Monday, 19 March 2012

Group assignments

It is common for the University of Utrecht, as it probably is in most Dutch universities, to issue group assignments instead of personal ones. Excluding the thesis for the Bachelor and Master, I have had to write 7 individual assignments and 11 as a group (of which 5 in a group of two, 6 in a group of more than two). It is often admitted that this is done to lessen the workload of professors and that is perfectly fine. However, it is also often noted that group assignments serve to enhance teamwork skills… and that is where I disagree.

In my experience, groups assignments can either go very well or very badly, depending on the motivation of the other students. Some students will stretch their agreed-upon deadline continuously until it is time to actually hand it in, others will be done before you have even had a chance to start on your own part. You never know what you end up with, but one thing is always the same: you will be judged on the group’s performance.

This is justified, according to the professors, because you all have an individual responsibility for the final product. This means that if another student’s work is below par, you should have caught on and corrected the work. This sounds good in theory, but it falls apart when you start examining it. Most team sports work, for instance, because all team members are required to work together. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so it is the group’s responsibility to strengthen that link. But when it comes to writing a paper together, it is the reverse: the best student dictates the outcome while the others are irrelevant.

But how, oh wise and all-knowing Ben, can this be fixed? I think there are three key elements.

Firstly, there have to be, at some point in the university’s curriculum, instructions on how to cooperate well. This should include tips such as handy ways to share documents and communicate online, while also containing rules like fair division of labor and meeting together to discuss each other’s work. Some students really do not know how to effectively work together and they should be taught.

The second thing needed is effective control over your writing partners. Without some kind of authoritative threat, you do not have a means to compel them to stick to their deadlines and to do their fair share of the work. If failing a deadline in the group could have the same results as failing the official deadline (i.e. exclusion from receiving a grade), students would be much more motivated. This is also why the above instructions are very much needed; they can contain both rules and consequences for breaking those rules.

The final requirement is, at least the first few times, an official assessment of the teamwork. That is, after the assignment has been handed in, a professor goes over the documentation and correspondence as written by the individual members and assesses how well they worked together. Everyone receives constructive criticism on how to improve and the troubling cases get a notice so that they can be monitored by future professors.

Of course, I doubt that anything will actually change. So until then I have the following tips: be prepared to offer to do the whole thing by yourself in exchange for a monetary award, bring some treats with you so that you can reward the good behavior of others and research how much whipping you can legally get away with without breaking pesky maltreatment laws.

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