DEFYING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Online Graduate Student Frustrations with Group Work

The benefits of group work are well known. Students develop critical thinking and enhanced reflection skills (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Group work promotes transformative learning while establishing a sense of community. There is a sense of positive interdependence when we are all in this together (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2007). In addition to the increased opportunity for student responses, collaboration and teamwork skills are enhanced. This establishes the importance of a group approach to problem solving needed in the workplace and society overall.

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The benefits of group work are well known. Students develop critical thinking and enhanced reflection skills (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Group work promotes transformative learning while establishing a sense of community. There is a sense of positive interdependence when we are all in this together (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2007). In addition to the increased opportunity for student responses, collaboration and teamwork skills are enhanced. This establishes the importance of a group approach to problem solving needed in the workplace and society overall. However, researchers surveying online graduate students have also discovered that many dislike group work (Cameron, Morgan, Williams & Kostelecky, 2009). These issues should be kept in mind when faculty use group work in assignments. Do graduate students value group work? The overwhelming response was NO. Approximately 75 percent of the graduate students responding to the survey added negative comments about group work in their online courses. The following statements are representative of the student responses. The objections to group work provide a number of cautionary lessons for instructors. Incompatibility of group members The random selection of group membership by the instructor can lead to incompatible members (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007), but the nonrandom selection methods invite significant criticism of the process and/or criteria of grouping students together for class projects. Changing the selection criteria for each subsequent group project can mitigate these problems, and lead to a more meaningful learning and social experience. In extreme cases of group incompatibility, some instructors have a “divorce” option where group members may ask for one member to be removed from the group. Lack of leadership An instructor may combat potential leadership issues by assigning roles for the group work project while requiring a report that specifies the actions of each group member. It can also be helpful to review the roles with students before beginning the assignment in order to help them understand the group process. The freeloader One of the most frustrating aspects of group work is the student who contributes little and rides the coattails of the active group members. The instructor can prevent this participation imbalance by making contributions more visible. The use of planning threads, online document sharing, wikis, chats, and email correspondence between the members may become a required part of the submitted final project. Another option is to allow the instructor to see student posts, contributions, group problem resolution, etc., by requiring all group communication to occur inside the course infrastructure. If the freeloader is aware that the instructor is a “silent but seeing” member of all group activities, the pressure to contribute is heightened. Lack of communication Providing clear objectives and expectations is standard for any type of student work product but may be even more necessary for the group work process. However, it is beneficial as part of the group process to require the members to set group norms before beginning the work. These norms may include such things as the time lapse to respond to email, methods and a timetable to acknowledge receipt of a draft, and standards for submitting edits. Supportive communication exists if the instructor is “in class” taking an active role to answer questions and provide feedback. Time constraints The most cited problem for adult students was a fixed time schedule for group work, which interferes with family, professional, and school obligations. Instructors should first ask themselves whether the process or the product is more important, then determine how much collaboration is needed to meet the goals of the group project and not require more than that amount. For the majority of the student survey respondents, allowing as much time as possible for the completion of the project is desirable. For most groups, it is helpful to set a timetable for each stage of the project (first draft, edits, group reviews, and final product). Sense of fairness This challenge can be related to the “real world” in a variety of situations from the workplace, the sports playing field, and family situations. What one does or does not do—and the quality of what one does—impacts others. Again, we are all in this together!  However, as in the real world, bosses acknowledge those who are assets to the company through pay incentives or other awards, teams recognize the most valuable player, and families celebrate relatives who have achieved. For students engaged in group work, instructors can find a way to individualize grades and assess single contributions. The opposing viewpoint to this recommendation is a strong one that merits serious discussion. The argument exists that the lesson of the “group” is lost if grades are individualized. In some instances, individualizing grades is not possible or desired. Some instructors require students to conduct self-assessments of their contributions to the group. Others have students evaluate other group members and the group process. Another option is to make participation at various stages of the group process a part of the grade. Group work can provide many learning benefits, but must be assigned with parameters that avoid the common pitfalls that can frustrate students. REFERENCES Cameron, B., Morgan, K., Williams, C. & Kostelecky, K.L. (2009). Group projects: Student perceptions of the relationship between social tasks and a sense of community in online group work. The American Journal of Distance Education, 23, 20–33. Conrad, R.M. & Donaldson, J.A. (2004). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K. (2007). The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 15–29. doi:10.1007/s10648-006-9038-8. Roberts, T.S. & McInnerney, J.M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10(4), 257–268. Sheila A. Joyner is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University.