I Never Did Like Group Projects…

Group projects. Does anyone (besides teachers) actually like them?

I hated group projects when I was in school. I hated scheduling my work around other people’s schedules, relying on people who could not always be relied upon, and having to let go of some interesting angle on a topic because no one else shared my enthusiasm. My 12-year-old daughter says she hates group projects because if you end up with the kid who talks nonstop or doesn’t listen to directions or can’t focus in your group, you’re stuck with the consequences (ranging from disapproving glares from the teacher to a poor grade) despite doing everything in your power to do your own work well. My friends who have gone back to school to pursue advanced degrees or make a career change say that group projects are even more of a nightmare now that they are older students. Not only do they once again have to deal with the inevitable slackers, but they also feel that group projects are a huge waste of time. When you’re taking classes in between caring for children and a home and also working full- or part-time, you just want to put your head down and do the work. These grown-up students, stretched to their limits already, really don’t need to add group meetings and logistics-oriented e-mails and corralling of slackers to their already busy schedules. (Most of them already spend an inordinate amount of time corralling slackers, a.k.a., their children.) They just want to learn the material, take the tests, write the papers, get the grades, get the degree, and go to work.

So lots of people hate group projects. Yet teachers keep assigning them. Why? To foster collaborative skills. To help students identify and take advantage of their and others’ strengths. To prepare students for the cooperation necessary for success in the workplace.

Except, as author Susan Cain pointed out in a New York Times op ed piece this weekend,

…there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted…They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Cain goes on to say, “Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process.” To illustrate, she cites Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Jobs is lauded for his charisma and marketing genius, yet Wozniak’s solitary late-night toiling to engineer a personal computer is equally responsible for the company’s success.

As someone who hates group projects, is an introvert, and likes few things better than writing, alone, in a quiet house, with only my snoring dog for company, I find Cain’s argument against “groupthink” compelling, encouraging, and refreshing. As my writer friend Adam McHugh (author of Introverts in the Church) points out in Cain’s article, questioning the centrality of charismatic, extroverted leadership has implications for churches as well:

Many mega-churches feature extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable activity, from parenting to skateboarding to real estate, and expect worshipers to join in. They also emphasize a theatrical style of worship — loving Jesus out loud, for all the congregation to see. “Often the role of a pastor seems closer to that of church cruise director than to the traditional roles of spiritual friend and counselor,” said Adam McHugh…

The truth, of course, is that it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. The world can be changed by a group of colleagues feeding off of each others’ energy and ideas, or in front of a glowing laptop screen where a solitary writer struggles to find words worthy of describing some quiet revelation.

But I think it might be time for teachers to realize that group projects are rarely the sort of energizing, ennobling, enriching experience they want them to be, and are instead often a frustrating, tedious time-suck for the most conscientious students.



About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://www.michellevanloon.com Michelle Van Loon

    I enjoy some parts of group projects: brainstorming and planning/strategizing on the front end, and reflection/evaluation on the back end. But when it comes to doing the actual work, I want to work on my own.

    My extrovert self loves dreaming and reflecting with others. My inner introvert cherishes the joy of creating in solitude, alone with God.

  • fran

    I am a prof. who always dreaded GIVING group projects. How do you evaluate fairly? So much extra work to moderate group dynamics. I remain unconvinced about the payoff.

    Recently, though, my students have been using wikis to do “group” projects and I am a convert precisely because it allows the individual to work to the best of her ability alone, inputting that material into the group documents, and then for the group individually to work out the process of editing and polishing the collective documents.

    The wiki allows my students the option of working together at a computer if that is how they choose or individually to suit styles and schedules. It allows me to see (through logins and comparative versions) EXACTLY who did what for assessment. And it produces a project born of collaboration that is more like the skills model that we want them to have–honoring both the individual input and the group product.

    (By the way, I have been reading your blog(s) for a while now; I see you at church but I haven’t gotten up the nerve to say hello. We even have friends in common. I’m just not very brave.)

    • http://www.introvertedchurch.com Adam McHugh

      Fran, could you elaborate on what you mean by a “wiki”? Color me intrigued.

      • fran

        Adam–The best example of a wiki is wikipedia. It is essentially an application that allows multiple writers to create multiple documents linked together and presented as web pages. Any member can write or edit. You can add pictures and links and even sound. The background is pretty much set–that’s why all wikipedia’s pages have the same look.
        On the back end, when a student logs in so that she can edit the page, I can see her contributions (like “track changes” in a word processor). I can compare one student’s versions against another to see the number and kind of contributions. So I can see the hard workers and the slackers.
        Collaboration does happen–they will sometimes work together at a single keyboard (which makes grading and seeing a little harder); they leave notes for each other in the documents. Some students take responsibility for editing and polishing.
        Technology does seem to help this process of group projects. Not perfect but helpful.

  • http://www.introvertleader.com John Johnson

    There’s a lot of value to group projects, even for extreme introverts like me. Group projects happen all the time in business, and it’s good to learn the best way you can contribute to one. In college, I would often be the group leader and basically assign individual work to people, and then synthesize it at the end (in addition to my own individual contribution)–similar to the wiki concept but lower tech. This became very helpful when there were slackers, because I would simply stick everybody’s name on their own contribution, and the professors respected it.

    Now, as the head of a department, I take a similar approach except that I have to follow up with people, send reminders, and ask for progress. But I structure group initiatives generally the same way (individual contributors, then a synthesis).

  • Casey

    I’ve always been an introvert and hated group projects in school for many of the reasons listed, but when I had the right partner or partners in the group, the collaboration could produce results that none of us could alone.

    I find the same is true in the workplace. The whole can be (though isn’t always) more than the sum of its parts. I also find that if I’m working on a project alone, I can get bogged down in my own personal wild goose chases, whereas if I’m working in a team, I’m better both at exploring the what ifs that are valuable and redirecting the group back to the core tasks.