The use of group work in the classroom is one of the most widely researched and implemented teaching approaches in the world. Numerous research studies have shown the benefits of collaborative learning on academic performance, communication skills, and confidence.
However, our understanding of how group work facilitates learning and why group work is only effective in certain situations is still limited. And like with all teaching strategies, the disadvantages need to be taken into consideration.
Amongst educators, there is a growing debate surrounding the efficacy of group work due to the potential for laziness, unequal workload, conflict between students, and a loss of focus on the task at hand. So, we took a look at the pros and cons of implementing group work into the classroom to determine how effective it really is.
5 advantages of group work
The phrase “two heads are better than one” certainly has some merit. Researchers found that if students are able to work together, for example on a problem-solving task, they are more likely to experiment with different techniques in order to try and solve it. They can also learn faster from positive and negative feedback.
Students also learn better by discussing and questioning each other’s opinions and reasoning as this allows them to develop different perspectives of how they can go about completing a task. Research shows this promotes cognitive restructuring, enhancing academic, social, and emotional learning as a result.
Working in a group can be tough. So, when students are able to overcome all the conflict, stress, and long hours that come with group assignments, the end result of getting a good grade can be extremely satisfying and motivating.
Research shows that students who contribute to group discussion and engage with the assigned problem-solving task are highly dedicated to figuring out a solution. When they find that solution, students report feeling extremely satisfied with their role in making that decision compared to students who weren’t as involved. This leads to a more positive depiction of their group learning experience.
Teamwork is a staple part of academic life and allows students to explore complex tasks that they otherwise wouldn’t have done if they had been alone, enhancing both their individual and collective learning. This is because working in a group exposes students to new perspectives, styles of thinking, and disagreement.
This provides students with an opportunity to improve their communication skills, collaboration and provides a larger capacity for brainstorming different ideas. This not only contributes to a more holistic approach to learning but can help group productivity as well.
A survey showed that 97% of students reported that working in a group environment has helped facilitate their learning and collaborative skills in some way. Some students suggested that group work served as a learning process in itself; that is, they learnt about groups by working in a group.
Research also shows that learning in a group leads to better memory recall and understanding. This is because students remember more from group discussions than if they listened to the same content in a more instructional format.
However, these benefits are only felt if:
- Clear goals are set
- There is clear leadership
- Each member is assigned a specific role
- There’s equal participation from all group members
- The task is relevant to syllabus content
Although this study was conducted with university students, these findings are still relevant to other educational levels.
Learn to overcome conflict
Some teachers argue that conflict during group work can actually be a good thing as it is representative of experiences students will have in their future workplaces. By experiencing it in a more controlled setting, students learn about communication skills and how to resolve interpersonal issues more safely.
Group work also allows students to develop a better understanding of themselves and how their peers view them. By gaining constructive feedback from their peers about how well they did on a task and how well they worked as part of the group, students are better equipped to evaluate their social skills and behaviour.
5 disadvantages of group work
Anyone who has done group work knows that is can have its fair share of disadvantages. Let’s take a look at why.
Presence of conflict
When working with others, it’s natural that disagreement will arise due to differences in opinions. Some students find it difficult to accept criticism from their peers and struggle to get on board with ideas that aren’t their own.
Moreover, students who are quiet often have difficulty expressing their ideas in a group and may feel uncomfortable working with people they don’t normally speak to. As a result, they may be seen as lazy, creating conflict.
Research shows that the presence of conflict in group work can negatively impact the students’ enjoyment of that class, inhibit their individual learning, and increase stress levels. This is because students felt that compromising and coming to an agreement was an extremely difficult and draining process. This led to many students developing a fear of conflict.
In group work, you’ll often observe a large discrepancy in participation between the different group members. With a lot of group projects, it’s common to find 1-2 students taking the bulk of the workload, whilst other members essentially freeload. This can lead to conflict and breed bitterness amongst the different group members – especially if the student feels others are being rewarded for their hard work.
Research shows that this is more evident in larger groups as individuals tend to diffuse the responsibility of tasks onto others as grades typically don’t consider individual contribution. Other times, a student may just give their peers the answer without explaining how they worked it out. Consequently, no real knowledge and understanding have been gained.
Avoiding the task
When working in a group, it’s quite common for students to go off-topic, especially if the task involves discussion. Some students may use that time to gossip, do other tasks, or loaf around. This results in the group work session being less effective and productive.
As a teacher, it’s difficult to make sure everyone is doing the task they’re supposed to for the entire session, not just as you approach their table to see how they’re doing. For some teachers, it feels that they have to micromanage the task in order for the task to be effective, diminishing the purpose of working in a group.
Working in a team can be extremely time-consuming as a student. Not only do meetings have to be scheduled outside of class hours but they have to co-ordinate with everyone’s schedule. For sixth-form students in particular, this can be quite difficult due to already being overscheduled.
Researchers have even argued whether the time-consuming nature of group work made the strategy ineffective. As a result, more research is emerging about when not to use group work in the classroom and suggest that for simpler tasks, students complete them individually.
Individual needs are dominated by the needs of the group
Not all students learn at the same speed. Some may need more time to fully understand the task and process the information they’re being taught. On the flip side, some students may grasp the material very quickly.
Therefore, when working as a group, certain students are either forced to hurry up their learning to the extent that they either learn nothing or resort to copying. Alternatively, those who work faster may actually be going too fast, attempting to move onto the next task before everyone is ready. This can lead to conflict as students may get frustrated by the learning process.
Group learning can be effective regardless of people’s socioeconomic status or whether they’re put into a group with the same people throughout the year. However, the advantages of this active learning environment are only observed when it is done right.
Group size, how groups are assigned and how the teacher manages the groups can have both a positive and negative impact on learning. Due to the potential disadvantages, some research suggests that group work should only be used in moderation by allowing simpler tasks to be completed individually and more complex tasks to be completed in groups.