If you’re at university, you’ll almost certainly be made to work with your fellow students to complete a group assignment at some point during your course.
Some people get really enthusiastic about group assignments, while others view them with suspicion and dread. Usually what they fear most is the prospect of working with someone who’s hugely enthusiastic about group assignments.
But does collaboration benefit our learning? Or isa camel just a horse designed by committee? In other words, is group work actually less efficient and productive than an individual performing a task alone?
As is almost always the case when humans are involved, the truth varies. Assuming there are no particularly irksome or troublemaking individuals upsetting the group harmony, there are some ways working in groups can be helpful when it comes to learning, and other ways in which it may be more of an obstacle. So, here are the pros and cons of teamwork.
Humans are, by nature, incredibly social creatures. At a neurological level, we see ourselves as part of a group and worry about the judgment of others. The underlying drive to be part of a group, to be recognised and appreciated by its members, and to achieve high status among them can be a serious motivator when it comes to completing a task.
Some studies suggest that group assignments do indeed directly improve an individual’s ability to learn and perform. “Socially shared cognition” and “transactive memory” are some of the loftier terms used to describe groups working together on an intellectual task. It makes sense that information discussed and delivered by friends and colleagues will be more salient than the same information delivered in a dull lecture while you’re struggling to stay awake.
Division of labour
The idea may be fashionable, particularly in higher education, but there is no decent evidence to support the existence of “learning styles”. However, people do excel at different things, whether due to affinity, aptitude, motivation or some other reason.
In group tasks, individual performance can improve if each person is allowed to focus on what they’re good at (such as presentation, analysis, research, and so on). Interacting with others who know a specific area better than you can enhance your own grasp of it, if only because they can articulate it in a way that hadn’t occurred to you before.
When supervisors assign group tasks, they usually allocate the groups themselves, rather than leave this up to the students. This means you meet and work with new people in group assignments. For both introverts and extroverts, this can be a plus. Extroverts are likely to enjoy this anyway, while otherwise-reluctant introverts may benefit from this obligation to interact.
As well as learning new skills and knowledge, group assignments could help you make new friends. This is a pleasant experience, and basic associative learning means we are better able to learn things that are paired with a pleasant experiences. On a more complex, “human” level, things we’re emotionally engaged with tend to be more stimulating and thus easier to learn and recall.
There are some very clear drawbacks to group learning, however. And one of them is that the conclusions arrived at by groups can be a lot less cautious than those reached by people working alone.
Countless studies have shown the effect of group polarisation, where group decisions tend to be more extreme than individual ones. The subconscious desire for group harmony, together with one-upmanship, can lead to more out-there conclusions than each person would agree to alone.
In group assignments, this can lead to wrong conclusions, which means everyone’s marks suffer.
Even if you think you’re a conscientious, hardworking type, you may still be prone to social loafing, the tendency for people to put in less effort when working on a task with a group than they would do if alone.
If you don’t feel your contribution is noticed, why bother putting in the effort? The feeling that others will pick up the slack can limit your own performance.
While working in groups may improve your understanding and knowledge, there’s no guarantee that this knowledge will be correct. Informational social influence is where the groups we’re part of impact on what we know – but this could easily be wrong.
If everyone tells you peanuts are nuts and not legumes, you’re going to start questioning your own knowledge. If enough people in a group assignment arrive at a wrong conclusion, it could overwhelm your own correct one, which wouldn’t happen in an individual assignment.
The trivial matters
Have you ever been in a group where a ridiculous amount of time is spent on minor matters? Whose turn it is to supply the biscuits, what colour the background of the slides should be, and so on? This has been labelled Parkinson’s law of triviality, where groups spend far more time on easy-but-unimportant tasks than they do on important-but-complex ones.
The latter are challenging and daunting, and it’s harder to show authority or expertise (or even form an opinion) when discussing them. Hence it’s annoyingly common to spend hours debating something inconsequential, while the point of the assignment isn’t dealt with.
These are just some of the ways in which group assignments can impact on how we learn things, for better or worse. Obviously, it varies tremendously within different contexts, while modern developments, particularly technological ones, are changing things – hopefully for the better. (For example, social loafing is much harder to do in assignments based in online documents, where everyone’s individual contribution is tracked and monitored).
So, while it’s hard to say with certainty whether a specific group assignment will improve or hinder your learning, they probably are still worth doing. It’s rare to encounter an employer or institute that doesn’t emphasise “teamwork skills” these days, and in our increasingly interconnected society, learning how to be part of a group is something worth working on, regardless of the task itself.
Dean Burnett discusses how groups affect our thinking and more, in his book The Idiot Brain (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £7.99, go tobookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.