Why Group Projects (Usually) Don’t Work

I enjoy an academic challenge. If I hate an assignment, it’s usually not because it’s too hard, but because it’s boring or feels meaningless.

The one type of assignment I just can’t bring myself to like, however, are group projects.

If you’ve never had to survive a group project, I envy you. The name is pretty self-explanatory: it’s an assignment that involves collaborating with other students in order to achieve a (usually shared) grade.

On paper, it’s a great idea. After all, knowing how to collaborate with others is a good skill to have – whether or not it’s as important as people say is something I still debate, but that’s besides the point. Knowing how to work with others and bring people with different skill sets together can allow for more productivity in a project. At least, that’s how it should be.

The problem that I’ve encountered is that in my experience, group projects have been more frustrating than educational. I always come away from a group assignment feeling like the final result would have been better if I had done it myself. Part of this is certainly a character flaw of mine, but I think it goes beyond that.

On the other hand, I’ve had many experiences with collaborative projects that have gone very well. I can think back to some group assignments in college that I enjoyed and learned from, as well as from activities outside of an academic setting, like video games and writing. Based on that, I don’t think the problem is so much with group assignments themselves – as I said, they do have their benefits – but rather with how they’re presented.

So, what makes a group project enjoyable and beneficial? (Or, if not enjoyable, at least not terribly frustrating.)

Just this past fall, the final assignment for one of my courses was a group project in which each group had to read a book of their choice (from a particular list), and then plan, record, and edit a podcast about that book. For this project, we were allowed to choose our own groups, and so I was able to work with two of my close friends. This was beneficial in a few ways: 1) it allowed us to skip the awkward “getting to know you” phase, 2) I chose people who had similar interests (in general and in books), and with complimentary personalities, and 3) I chose people who had similar achievement standards as I did.

The argument against that is something along the lines of, “You don’t get to choose who you work with in real life, so why should you get to in school?” That’s a valid point, but it begs the question: Why do things have to be that way? Is there a law that makes choosing your own work groups illegal? And yes, I understand there will always be things you can’t control. It’s unfortunate. But if the idea of collaboration is efficiency, it seems like allowing people to choose their own groups allows for more of that.

As another example, I’ve talked about my experiences with Role-Play Writing club in high school, which was a collaborative story-writing project. I learned a lot about writing from that club, of course, but it also serves as an example of a collaborative project I enjoyed and learned from. Like with the podcast project, we chose our group (the club wasn’t required, so everyone involved wanted to be there).

One of the differences, however, was that this wasn’t an academic project, so there wasn’t any grade-related incentive to do well. Instead, the incentive was to write a good story. We were all writers, it wasn’t enough for us to just put words on a page. We wanted them to be good words. Granted, that’s a vague standard, because everyone has different definitions of “good.” But that shared goal meant we were all working our best, and we created something we were proud of.

Even more off of the academic path, video games are probably one of the most notable places for collaboration today. As just one example, playing the mobile alternate reality game Pokémon Go has shown me a lot about what working collaboration looks like. In Pokémon Go, there are “raid battles” which require anywhere between 3 and 20 players to come together and fight a “boss” in hopes of being able to capture it. As with the previous examples, you are given flexibility to pick your group, and the group is also given a clear, distinct goal – defeat the boss in as little time as possible. There is no room for ambiguity there.

Based on my experience, it seems like group projects are more meaningful when the participants have a shared goal. With academic projects, the goal is often to successfully complete the task(s) at hand. The problem that I’ve encountered, however, is that “successful completion” is usually ill-defined. Sure, there are rubrics and other helps, but that usually doesn’t change the student’s definition of success.

For me, my definition of succeeding at an assignment is getting the best grade possible. At the other extreme (and yes, I admit I’m at an extreme) is to simply pass or complete the tasks as efficiently as possible. While it isn’t truly a binary, both ends of the spectrum have their advantages and disadvantages (I’m still trying to learn how to be okay with not pushing myself at the risk of my well-being).  The problem is that without a shared definition of what success is, both types of people get frustrated.

So, based on what I’ve seen in my twenty-one years, I believe that in order for a group project of any kind to be meaningful, it should give the participants a shared goal and shared definition of success. If providing that shared definition of success isn’t possible (which it often isn’t), letting people choose their own collaborators gives them the opportunity to work with people who complement them and have similar achievement standards.

Look, I’m not an expert. Most would say I don’t even have a “real job” yet (and I would argue, but that’s a debate for another day). All I’m saying is, if everyone is right and I’m going to be plagued with group projects for the rest of my life, the least we could do is make them less dreadful.

What’s been your favorite collaborative project? What do you think would make these types of projects better? I’d love to hear your feedback!

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “Why Group Projects (Usually) Don’t Work

  1. Never was a fan of group projects. One or two (usually one) ends up doing all the work, yet all share the grades if not the workload. A few work hard to benefit the many — classic definition of socialism. Also, educators don’t always recognize that forced classroom collaboration doesn’t translate to the work environment, where there is a more definitive chain of command and a structure for dealing with slackers — admonition, reduction of workload or compensation, and ultimately, if needed, termination.
    You can’t do that in academia; a major difference!


  2. […] Third Monday of the Month: General musings in a non-list format. The content might vary, but it would be more essay-like in form. Not that they’re actually essays. Or maybe they are? I don’t know where to draw the line. Whatever you call it, they’ll look similar to “Why Group Projects (Usually) Don’t Work.” […]


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