A resolution about group work


One of the things I have learned this semester (which is now officially over, having turned in my last batch of grades this morning) is the following lesson which I am convinced I must implement immediately: Group work has been playing far too great of a role in my student’s grades. From this point forward, assignments which could conceivably be done in groups — not just those that are designated for group work — will count for no more than 10-15% of the grade in my courses.

I like collaborative learning. I think, in fact, that working with other people on math can be not only a highly effective way of doing so but also carries with it a powerful pro-math socialization effect. The best personal friendships that I had during my college + grad school years were those that I formed with my classmates in my various math classes, as we struggled through material that, to us at the time, was really hard. Not only did those friends help me learn, I also associated good times and shared victories over math problems with learning math.

But here’s the deal: At the end of the day, the grade that an individual earns in a class, mine or anybody else’s, has to be an accurate reflection of that individual’s mastery of the material and that individual‘s ability to solve problems and think effectively. If were reasonably confident that group effort on problems was translating into individual mastery, I’d be perfectly willing to admit as much group work as students want. But the fact is that this has not been the case.

Case in point: In a recent course, I gave out some pretty difficult advanced problems and instructed students on the usual academic honesty procedures, which boil down to “collaborate if you want but not to the point where you’re no longer doing your own work”. I got back solutions which were eerily similar and all basically correct, and in many cases way out of character for the students handing them in. It was enough to make me suspect a breach of my academic honesty policy, but not enough to make a case. So I simply reproduced the exact same problem on a timed test. And guess what? Whereas before, nearly everybody had a really nice solution — the same really nice solution — this time only one or two people had an idea where to start or even how to correctly parse out the terminology in the problem.

And this has been happening all over, not just in that class — a sort of soft academic dishonesty that nominally stays within bounds. Students work together and hand in work that earns points but does not reflect their understanding of the material. I understand earning good grades is important, but equally important is my ability to identify problem areas and help students grow through them.

So I know what all the digital nativists say about how in the modern workplace, people work collaboratively and it’s a 19th century anachronism to give out timed tests and all that. But you know what? You can’t contribute to a group if you yourself have used the group to feign your own competence. So from here on out, the majority — if not all — of my assessments of students will be done in a timed setting, under conditions that I can set and monitor. For example, in calculus next semester, I’ll assign homework problems and let students work on it all they want in any size group they want. But the grade is going to come from timed quizzes, tests, a midterm, and a final. Some variation on that will also be in place for my two sophomore level courses as well. If you do group work properly, contributing where you can and really working to understand things where you can’t, then it will be no problem to do well on a quiz or test. If not, then the quiz or test will show that up as well.

If that makes me an anachronism, or unhip, or whatnot, then so be it. I’m tired of students not learning the material because they have easy workarounds for doing their own work, and one way or another they will get a good grade in the course if and only if they can show me that they know what they are doing.

12 Comments

Filed under Academic honesty, Education, Higher ed, Math, Problem Solving, Teaching

12 responses to “A resolution about group work

  1. I have always hated group work. When I was in school, I was always the one doing the work. (The same happened to my mom in college.)

    I have hardly any group work in my classes. Of course, I teach writing, so that’s a little easier. All I have is in class discussions for answers to some readings we did in class.

    But, having said that, if you aren’t going to grade the homework, people won’t do the homework. So I would recommend still counting the homework.

  2. Pingback: P.S. to the previous post about group work « Casting Out Nines

  3. rightwingprof

    When I was in school, I was always the one doing the work.

    Yup, me too. There’s a post here …

  4. Amen to the nth power. I detest group work because I do not want to be responsible for someone else’s grade, and I do not want my grade to be dependent on someone else’s work. There may be fair ways of arranging group-work assignments, but too often the students who care about their education must shoulder the burden of those who do not.

    I have less of a problem with voluntary group work because then I can choose to collaborate with people who care. But I can see how group assignments do not accurately assess the individual’s progress.

  5. Ben Chun

    Add my voice to the chorus of those who pulled the weight… in high school. I didn’t mind, because it was easy.

    The problem was that I never learned how to work in a group effectively, so when I got to college and really needed the help of friends, I didn’t know how to work with people on challenging stuff. I would either let myself be dragged along, or else just give up and try to muscle it out on my own.

    By the way, I fully support your ideas here — I have always weighted my grades such that at least 75% of the grade derives from individual test and quizzes. But I also wonder how to teach effective and efficient group work strategies, and if they even exist for mathematics. Now that is probably heresy to ask in the face of modern educational trends.

  6. Here’s how I do groupwork for no points, and believe it or not, the students do participate. This is my 7th semester teaching Calculus with significant portions of class time spent on group work.
    1) I call groupwork the “commercial break” in the lesson time. I’m not sure what effect this has, but the students look forward to it.
    2) At the beginning of the semester I tell students that part of their responsibility with coming to class is to participate in whatever activity they are asked to.
    3) I am the one to form the groups. They count off, we form groups by eye color, shoe color, where they work, what cars they drive, etc. I’ve found that if I let them form groups of their own, everyone gets in a rut.
    4) I always remind the students to INTRODUCE themselves when they are in a new group. “Remember, it is always polite to introduce yourself when you meet someone new.” (okay, this is silly, but it does break the ice a bit with students that are shy)
    5) It never hurts to have some kind of “contest” for the best answer or simply correct answers. An effective way to do this is to have every group turn in their answer on an overhead (if you’re aiming for best answer) or piece of paper (if you’re aiming for correct answer or you have a digital projection system in your classroom). What’s the prize, they ask. No prize… it’s just a contest… we could just have a lecture instead if you’d like? … and they go back to faithfully working on their group work.

