.
In both situations, the individuals that compose the group can make or break the project. In theory, group projects are great. They teach students how to collaborate with different people and allow them to strengthen their communication and teamwork skills. In practice, however, group projects can be incredibly stressful.
As a fourth-year student in the Integrated Science program, a project-based program, I have been working in groups for the better part of my degree. I have had both positive and negative group experiences but ultimately am against the current structure of group projects in universities.
Even if all the group members are competent and invested in the project, it can be difficult to divide the work evenly. This difficulty can increase significantly when one or more of the group members is not well-versed in the course content or simply does not care about the project. When the volume of work that each person is responsible for varies dependent on the varied levels of interest and ability, things can become problematic as students receive credit they do not deserve.
I have found that there are three main types of group members who consistently cause problems. First, there are those who lack basic communication skills. These individuals are the ones who never respond to messages in a timely manner. Coincidentally, these individuals seem to also always encounter a “big emergency” hours before the project is due. Asking for help is fine but there needs to be adequate forewarning and a valid reason.
Then there are the group members who actually want to help with the project but lack the abilities to do so. While I recognize their attempts to help, the burden to teach these individuals should not fall on other students. It is true that part of group work involves learning through teaching each other, but there is a difference between discussing advanced concepts and teaching someone the very basics of a course.
Finally, there are group members who simply fail to contribute towards the project at all. These are the most infuriating to deal with and unfortunately, the most prevalent. There should be greater measures in place to ensure that students are not given marks they don’t deserve due to someone else’s extra efforts.
Professors could have a better way of modulating group projects. As it stands, there should be some metric whereby students receive a grade proportional to the work they put into a project. While some professors have implemented a peer evaluation process, many courses still lack this completely.
The courses that do have this evaluation could still be greatly improved and better managed. It is not enough to reward students’ additional efforts at the end of the project as this still leads to students being unfairly overworked and over stressed. Instead, courses that have large group projects can also have mandatory check-in periods to ensure that all students are contributing.
Working in groups is an important part of many jobs and so it makes sense to implement group work at the university level. However, until group projects are restructured, their existence will continue to be at the disservice of hardworking students.
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