In Praise of the “Bad” Group Project Experience
Working in groups or teams is a big part of how all work gets done today. So here’s why what you learn about working together as a group - for good AND for bad - in college is so very important for your future.
What is the quickest way to have your teaching evaluation fall precipitously on the very first day of class? Well, having been a management professor for now over three decades, I can safely say that the answer is easy - and it only takes saying 6 “un-magic” words in that first class meeting, the one that students often know, no matter how you slice it, will be some variation of “syllabus day.” So what then are the 6 words that will lead your student evals to instantly fall? They are: “You will be doing a group project…”
Yes, group work - whether on a huge, semester-long project and/or smaller tasks - can, and should, be a part of almost every class today. Why? Well, there is exhaustive research across all levels of education - primary, secondary and post-secondary - that uses data and statistics to show why collaborative work has a whole range of benefits over working individually on a variety of bases - largely focused on building socialization, communication, and relationship skills among young people, whether they are 5, 15, or 25!
However, speaking not just as a management professor, but as a management consultant, the simple, stark reality is this: Today, we have to work with others! There are very, very few jobs anymore where one can work in isolation. No matter the field, no matter the working arrangement, and no matter the location, all of us must learn to “play well with others” in order to not just get our work “done,” but to succeed in the modern world of work. Today, no man - or woman - can be an island unto himself or herself when it comes to making a living - or getting really anything done in life. So working well with others - in person or increasingly online - and with people who are unlike you and whom you may never even meet in “real life” - is today a key factor to being successful in one’s career. And truth be told, being able to get work done with - and through - others is nothing less than an absolutely necessary skill to have in one’s skill set in 2022. And it is only becoming increasingly important each and every day!
Group Work 101
So, being on the professor-side of the college teaching equation, I took great interest in a tweet recently posted by James M. Lang, who is an acknowledged expert in higher education. He’s a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education who has authored two well-regarded books on how to better teach today’s college students, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It and Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Without further adieu, here’s what Dr. Lang tweeted this about his own daughter’s recent experience with group work:
Now, as happens in America in 2022, shall we say, “a lively discussion ensued…” Many of the folks posting on Dr. Lang’s initial tweet were other college teaching “experts,” university professors themselves, mainly touting their own “expertise” on group work, referring folks (i.e. trying to drive traffic!) to their own blog posts,…
… promoting their own resources,…
… touting their own research,...
… or trying to “sell” their own books on how to make group projects work “better.”
Many more of my higher ed colleagues from across the country directly and freely shared their own “tips and tricks” to make groups function better, just a fraction of which are shown below…
…and likewise, some also freely shared suggestions as to what they have done when groups broke apart - or they needed to be broken apart!
It is ironic, of course, that college faculty often paint themselves - yes, ourselves - as "experts" in group and team dynamics. We talk - and given the nature of faculty, some of my colleagues will talk a lot - about the “lessons” that students should take away from their group work experiences in classes to help them later in their own careers and lives, given the often dysfunctional way that faculty work together! Yes, there is a great deal of truth in all those “how many PhDs does it take to screw in a light bulb” jokes! They are often closer to the truth that anyone inside the academy may care to admit and anyone outside of the inner workings of higher education may ever know! One would only need to be the proverbial fly on the wall - or today, a silent observer on a Zoom meeting - to see how inefficient - and yes, all too often outright adversarial - faculty meetings are! The saying goes that “academic arguments are so intense because the stakes are so small.” And yes, many, many, many times, I have been in meetings and on committees where work dragged on for days, weeks, months longer than necessary, the “solutions” developed are - shall we say - less than optimal, and the entire process felt something like a cross between having a root canal done and watching an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show!”
