Class group work disadvantages higher achieving students

By Sarah Phelan

Whenever a group project is announced in class, most people roll their eyes, dreading having to orchestrate schedules and divide up the workload. It’s a pain to deal with the freeloaders and poor communicators, but what many people don’t consider is that some students have to compromise something very important in group projects: their grade.

It is not uncommon for higher achieving students to have to lower their standards to collaborate with others. Their ideas may go over the head of their peers, or their writing and presentation style can clash disastrously. Of course, they are able to edit their peers’ work, but considering the time and effort this takes, in many cases it would be more efficient to do the entire project alone.

Furthermore, a 2009 Communication Management Quarterly study reports that there are  “significant associations between group satisfaction and group effort, as well as between group effort and final performance ratings.” In other words, a cohesive group effort will result in better grades.

What causes these clashes? According to the same study, “Negative social interactions commonly arise when group members offer neither valued information and insights, nor support [or] fun.” Freeloaders and poor communicators fall into this category. These students may be happy with merely a passing grade and be unwilling to put forth the effort for higher quality work. This leaves high-performing students feeling frustrated and wishing they could have done the entire project alone.

Another study from the University of Brighton in 2001 surveyed students about group work. The most common negative responses were difficulties in negotiation, working with unmotivated people, and unequal workloads, respectively. In the same study, when asked what students would do differently on the next group project, the highest ranked answer was “better division of labor.” Free-loaders will often latch onto high-performing students and create a serious imbalance in the division of labor.

Of course, the argument for the other side is always that people must learn to work with others because they will be expected to do so in the professional world. This is true, however, professional teams are usually designed in consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of all members involved. Additionally, the social structure of the workplace welcomes criticism and changes that benefit the company; therefore, adjustments can often be made to mold the team into one that performs well. In an academic setting, however, time to complete projects is often short and the pool of candidates for group members is sometimes small, creating little room for change.

Unarguably, there are benefits to group projects. When a group works well together it can result in quality work and a positive experience. However, for students who are high achievers, group projects can be a nightmare. Perhaps instructors should consider giving students the option to work alone. Not only would they make life easier on the student, they would also allow them a chance to shine and put forth their best work.

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