Brenden Thomas shares his group work experience as an undergrad student at Penn State University and an intern with Omega Notes.

Hearing an instructor say they are assigning a group assignment can be both relieving and terrifying as a student. Many group projects involve more total work than individual assignments. However, after the work is split between all group members, it is often less work per person. At least, that’s how it is supposed to be.

More often than not, there is at least one student in every group who does not “carry their weight” in the group. This causes a lot of stress to the remaining group members. They do not want to get a poor grade on the assignment, so they have to complete the extra work that the lacking members were supposed to do. They are too afraid to tell the instructor this information because the other student is bound to be combative which leads to a “he said/she said” situation of finger pointing. The instructor is typically forced to dismiss the group members who actually did the work because they have no way of knowing otherwise. Instructors also don’t like to pick sides so they just leave the situation alone and don’t dive any deeper. Obviously, this is frustrating. As an involved student with a full course load, internship, and a part-time job, it’s hard to keep up as it is without having to carry the weight of extra coursework. The animosity this builds with other students really isn’t setting anyone up for success either.

In theory, the group work experience should improve lifelong interpersonal skills that will transfer into the professional world as well as other aspects of life. Most students take advantage of this opportunity to grow, but a small minority hold the success of everyone back. Students often designate certain sections of a project to each member, and the tools provided do little to help encourage communication between members. This ends up hurting the entire group in the short term and long term. In the long term, students are not developing the interpersonal skills that are essential to successful group work in the professional world. In the short term, the students are not learning all of the content the instructor intends for them to learn through the group assignment. 

From the students’ perspective, the cons of group work can often outweigh the pros, but these can all be fixed with simple solutions that involve only a small amount of extra effort from both the students and instructors. First, students need to realize the benefit of group work themselves, giving them more incentive to work collaboratively and cooperatively with their group members. Not only will this develop these interpersonal skills which group work is designed to target, but students may even inspire this willingness to collaborate and engage from the entirety of the group. Second, the group members need to leverage technology to be in contact with each other as much as possible, allowing each other to ask and respond to questions. This can certainly be helped by the professor or university assigning the work on a collaborative platform, such as Omega Notes.

Improving communication and effort between both students and instructors go hand in hand when improving the effectiveness of group work. When communication is improved in a group, often effort will begin to improve and set precedent for an individuals’ next experience with group work. This is due to the fact that the students believe they are improving their efficiency and not wasting as much time when completing the project.

Today, technology has allowed this form of communication to improve drastically from what it was previously. Students can communicate and see other members’ work instantly with instant messaging, shared documents, and collaborative learning platforms. When students have questions, they are able to ask instructors through message boards instead of waiting until class time or office hours. From the student point of view, they are asking questions when they are stuck and getting responses immediately so they don’t lose their train of thought. From the instructor perspective, they are able to see which groups and group members are putting in the most effort into the assignment. Instructors are also able to confirm whether or not the students are on the correct path to achieve the goals that have been set relating to both content retention and real-world professional skills.

Brenden Thomas