Reconsider group work: Letter to the Editor

Posted by Katie Vallas

This week, I had the opportunity to interview 14 professors in the Management and Business Department about their responses to an article called "The Default Major: Skating Through B-School" in "The New York Times." Their responses were helpful, informative and thought-provoking. The chance to speak with almost the entirety of the department on a broad range of topics, from student engagement to interdisciplinary learning, reaffirmed my sense that the college is fortunate to have so many experienced and motivated professors in its most popular major.

But through the course of these interviews, I realized that there is one topic, perhaps what seems like an insignificant one, on which these professors and I had a profound difference of opinion. Two paragraphs in "The Default Major" dealt with group projects: specifically, the article suggested that group work benefits the lazy and penalizes the hardworking, all while actually inhibiting learning. (The student who might benefit most from working on accounting, the article argues, will invariably be the one who asks his group members to crunch the numbers.)

Most professors conceded these criticisms might hold water, but they insisted group work nevertheless plays an important role in the business classroom. Working in teams is an important skill, they reminded me, and students need to learn how to compromise, make decisions and motivate their peers.

Indeed, the need for these skills is pervasive — so pervasive, in fact, that I question why professors think students haven't already learned them. Well-rounded students participate in sports teams, get part-time jobs, lead clubs, labor at internships and volunteer on weekends. They also have friends, boyfriends, girlfriends and families. The lessons of leadership, compromise, motivation and decision-making don't have to be integrated into every class, I would argue: students are learning them every single day.

That's not to say that anyone couldn't do all of these things more effectively. But at what cost do we make group projects a fixture of nearly every course? I suspect the majority of professors discount the degree to which work is distributed unevenly in group projects, as well as the resulting extent to which individuals finish classes without ever having completed entire segments of the coursework. (What do professors think happens when they assign a group of five to write a single paper? Do they think students alternate paragraphs?)

Group work can be valuable in learning about organizational behavior and might assist students in completing projects of a scale that would overwhelm a student working individually. But, at a certain point, professors who heavily rely on group projects need to know they are failing to do justice to their students: the ones who had to take on most of the work, yes, but also, and perhaps most regrettably, the students who never did.

-Katie Vallas ‘11

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