The Pitfalls of Group Work

Most of my homework is explicitly individual: I put in all the effort, slap my name on front, shove it in the hands of some unsuspecting marker, and in the end I get all the credit. The idea behind it, I assume, is that each assignment is a virgin slice of mind, unspoiled by outside thoughts, and uninfluenced by anything whatsoever, as though I vomited out tape in response to each inquiry like the world’s grossest Turing machine.

This ideal is hardly realized. We all know how to use the internet and the library, and in general most of us have at least one person we can talk to, and inevitably when we get stuck we turn somewhere to find inspiration. If we are lucky, we find it, but now whatever essay, lab, problem set, reading, or paper we tackle is indelibly stamped with someone else’s observations.

That’s not really a big deal.

The idea here is not to lock yourself in dim rooms and work slavishly until you come up with something original. It’s not plagiarism or dishonesty to be influenced by something else. The idea is to present work that is as much of your own as it can be: you have to reflect on other ideas and make them your own, instead of simply regurgitating it. Ultimately, you hand in your own work, even if implicitly someone else’s work had an effect on it.

This whole thing kind of goes out the window when it comes to group work.

I have had a handful of group work assignments during my undergraduate: in each case, marks were shared equally for all members, and there was no real mechanism for feedback on who tackled which component. This is doubtlessly because markers are too busy to deal with intra-group disputes, and are assuming that, by the time people hit undergrad, they generally can deal with their own issues.

I have never been in a group where anyone has acted in bad faith, which I am very thankful for. Still, there are some major pitfalls that befall the well-intentioned.

1. Your group does not communicate enough

If your group members don’t talk to each other, how do you know who is working on what and who is getting stuff done? The only thing worse than a group producing redundant work is a group who neglected to produce a component at all.

2. The procrastinating prisoner’s dilemma

Sometimes it is hard to get started. In my last group assignment, I had no idea where to begin the assignment. Instead of, you know, actually starting the damn thing, I sat and waited for my group members to wrest something into existence so we could begin there. If every member does that, then the group project rushes along the path of least resistance to the garbage heap of incomplete assignments.

The right thing for me to have done would have been to simply say that I was stuck and prompt my fellow groupies for insight. Unfortunately, I only think of these things after the fact.

3. Disproportionate division of labour

I.e., one person is doing much more or much less than everyone else.

In the case that one person is doing much less, then it is time for the group to talk about it. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt and engage them while the group project is still being worked on. You need to talk together and figure out why one person is lagging behind. Sometimes they will be stuck on something, sometimes they will be unclear about what their responsibilities are, sometimes they will just feel to awkward to contribute. If your group can resolve the issue of one person working less, then the entire group will benefit because now you have another member of the group who can contribute!

In the case that one person is doing much more of the work, it may be tempting to let them do it all, but realistically the rest of the group loses out on the benefit of practice and the whole situation may cause resentment from the person doing much more of the work even if they say they are fine with doing all the work.

Do your best to split the work fairly. If you have issues that you can’t resolve, try to let it go, do the best you can, and remember that managing human capital is a job all unto itself.