The Troubles with Teamwork

Almost every class at GDS incorporates some group work. From projects to discussions, teachers dedicate a significant amount of time to collaboration. However, does teamwork always function the way it’s supposed to? The benefits of group work vary between classes.

In English, coming together for a group discussion is beneficial to all. Sophomore Caleigh Vergeer agrees.

“In English group work is helpful because then you can go in a little more detail working together,” she said.

Although helpful, some problems can arise.

“It is incredibly rare when there is not a group project where I am the only one doing the work or the person doing the vast majority of the work,” Vergeer said.

The many problems currently found in group work are a reason we should reform it.
Vergeer brings up a frequent problem in group work: social loafing. Social loafing is when one person in the group sits back and lets others do the work. Teachers have tried to combat this problem.

Math teachers Julia Penn and Lee Goldman say they try to create group norms that combat this by having every student contribute. Some of these norms include having more talkative students give more quiet ones time to speak. If these norms were always followed then social loafing would most likely go away, but students often disregard them. Goldman acknowledges that this is a problem.

“That is the reality in any of this; the rules are not always followed because the teacher cannot be everywhere at once,” Goldman said.

The fact that teachers often are unaware of specific instances of social loafing means there may be no incentive for doing any work, which ensures that the problem continues.
Another issue with collaboration is evaluation apprehension, the concept that students are afraid of looking like they are incompetent in front of others. Vergeer said how much she volunteers ideas in a group depends on how comfortable she is with the people at her table or how nice they are.

If students are not able to work through their ideas without fear of judgment, then they will not put those ideas into action, or even mention them at all. Also, they may change their opinion to what the majority of the group is saying.

In a study by Gregory Burns of Emory University, peer pressure changes the answer believed to be correct. It is not always a conscious decision to go with the wrong answer, but an actual belief that the wrong answer is correct. Working on an activity an individually first to help get a sense of how to do it can help to decrease the peer pressure from group work.
There are some benefits to group work. Helping others with a difficult activity allows both of the students to gain a better understanding of the material. Also, merging ideas helps to create a better final product. However, there are also benefits to working alone.

A study by Marvin Dunnette of the University of Minnesota showed that working alone forces a student to confront the things that they find challenging and work through them. When in a group, a student is not as able to work through those individual challenges and will instead work on the team’s collective challenges.

If teachers could give a student time to work alone before coming back to a team, it would help students figure out what their individual problems are and then work with the group to further their understanding. For creative assignments, this could be having students develop an idea independently and then get peer review. For STEM problems, giving a few minutes to work on a tough problem before going to the group. Goldman raised an issue with this method.

“Different students have different ranges of tolerance for working by themselves,” she said.

But, just as working collaboratively is an important skill to learn, so is learning to be able to work independently.

By: Ariana Gordon ’21