On a recent Saturday, I stared at my group’s ongoing assignment for English class, getting lost in thought and wondering if anyone else in my group would work on it over the weekend.
As a high school senior in a big magnet high school of approximately 2,400 students, I have met and worked with a large number of students. Many students are very intelligent and academically motivated, but there are also many students who are rather uninterested in their academic success. When group work is assigned, I often get a sinking feeling of dread from the fear of an uneven distribution of work.
I hoped that I would not, once again, need to do an unfair portion of a group assignment. I talked to a friend about my feelings and was met with resounding agreement about the frequent unfairness of group work. In a fit of passion, I emailed a long appeal to my English teacher.
Here’s what I said—and what I want other teachers to know as well:
In most schools, students will be required to participate in group work at some point. Unfortunately, many academically motivated students dislike it because they anticipate that some group members will not do nearly as much work as others. For this reason, I am proposing that teachers should try to give less group work outside of class and instead contain it within the classroom, possibly in exchange for more individually assigned homework.
An uneven workload can happen for a variety of reasons. For instance, some group members are less capable than others. However, as someone who has worked with people that have more trouble contributing to the group assignment, I am generally satisfied with the distribution of work, as long as everyone expends the same amount of effort. It is also possible for group members to fall sick during a group project, causing them to take a break from work. However, when a classmate contracted COVID during a recent group project, my group mates and I were understanding that they needed to rest.
What is much more vexing is when certain students do not try as hard as others—either because they simply do not care about the grade or because they assume their group members will do their work for them. This often creates a kind of domino effect with otherwise motivated students becoming unwilling to contribute because of the unfairness, thinking, “Why should I work on this if my group mates don’t?”
I’ve felt that way, too, but I still end up working on the assignment, as do the majority of students who care about their grades. When the assignment still ends up getting finished, it can be easy to overlook the unfair inner workings of the group members.
The possibility of unequal workloads in groups can certainly apply to students during class as well as outside of class, but the classroom setting is more likely to motivate students to work. When outside of school, students are more averse to doing schoolwork. It is much easier to procrastinate in an environment outside of a classroom, with thrills of instant gratification close at hand and no authority figure to regulate what they are supposed to be doing.
In addition, some group assignments require students to find time to work together outside of class, which is hard for some students. Because many students have family responsibilities, part-time work, and extracurricular activities, it can be challenging to find a specific time when all group members are free. For instance, I work in my family’s business for about 20 hours a week, attend track practice nearly every day after school, and tutor science and math in the mornings before 8 AM.
Assigning only individual work outside the classroom removes the risk of group members being overly reliant on others.
Assigning only individual work outside the classroom removes the risk of group members being overly reliant on others. The individual gets credit for their effort and output, which is the main factor of how students are graded. In addition, it is easier to manage time and allows the student to work at their own pace.
Removing group work entirely might eliminate the unfairness and challenges associated with it, but group work certainly does have benefits for students. It can help us learn to develop stronger communication skills, share different perspectives, and work together to solve complex problems.
Therefore, without completely removing group work, I urge teachers to consider changing their curriculum to accommodate for more class time to work on group assignments. It’s only fair.
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as I’m a Student. Here’s Why Group Work Feels So Unfair