Why Does Group Work Suck?

As educators, we know that group work has important and tangible benefits for our students. Seemingly every employer survey out there says students who can work as part of a team are attractive candidates for open jobs. We know that group projects help our students develop important academic skills: learning how to break large projects into their component parts, experience working collaboratively, and practice in effectively communicating, for example. Teaching and Learning research also shows that group work can lead to increased retention of course content, as well as overall academic success in college.

BUT…we may know that group work has a range of benefits, but most of our students simply know they hate it. If you do a Google image search for “group work memes,” you’ll find ample—albeit humorous—testimony of students’ antipathy.

A meme about group work
Like this.
A meme about group work
Or this
A meme about group work
Or this.
A meme about group work
And this.

The memes are funny, sure, but also very telling. I don’t know about you, but my own experience with group work as an undergraduate didn’t instill any of those purportedly positive outcomes at all. On several occasions, I was the one who never showed up to group meetings, often because I had to work at my off-campus job and the rest of my group didn’t take that into account when scheduling our sessions. On others, I was the one who did all the work. There were also times where I didn’t contribute a damn thing. I came out of my undergraduate years with a healthy skepticism toward group work, and (as one of the memes above suggests) a well-honed disdain for others which would manifest in any collaboration-related scenario.

My experience was—and is—a common one for students. Now that I’m on the other side of the podium, I can see all of the eye-rolls that ensue when I ask the class to get into groups. I’ve had students come up to me after class pleading to be in a group with their friends/teammates/romantic interests. I’ve had groups that imploded spectacularly, the members communicating only by surly stares at one another. Students complain all the time about group work, and there are certainly some legitimate problems they identify:

    • The “free-rider”: one group member does nothing to advance the work (and likely doesn’t even show up) but receives the same grade everyone else in the group does.
    • The “lone wolf”: one member does everything, and chances are the rest of the group is content to let them do so. Sure, the work gets done, but the whole point of having a team is missed.
    • Gender inequities: research in a number of higher-education contexts has demonstrated that when it comes to assigning roles in a group, female students are disproportionately represented among recorder/”secretarial” roles, while male students monopolize the speaking and presenting roles. In disciplines where women are already marginalized (some STEM fields, for example), these inequities are further exacerbated.1
    • Grade complaints and unequal contributions: one of the biggest student resentments about group work is the fact that, for the most part, every group member receives the same grade on the assignment, regardless of their level of contribution. This creates a perception of unfairness from students who feel they contributed more than others, as well as a sense of entitlement from the “free riders” who’ve just had their practices affirmed by receiving a grade they likely didn’t earn.

By this point, you’re probably asking, if these student complaints are legitimate, then how do we manage group work in order to avoid these problems? How do we make group work not suck for students?

There are several answers to the question, of course; many of them pertain to the planning and design that occurs before we actually ask our students to get into groups. Among these strategies are:

    • Design assignments that include benchmarks and other ways to assess progress along the way.
    • Consider how you might give individual students their own voice in at least part of the assessment process, so they can weigh both their own and the other group members’ contributions.
    • Think about creating groups purposefully, to ensure a nice mix/balance for students.
    • Be sure there are clear ground rules and expectations in place.
    • Create a way to address problems, should they arise.

These are just a few of the things to consider when thinking about effective group assignments. But if you’re interested in finding out lots more on this topic, including some strategies for not just designing group assignments, but implementing and assessing them effectively, we’d love to see you at this week’s CETL workshops on Group Work That Isn’t Awful. We’re hosting this session at two different times:

Monday, October 14, from 3:00-4:00 in the CETL (RASM 208)
Tuesday, October 15, from 3:30-4:30 in the CETL (RASM 208)

We hope to see you there!

Update: a few weeks ago, we published an entry on supporting trans and gender-nonconforming students, which linked to a number of resources for further reading and education. Since then, we discovered an excellent, powerful article, “Seventy-One Stories About Being Trans in School: Two Suggestions and a Criticism,” which is highly recommended. Students’ own voices are some of the most powerful evidence we have about identity and experience on campus, and this article compiles (as the title suggests) a wide range of voices and experiences. Check it out.

Have a question? Want to set up a consultation? Looking for ideas, strategies, or just another set of eyes on something? Make an appointment with CETL today! You can call 263-6102, contact us via this link, or directly book an appointment with Kevin that works with your schedule by clicking this Calendly link.

Finally, a little beginning of the week cuteness-you’ll enjoy it more with the volume on.


  1. See the summary in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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