The Unfortunate Motivation Behind Assigning Group Work

Determining whether assignments should be completed individually or in small groups is a major decision for business school faculty. There are various considerations behind making this important decision. In some situations, group work is appropriate at the undergraduate level; however, there is an overabundance of group work and for the wrong reason. Candidly, the real motivation behind most undergraduate group work is that it substantially reduces grading effort for faculty, or their graduate students. The math is simple: Group assignments with four students per group reduce grading effort by 75%.

The majority of undergraduate business students would benefit much more from being assigned more individual work.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Group Work

Any good decision should be made based on understanding the pros and cons involved. Considerations in group vs. individual work are as shown.

Advantages of Group Work
(Disadvantages of not Using Individual Work)
Disadvantages of Group Work
(Advantages of Using Individual Work)
  • Students learn quality skills and insights from one another, especially from the variation of work experience and relevant courses taken.
  • Students learn effective project team skills.
  • Students achieve socialization and professional networking.
  • Stronger students help educate the weaker students.
  • Faculty grading time is reduced immensely.
  • Learning is inconsistent as stronger students contribute the majority of work and learn a great deal, but weaker/unmotivated students contribute little and learn little.
  • Conflicts in compatible meeting times outside of class resulting in precious class time being consumed for groups to meet.
  • Faculty must be involved in “policing” groups, which may involve some sort of written process where students evaluate each other. This results in both complexity and easily disputable judgments.

The Realities of Group Work: Problems Burdensome and Unproductive

Too often, the disadvantages of group work outweigh the advantages at the undergraduate level. High-achieving students get frustrated by completing the lion’s share of the work, dealing with procrastination among the lower-commitment-level students, and experiencing unproductive meetings. Often, the high achievers determine that it would be more efficient to do it themselves, or with a smaller portion of group members.

I do not consistently see students absorbing the learning objectives from group assignments. You have the haves and the have-not syndrome. Some students learning a great deal and some students are earning high grades but not actually learning.  I have witnessed even very astute students take a total back seat on important group assignments. In a Management Information Systems course students convinced me to make a key Systems Requirements assignment into a group project for teams of two that I initially assigned as individual work. Students had to personally interview a physician group to uncover its typical system requirements, including billing, scheduling, medical records, payroll, general ledger, etc. Two top students worked together and earned 100 on the group assignment, but one performed miserably on a major section of the upcoming test on system requirements concepts. Despite a grade of 100 on the group assignment, this student had not learned much from the assignment. What is a professor accomplishing with group assignments in such situations?

To deal with the have and the have-not syndrome in group assignments, my older sister, who is a professor in the Midwest, has devised a system where students submit evaluations of each other’s contributions. It is hard enough being a professor without taking on being a “judge” policing and evaluating the opinions of fellow students on one another.

Group Work Can Waste Precious Class Time

In attending a fellow professor’s classes for a course I was to teach the next semester, I noticed that he was letting student groups meet during class time. These students all lived on campus and few had outside work responsibilities (geographical and work schedule issues had been other reasons to consume class time for group meetings at other universities where I teach). Why was he using precious class time when students all live in close proximity to the campus? He explained that student activities made it difficult for them, primarily the athletes,  to meet outside of class. A typical semester, excluding two testing periods, is only 38 hours of class time which is less than one real-world work week. Can professors truly afford to consume precious class time for groups to meet?

When is Group Work at Undergraduate Level Appropriate? High Admissions Standards

There are few undergraduate programs where students have extensive-enough work experience or academic coursework background to contribute much to a group environment. The merits of group work only arise in undergraduate business programs where consistent, high numbers of participants possess:

  • Commitment and initiative
  • Intelligence
  • Time-management skills
  • Time available for regular meetings

What undergraduate business schools possess high-enough thresholds of such students attributes to minimize the occurrence of weak students undermining the benefits of group work? The answer involves whether the business school has high-enough admissions requirements to weed out weaker students. It is common for students at the nation’s top undergraduate business schools to either apply during their freshman or sophomore year with GPAs exceeding 3.6, along with good extracurricular activities, or be admitted as an incoming freshmen possessing exceptionally high aptitude test scores (SAT/ACT) and high secondary grades.

On the other hand, there are many quality business schools where just about anyone can get admitted with GPA requirements as low as 2.5.  Not every undergraduate business school is in the position to attract top notch students by maintaining strict admissions standards. Many deans and department heads have financial pressures to maintain high student counts that lead them to be more concerned about student quantity than quality. Higher student counts often correlate to higher departmental budgets for full-time faculty, attracting graduate students for research, and other allocations. An emphasis on quantity can compromise the quality of their student talent pool and severely affect whether group work will be productive.

In talking with faculty, I often hear that assigning group work is vital to developing project coordination skills students will use in the workplace with a wide spectrum of co-workers . I do not agree with this argument as there is a much larger variation of student talents than co-worker talents.  In the workplace, there is a much higher barometer in talent, motivation, commitment, and ease of meeting coordination. I guarantee that business students working for typical companies (Microsoft, Deloitte, Hyatt, etc.) will not be performing group projects with “slackers” as they will not be around very long.

Propelling Forward Individual Work Requires a Change in Priorities

The decision to assign group work should involve a careful assessment of the merits of the students in a given class and apparent student population attributes overall. Many professors do not weigh these considerations, but are influenced solely by the pressures of their positions to reduce the time involved with instructing students. Research, publishing, presentations, and committee work are the priorities of the vast majority of today’s undergraduate business school faculty. Priorities associated with instructing students usually come after those that drive tenure, compensation, and day-to-day departmental recognition.

What is the bottom line? For students to uniformly absorb the key learning objectives from their coursework, the majority of undergraduate business schools need to advocate to their professors to assign work individually, rather than rely on group work to the extent they now do.

Illustration by: Michael Scearce, IMGFX Design

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  1. Hi Paul,
    This is a very interesting topic and I think you present some compelling views. I currently teach 300 students in a mandatory first-year business class and I try to incorporate a group project each semester. When I have assessed the students, I get mixed reviews. Some say they learn alot although it is difficult to coordinate schedules, while others say it helped them meet other students in the school and enhance their teamwork and communication skills. I wonder how we can strike a balance!


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