When Students Don’t Like What They’re Doing

A group of disengaged college students, one of whom is idly checking his smartphone
When I look at the various articles and comments in the Teaching Professor collection, group work continues to be a regular topic. It’s proved itself an instructional method of equal parts possibilities and problems. From a well-designed and well-implemented group activity, students can have rich encounters with the content and learn the value of working collaboratively. When the group project goes poorly, the content is compromised, and students turn their backs on group work.

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When I look at the various articles and comments in the Teaching Professor collection, group work continues to be a regular topic. It’s proved itself an instructional method of equal parts possibilities and problems. From a well-designed and well-implemented group activity, students can have rich encounters with the content and learn the value of working collaboratively. When the group project goes poorly, the content is compromised, and students turn their backs on group work.

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Those negative attitudes about groups lead to a larger question: Can students still learn even if they don’t like the instructional approach, activity, or assignment? It’s obviously harder to learn, starting with the motivational issue. A few of you may be like me, for instance, and don’t like learning anything to do with technology. For me that dislike covers for having tried it before and being confronted with how poorly I do it. There’s lots of frustration and failure, and I’d much rather stick with what I know I can do. But teachers can require students to do what they don’t like, and if they want the grade, the credential, or the degree, students will do it. But will they learn anything in the process?

The word like does become a barrier to learning. Students—well, all of us—have things we like. Students—not all, but many—like easy assignments, courses that aren’t all that demanding, and test questions requiring memorized minutiae. They like certain subjects; the rest strike them as a waste of time, and students wouldn’t take them if they weren’t required to. For many of us, one of the big discoveries in college was finding that we loved things we didn’t think we’d like. One of the big discoveries after college was realizing that what we didn’t like or learn very well (or at all) we did in fact need to know.

Here’s a pitch that can be made to students who resist working in groups: “Okay, so you don’t like group work. I’m not including it in the course because I want you to like it. I want you working with others because that’s what you’ll be doing in almost every profession. My agenda is to help you develop the skills you’ll need to function effectively when you have to work with others.”

That approach still leaves open the question of what students learn (if they do) when they don’t like whatever they’re doing. A large and comprehensive study involving 14 sections and 263 students enrolled in an intermediate sociology research methods course tackled that question in the context of a four-week group research project (Monson, 2019). The study looked at and controlled for an amazing array of variables. It’s one of those much-needed pragmatic analyses that starts to sort out what makes group experiences positive or negative.

The study’s author writes, “The answer to the question, ‘Do students have to like small-group pedagogy in order to learn from it?’ is both no and yes” (p. 130). Some students reported a larger number of negative experiences with their groups than the other students experienced in their groups. Even so, those negative experiences were no associated with lower grades on the final paper (which summarized and critiqued the research the group had completed and was worth 25 percent of their course grade). The researcher did control for other factors that predicted final paper grades. The yes answer involved groups that functioned less effectively as indicated by a lower average of the individual member ratings. Those groups were more likely to earn lower group grades on their research project (worth 15 percent of their grade) after controlling for relevant variables (p. 130). The author notes that, as important as it is that groups do consequential work, it’s not enough: “what groups are doing and how they are doing it also matter” (p. 120). Only a few variables accounted for differences in how students rated the group experience and those were variables over which instructors can exercise some control; these included group size, free-riding, and leadership.

If students go into a learning experience with negative attitudes, positive learning outcomes are unlikely but cannot automatically be ruled out. The papers these students wrote about the content related to their group projects were not compromised by what happened in their groups. But when the group dynamics weren’t great, the group projects suffered. So do we abandon learning activities that students don’t like? I don’t think so. We go in facing a challenge but can come out with significant learning gains for students.

Reference

Monson, R. A. (2019). Do they have to like it to learn from it? Students’ experiences, group dynamics, and learning outcomes in group research projects. Teaching Sociology, 47(2), 116–134.