Why I hate group projects

I thought there would be more maturity in university

Queen's University students (Jessica Darmanin)

When I got out of high school and enrolled at the University of Alberta, I was particularly excited for one thing: the end of the dreaded group project.

In high school a number of different things led me to hate working with others. We would prepare arbitrary presentations and our peers wouldn’t listen to them anyway. I thought that studying English and Comparative Literature in university would mean never having to collaborate for meaningless group assignments again.

Boy was I wrong. In fact, I seem to be doing more group projects than essays lately.

When I first saw all the group assignment descriptions on my syllabi at the beginning of the year, I decided to be as positive as possible. Perhaps the maturity level of my groups would be higher in university. Boy was I wrong again. Group work only seems to get worse in university, and I can safely say that the biggest source of my school stress has come from working with my peers.

But instead of letting it get me down any more, I’m going to relive the worst group project I have ever been a part of and hopefully my misfortune will at least brighten your day.

The final group presentation I did this semester was in one of my English classes. It was pretty straightforward: form a group of four, read an article in advance, prepare a PowerPoint presentation and speak in front of the class. I tried contacting my group a month in advance so we could coordinate what slides we wanted to do and how we wanted to present. Only one person answered. The other two ended up emailing me with just a week to spare. When I figured out what everyone wanted to present on, I made the Google Doc, did my part and waited. When I checked our project the night before, I noticed only one other person had started on. The other two, again, had nothing.

Anxious, and paranoid that half of the group forgot about our assignment, I checked again the morning of the presentation. One of the two slackers had completed their part; the other group member still had done nothing. That person didn’t forget, but just decided to leave it until the literal last minute.

About 20 minutes into our presentation, our perpetually late group mate showed up—the Google Doc ‘last edited’ time showed it was because that person was still working on the slides—read that part and LEFT right in the middle of the presentation! The professor took marks off for it. The project was worth about 15 per cent of the course grade and we all got the same mark.

If you’re one of those people who slacks off during group presentations, please pay more attention to them. For one, they’re worth marks that can bridge the gap between an abysmal final grade and the one you truly want. More importantly, just because you don’t care about your grade, doesn’t mean you should diminish the hard work your peers!

Ravanne Lawday is a second-year student at the University of Alberta.




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Why I hate group projects

  1. The same thing happens in the workplace. There are very few situations where your individual work will be judged in vacuum.

  2. Thanks for this, Ravanne. We professors keep hearing that “today’s students” want more collaborative, interactive, group-based, blah blah blah. I hated it as a student, and as a professor use it very sparingly and only when the bulk of the grade is still determined by the individual student.

  3. This is why, when you have a group project, and you are a responsible individual, you should take control and set guidelines as to when you expect to hear back from people. If you don’t hear back, make note of all the emails that you’ve sent, and start in on your section. Then keep sending emails to your group members, with deadlines, asking them for their section to be complete by a certain date. If they don’t do the work, take your paper trail to the TA or prof.

    At any rate, NEVER leave things to the last minute. If your fellow group mates haven’t done the work several days before a group project is due, do the work yourself! Then present all your evidence to the prof and you have a strong case as to why the members who didn’t participate don’t deserve to be given a mark that is the result of your hard work.

    I had it happen in one class, where group projects were worth 85% of our final mark in a fourth year course. Three of my other group members were terrific, one was not. We kept trying to contact her. Never heard a response. Went to the prof, with the paper trail showing that we had attempted to contact her, and had given her deadlines for her contributions. The prof decided that the individual who didn’t contribute would have to do the entire group project on her own, while the rest of us, who put in the work, received an excellent mark for our efforts.

    So don’t just sit meekly back if group members aren’t participating. Take charge, and if necessary, do the work yourself. It’s better than getting a lousy grade because one group member didn’t do their part.

  4. Oh, Ms. Lawday, you are in for a rude, rude awakening if you think the ‘real world’ will not require the ability to work effectively in teams or on projects with others. It is you who exhibit a remarkable lack of maturity. Why on earth would you wait until the day before the project to discover that it was not complete? And let me guess: by ‘contacted’ her classmates, you mean emailing them. What about the radical notion of speaking to them. In person. You are in class together–and will be presenting together. How do you not practice the presentation as a group? Yes, it is frustrating when a teammate doesn’t pull his/her weight. We’ve all been there. Part of the experience is learning how to overcome that. In work and life, you have to figure it out, and your success/failure will depend on your ability to figure that out. You are in the liberal arts, which is supposed to develop your critical thinking/problem-solving skills; I suggest you start using them rather than complaining about the assignment and your classmates.

