Why So Much Group Work?

Richie Feathers
Managing Editor


I’ve never been a huge fan of group projects in class, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized how far I am from being the only one. At first, I thought professors who assigned projects in groups were trying to help us step away from high school safety nets, to shake off that social awkwardness we now know is permanent. It made sense freshman year, so I begrudgingly participated, assuming each one would be my last.

Yet, after six more semesters, with less than one to go, I’ve already given one group presentation and am looking at more group assignments lined up for the upcoming months, including a final, twelve-page paper. And that’s just for one class.

As a college student for over three and a half years, I’m used to having to juggle different professors’ teaching methods, as well as temperaments, at the same time. While this has actually been an unforeseen benefit–enjoyment even–of attending school, I’ve never understood their reasoning behind insisting we, the students, facilitate our work through group settings.

My deepening intolerance for group projects doesn’t stem from being forced to meet and work with new people–these are opportunities I’ve also found wonderful about college–but rather in their static ineffectiveness.

I get that these presentations are supposed to help us practice public speaking, that these projects should teach us to collaborate and cooperate. But how much practice do we need before it becomes apparent that the results are starting to look the same?

I’m talking about the typical team players (the reluctant leader, the uncommunicative slacker), the half-assed information gathering (answering your own questions), the clunky PowerPoint presentations (“Which slides am I again?”), with which each group project seem ridden. Sure, these generally still lead to getting the job done, but it’s also one we eagerly forget about before the grades are in.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of group assignments is our dire attempts to find a collective time to meet. In my experience, meeting with all members at once is not standard, and, instead, we settle for e-mail correspondence and Facebook messaging, thereby compromising the initial purpose for communication.

In her insightful, New York Times bestseller “Quiet,” author/journalist Susan Cain argues that our society’s growing preference for group efforts is stifling the creative minds of its members. Although “Quiet” is aimed to enlighten about the qualities of under appreciated introverts at a time when we harbor Cain’s self-coined Extrovert Ideal–that is, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”–the book discusses the effects that frequent collaboration can have on every one of us.

What Cain refers to as the New Groupthink is a contemporary idea that “elevates teamwork above all else,” and is widely practiced not only in workplaces, but in schools as well.

“In many elementary schools,” Cain explains, “the traditional rows of seats facing the teacher have been replaced with ‘pods’ of four or more desks pushed together to facilitate countless group learning activities.” This, she says, is even the norm for subjects like math and creative writing, which I remember being strictly dependent on my individual efforts.

Cain also cites a 2002 nationwide survey of more than 1,200 fourth and eighth-grade teachers, where results concluded that only “35 percent of fourth-grade and 29 percent of eighth-grade teachers spend more than half their classroom time on traditional instruction.” In addition, she explains that small-group learning is becoming even more preferred by younger teachers, suggesting this New Groupthink will only continue to rise.

Where this affects us as college students is in the intent of group work to ready us for an increasingly business-oriented workplace, where, as the New Groupthink describes, the essential skills are inherently based on working in teams.

As a public Manhattan school fifth-grade teacher explained to Cain, “This style of teaching reflects the business community, where people’s respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, not their originality or insight. You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself. It’s an elitism based on something other than merit.”

Well, unfortunately for me it seems, Oneonta hasn’t taught me to speak especially well or call much attention to myself, despite the amount of group projects I’ve had to do.

As a happily content introvert however, I’ve never felt it absolutely necessary to perfect either of these skills. Don’t get me wrong, I live for face-to-face conversations and am proud of the different types of work I present, but I’m also a music industry major and I have never planned on seeking out opportunities that thrive on disallowing any personal touches.

While extroversion is a great quality to have and must always remain a balance to introversion, the fact is that outspoken people are leading the rest of us to a society where space for thinking and time for patience is becoming much narrower.

“Quiet” explains that influential introverts, from Charles Darwin, to Rosa Parks, to Steve Wozniak (of Apple), have, when been allowed an extended concentration of solitude, proven to be great leaders in their own right.

While we’re old enough to participate in group projects without losing any sort of ourselves, the outlook for future students doesn’t appear as optimistic.

If young minds are forced to continuously blend with each other, how can anyone really be expected to think for his or herself?

1 Comment

  1. “..outspoken people are leading the rest of us to a society where space for thinking and time for patience is becoming much narrower”

    I love this line and it is sadly so true. I am an introvert and while I love that about myself, I am constantly being made to feel like I won’t be successful if I am not extroverted. Some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people are introverts and it is because they take time to sit down with themselves and think through problems, and that is how you truly better yourself. People need to not toss introverts to the side just because they do not always put themselves out there.

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