  7. I use group work. However grades are earned by individual work. I tell students that they are assessed on everything they do (but I don’t think they’ve caught on that not all “assessments” get translated to a grade).

    I record grades for homework, quizzes, tests, and portfolios. I also give them feedback on their presentations and group work (part of the process of learning the math). It seems to be working thus far.

  8. “…that working with other people on math can be not only a highly effective way of doing so but also carries with it a powerful pro-math socialization effect.”

    I disagree with this. I am not particularly confident and clever (one could say) and talking to other students at times makes me feel “thick”. I am the most weirdest person on the planet, for I always talk and discuss problems and maths with my lecturers as opposed to students. Most people tend to get “intimidated” by lecturers, but I think students can be more intimidating.

    When you talk to lecturers they understand your thought process better than students, and hence give better guidance and help us to develop our ability (rather than giving the answer). I couldn’t understand induction for quite some time (rather embarrassingly), and when a question once arose (during group work) the other students dismissed my queries with comments such as “this is so easy”, “you just do this, and then that….. and there’s the answer!” Students who understand a topic, can’t understand why someone else is finding the same topic difficult. (Well I feel that this is the case for most students). They try to explain things in an “obvious” manner with all the jargon, which has led me to stop asking. (Maybe this shows the difference between students who are able to “teach”?)

    Sorry for going on, but after approaching my lecturer about the induction problem, I feel like a different person!! (He still regrets that day, for since then he is the first person I tend to bug!) Maybe it is just me who gets intimidated by students, but my friends don’t (most don’t like talking to the lecturers). I don’t mind working in a group once I have understood a concept, but why would you share your mathematical questions once you have an understanding? Surely there is some joy associated with grinding the solution out yourself.

    {Semi-rant over; sorry!! I am actually drafting a post like this, but this seemed to be the opportune moment!}

  9. coderprof

    In math (my original undergraduate major), I would have resented group work greatly. I certainly worked closely with classmates when struggling with problem sets, but ultimately, I did my own write-up. If I couldn’t do that, I knew I didn’t understand the subject.

    As a prof in a related subject (CS), I feel that I must assign group work in some capacity, despite the problems with assessment. Why? Because 50% of the time computer programmers are working in groups. Learning how to deal with other personalities and people who don’t pull their weight is something people have to do as professional programmers.

    From an assessment perspective, making group members give grades to each other works wonders. Sure, you might get someone who grades a group member low simply because they don’t like the person. More often, when a group member is lazy and the rest of the group isn’t, the whole group will nail the lazy one. In groups of 4 or more, you can clearly separate those who didn’t do their fair share from the occasional personality conflict. And group members knowing they will be graded by other group members often is motivational in any case.

    The bottom line for me is that group work in many subjects (math, history, philosophy, English) is probably of little value. In subjects where the career entails significant group work (business, computer science, engineering), I think there is value, though you do need to account for the group leeches that inevitably appear in projects.

    In any case, blanket pushes by administration to add more group work in all disciplines is misguided.

  10. @Coderprof: Interesting. I imagine as well that the whole issue of academic honesty is very different in CS, with the ready availability of code for just about any task on the internet these days.

    The biggest problem with group work here is that students are very NICE to each other, so that they don’t really resent doing somebody else’s work for them if they feel like it’s “helping” them. I really have to work at explaining that letting somebody latch on to your group and not contribute — and allowing them to copy and hand in your work as their own — is not “helping”. I think this is an unintended consequence of the so-called “disposition” that the education schools want preservice teachers to have.

  11. If the teacher assigns the group, then the kids who know the material / care about the class are split up and end up doing all the work. There is no reason why I should have to do work meant for seven people. Oh sure, I have to learn to deal with people in the real world, yadda yadda. Please. I’m not getting paid to teach these kids. You are.

    Voluntary group work is slightly different because the groupmates that I choose are responsible and hard-working.

    “3) I am the one to form the groups. They count off, we form groups by eye color, shoe color, where they work, what cars they drive, etc. I’ve found that if I let them form groups of their own, everyone gets in a rut.
    4) I always remind the students to INTRODUCE themselves when they are in a new group. “Remember, it is always polite to introduce yourself when you meet someone new.” (okay, this is silly, but it does break the ice a bit with students that are shy)”

    Oh. My. In calculus class? Please tell me you’re teaching genius seven year olds. Shoe color?
    “okay, this is silly, but it does break the ice a bit with students that are shy”- Actually, I think it harms your credibility as a teacher. Most human beings introduce themselves with their names. If those students want to get to know each other, they’ll do it themselves.
    “everyone gets in a rut.” – You mean, those who don’t understand and would’ve leeched off of those who do…those groups are in a rut.

  12. erik

    I think group work in math is likely very different from CS. In CS – at least in all my projects – you don’t need the group’s pooled “intellect” to solve a hard problem, you need it’s pooled effort to complete a large amount of work. Thus, even if I am a coding genius I still am hamstrung by those who do not want to put out the effort required to complete the project and get a good grade.

    making group members give grades to each other works wonders

    But is also a bit like pointing the finger after the fact, when your group project didn’t score as well as it could have.

    The biggest problem with group work here is that students are very NICE to each other, so that they don’t really resent doing somebody else’s work for them if they feel like it’s “helping” them.

    I’ve found this to be the case more often than not in CS as well. If you are the one who helps others, you naturally feel good about being the “expert.” Plus, you never know when your roles will be reversed.

    Oh sure, I have to learn to deal with people in the real world, yadda yadda. Please. I’m not getting paid to teach these kids. You are.

    I’ve always thought this was a stupid argument that teachers make. If you want to teach social psychology too, fine; but it better not affect my personal grade.