A Contrary View on Group Work
Now all of this positivity on the value of group work in the college classroom is all well and good. But when it comes to the real value of college group work and how it translates to the proverbial - and very real - “real world” today, I have to agree with this particular commenter on Dr. Lang’s initial tweet:
Yes, there is still the occasional group of 3, 4, 5 individuals who work on a semester project like a well-oiled machine, with true collaboration and equal contributions, producing a great work product, whatever that may be (i.e. a research paper, a presentation, or increasingly today, a video, a website, or other creative endeavor). However, such “great group experiences” are becoming more the exception than the rule for students today. The long and short of it is that in the majority of cases, overall, groups don’t tend to work all that well together today!
Groups seem to increasingly have “issues” that cause anywhere from mild irritations to severe problems for a whole host of reasons today. The “problem” can oftentimes be as simple as a personality clash between two or more of the group members. Yep, much as we may hope that they will, everybody just doesn’t get along. That’s true everywhere in life today, and the same holds true when a small collection of college students, whether they choose their own group members or they are simply assigned to a group by their professor. The bottom-line is that some people “click” together and some simply don’t. And yes, some people can socialize well with one another, but not necessarily translate that into working effectively together. Group assignments can turn strangers in a classroom into friends, sometimes lifelong ones, but no matter how friendly a group may be, whether in a college class or at work, that good camaraderie does not necessarily correlate with productivity and/or success!
The “other” causes of, if not outright hostility, at least substantial friction, between the members of a group can span the gamut - literally anything and everything. People’s work styles and orientations may differ markedly (namely, how they approach a task - do they want to do so in an organized, efficient manner and get things done “early,” or do they tend to be a “last minute” type, only focusing on things in a serious way when the deadline is imminent). And today, oftentimes there are simply issues in getting group members to simply work together at all, even with all the great tech tools that enable all of us to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another. Students today are well-versed in using all of the tech tools at their disposal, both their personal technology and that provided by their university. And yet, many student groups today simply find it troublesome to be able to get together, whether in person or virtually, at specific times to engage in group work at any point in the day - or night! This is because of the busy schedules students have today, often balancing not just their school and social lives, but dealing with their work schedules, family obligations, and many other demands on their time that yes, at least in their minds, take precedence over their obligation to be a focused, prepared and productive member of a group tasked with working on a group assignment or project for a class. Rightly or wrongly - and yes, it is all a matter of perception - students may have very real concerns and obligations that they see as being far more important than getting together with their team members - whether in-person or virtually - to work on a group project.
So yes, it is increasingly common for groups to have very real “issues” today. It may be just one student who has a severe issue with the group he or she is in, or it may be all of the group members wanting out! Certainly, I have found that in recent years, I have more and more students approaching me out of concern about the group that he or she might be in, far more than even just a few years ago. And beyond that, even if the group’s work is successfully “done,” you can see signs of dysfunction in the group in producing it. This is especially true when a group presents their work product in the form of a presentation, as it often can be readily seen both in the interactions between those in the group (tension - either outright or subtle between the group members) and/or in the obvious dramatically unequal contributions between those in the group (i.e. 1 or 2 group members who obviously “drove the train” and did most, if not all of the work, and others who seem barely familiar with what is going on). You can also see it in reading a group-produced paper or other form of written project, with often unequal length, quality, and depth being readily apparent to the reader.
Now going back to Dr. Lang’s initial tweet that sparked me to write this article, the answer is “yes,” I do help students who have group problems. When a student reports anything that might be a serious concern (feeling at all threatened, harassed, etc.), I readily offer them the opportunity to “get out” of their group and to do that assignment (or an alternate, equivalent assignment) on their own. That is not just the responsible thing to do, but increasingly, from both a student affairs/conduct and a potential university - and personal - liability perspective, it is absolutely necessary today. And yes, I do have group members on semester-long assignments/projects evaluate their fellow group members and make their assessment a portion of the grade.
However, I do not take the proactive stance that Dr. Land recommends constant monitoring and being ready to intervene at a moment’s notice in group dynamics. I do not want to referee group issues. I am not trained, nor do I want to be, a group facilitator, counselor, or therapist! Rather, I see group work - for all its faults and for all the potential landmines out there for students today - as what it should be, a learning experience. And it can - and should - be a good learning experience for students, even if they don’t have an idyllic - or even good - group experience in my class.