    • I’m not saying you’re wrong. Personally, I still find group projects enjoyable because I like working with people and have had good experiences. I also know Ravanne, and I know that she is good at working with people and can do so successfully. Sometimes things just don’t work out. I don’t really see why she is “immature” for disliking group projects in this particular setting. Would it still be immature if a person was uncomfortable working in groups entirely? No. People communicate/learn/work better in different ways. Some excel at group things, some excel at individual projects.
      Emailing is a legitimate way to contact group members, and often the easiest. If this particular group member knew that s/he was bad at checking email (I am one of these people), then s/he could have left the group with another form of contact.
      I was involved with a group project that had a similar disastrous outcome. Luckily it was a larger group (6). We coordinated emails and phone numbers and still had one group member bail on us. We all tried emailing and texting him consistently. He wasn’t showing up to group meetings or responding to any of our messages, and he also started skipping class. It finally got to the point that we weren’t even sure if he was in class, and asked our professor to email him. He responded to that email, yet still refused to contact the rest of the group. The rest of us created an excellent project, and he kind of ended up just creating his own thing that we allowed him to present with us.
      Now some people may feel uncomfortable contacting the professor with group member issues. I’m not saying there is one perfect way to resolve these situations. Neither is Ravanne. In this piece she’s sharing an experience, and it’s one that many university students, including yourself, have gone through. In the end, the moral I take from this is the last message she leaves with the reader: if you’re in a group, don’t be a slacker.

  5. Although it really made no sense for you to wail till last minute and hope work got done instead of communicating with your group members and organizing more, I hate group projects as well. They don’t help to learn material better. If anything they just create more stress for students who all have very busy and different schedules and can’t all meet up at the same time to work on the project together.

  6. Grad Student has the right idea. While you’ll probably never be able to entirely avoid collaborative work, either in school or the workplace, you’ll rarely find a single group where all members contribute equally to the project. Documenting communications with other group members is unfortunately one of the steps you must take in the real world in order to get the credit you deserve for the work you’ve done. You are not responsible for the success or failure of your teammates to contribute their share.
    Arts Grad’s comments seem to be indicative of the source of the problem: accountability. If more people were held to proper account for their actions, or in this case, inaction, rather than being allowed to coast through life on the backs and efforts of others, contributions by individual group members would probably be more equal. Instead of blaming the responsible, accountable student in the group, i.e. the one who actually did the work, Arts Grad, how about assigning the blame where it belongs? The student who doesn’t do the work, simply isn’t entitled to share the grade. Period.
    While I, too, am discouraged by the increasing lack of face-to-face communication, owing largely to the expansion of social media, I find nothing wrong with email communication, particularly when you may not even know the other group members, or when they can’t be bothered to show up to class in the first place. Nonetheless, I think this is a bit of a red herring. There is nothing in the above to suggest the outcome would have been any different if the communication had been in person. And in this case, face-to-face communication lacks the benefit of a paper trail, which you may need to rely on later.

  7. Thanks to all who contributed to this interesting discussion of some quite complex issues in academia. I do hope that most students recognize that there is value in having a wide variety of type of activity during assessment, either within or amongst courses. Surely having all one’s courses evaluated solely on either individual or on group work cannot provide a better university experience than a blend of each. After all, we are teaching students to develop many talents.
    As a science faculty member who regularly teaches a class of over 600, I can say that it is extremely difficult to incorporate anything but standard testing through, primarily, exams. The best one can practically hope for is to avoid too much multiple choice testing. Typically exams in my courses represent 70-80% of the total mark, and this causes considerable stress amongst students, so remember that on your next group project: the grass is not always greener.
    I have no doubt that some students are not able to show their talents in exams. In those cases, other forms of evaluation, such as group projects, have special value.
    Last, I would just add that marking poses a considerable time challenge, especially in the larger classes that are prevalent these days (whether the work is marked by the instructor or TAs is beside the point). Group projects provide an opportunity to showcase students’ work in a way that might not be possible with individual essays. Students in large classes might be envious of those who had that opportunity.
    I personally would also have hated group projects, but we have to be careful trying to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education.

  8. Group work is the bane of students and one of the greatest wastes of time a student will encounter. Despite what a prior poster said, I’ve never heard students clamour for more group work. Educators, however, love group work. Educators claim it helps students learn how to work in groups, but they really include these assignments as they are much, much quicker to grade.

    Even if I believed the false assumption that group assignments were to teach students how to collaborate, that is a pandering assumption. As social beings, humans work in groups all the time (e.g, in our family, on public transit, in the classroom, doing business, communicating with one another, playing games, etc.). It would be great if universities didn’t assume students lacked such basic skills (and forced them to be babysitters) and instead focused on the actual subject matter at hand.

    Then there is the other false assumption that teaching students to work together mimics what students will encounter in the real world. Maybe I am just incredibly lucky, but in my 20 plus years working, I never encountered the level of irresponsibility of coworkers that some students exhibit in group work. (I have encountered horrible bosses, so dealing with difficult professors does help prepare one for this.) Most places fire people who don’t cut. Not participating in team discussions or not doing one’s work – where is this routinely allowed? (Even the civil service isn’t that bad.) Really, I have never encountered people like this (except in dealing with Bell Canada).

    The idea of sharing a grade is fair is also false. Where in real-life scenarios does all a team share the exact same rewards and recognition (or punishments)? Pay scales, bonuses, credit, shame, promotions, etc. always vary to some degree.

    Finally, many academic groups are assigned to students (or students are asked to select their groups from people they sat in proximity to for a few minutes, so essentially assigned). It’s true many people have no choice in their co-workers, family members, or others we are forced to deal with. But we often do have some choice and/or power – we can choose to look for another job, move, get assigned to another team/department, file a complaint, etc.

    Really group work sucks for students and it’s time for educators to stop pretending that they are doing it for students’ benefits.

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