Here’s the deal. We do need to work together today! And what I tell my students, both upfront in every class in which I require a group project and later, individually when students inevitably report “minor” issues in dealing with their group members, is simply this: We should learn from every group experience that we have - both in college and really, in every situation in which we find ourselves in (social, sports, family, etc.) collaborating as a team of any kind. And yes, we will have great group and team experiences, mediocre ones, and yes, baaaaaaaaaaad ones.
In the course of a college career today, an undergraduate takes approximately 40 courses. Group work will likely be used in a majority of them in some form or fashion(for things like in-class assignments, discussions, etc.), and in roughly a quarter of these courses - 10 or so, give or take - one will have a group project that will count for a substantial portion of the course grade. And so one of the most valuable things that you learn in the course of 4, 5, 6 years of a college career today is how to work better with others from your group experiences, and you learn from both the great groups you are in and the ones that are not so great. Many times in fact, what you learn from the latter are far, far more important and valuable - even if they don’t seem so at the time - than the former, better experiences!
The truth of the matter is that in the world of work today, you will work with people you like and invariably, with some folks that you may not even want to be around - even virtually. You will work with individuals who are very similar to you on any number of demographic and psychographic variables, but you are likely to also work increasingly with people who are nothing like you. One of the principal “things'' then that you take away from a college education today is not a tangible skill, but a very important, often amorphous skill. This is being able first to be a good team member, and at the next level, being able to lead - formally or informally - a group of often diverse individuals to do good, productive work that leads to a successful outcome, whatever that may be!
And so that is why I like to tell my students, both in class discussions on groups and teams in general and in one-on-one (or 2 or 3 as the case may well be) when their group indeed goes South, for whatever the reason(s) may be, a simple truth. This is the fact that we should approach every group work experience - in college and indeed beyond - as a profound learning experience. And yes, you can - and should - learn just as much, if not far more, from a mediocre - or bad - group experience as a great one! And no matter how unpleasant, stressful, and even contentious they may be, the best learning experiences about how to be a good leader - and a good teammate - do in fact come from the worst groups in which we might find ourselves!
Being part of a bad group in a college gives us an opportunity to see what doesn’t work - in everything from how people don’t do what they promise, don’t communicate well, don’t “play well with others,” etc. But even more importantly, being part of a “bad” group should present one with a “moment of truth,” where you have the chance to be a part of the solution to overcoming the problems that the group is having to come through with if not a successful outcome, at least a satisfactory one! Being part of a bad group should provide you with a chance to not just develop skills that will serve you well in the “real world“ - leadership, conflict handling, negotiations, and more, but also build your self-confidence and self-awareness in a way that will heighten your chances to become a far more successful manager and leader in the future! This is why the really good corporate recruiters and managers/executives who conduct job interviews ask questions that don’t simply afford you the chance to recount your greatest successes. Rather, they ask questions that challenge you to talk about situations - like asking about a group project team that did not work together well - and what you did in that instance to help the group members overcome the “problems” to bring about a successful outcome. I always advise students to want to talk about such experiences that they have had in the course of their college careers, for while it might seem counterintuitive from the perspective of a college student in his or her twenties to “play up” a group project that may not have resulted in an “A,” such stories are very, very well received by those looking to hire high EQ (emotionally intelligent) individuals who will be successful managing and leading workers in their own organizations!
And so yes, you can learn A LOT from your bad group work experiences that inevitably WILL happen to you during your college career! They may not be pleasant. They may be tense. They may be stressful. But in the end, you will come away a better person, and yes, one who will be both a better teammate and a better leader as a consequence of the trial of that bad group experience. Yes, it may not seem pleasant at all in the present, but trust me, your older, wiser self will thank you for persevering!
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
Social Media Links to David Wyld: