The pitfalls of group work

By Patrikas Balsys, Full Stack Developer at The Index Project

One of the most unsettling phrases I often hear as a student is something along the lines of “alright, now everyone form groups of 4–5 people”.

There is a disconcerting trend among companies and academia to distribute all of their tasks for groups. People seem to blindly think that group work is simply better than individual work, and here I would argue that this is not always the case.

One can often hear the phrase “one plus one equals three”, implying that collective work produces more results when compared to two individuals working alone. While this is true in some cases, the phrase never sat right with me — albeit simple, it just does not add up mathematically, nor in real life. A much more accurate interpretation would be multiplication, as the process of group work is much more interlaced and interdependent.

As an example, 3x3=9 implies a similar statement to the one before — teamwork is efficient, and the group produces better results when compared to working individually (symbolised by summing the numbers together, 3+3=6). However, multiplication also allows us to express the opposite scenario: 1.5x1.5=2.25. Here, two people are producing less than if they had worked individually (1.5+1.5=3). And we can go even deeper to something like 0.9x0.9=0.81.

“Teachers, managers and staff should rethink why they are choosing group work as their format, and whether it actually fits the task at hand.”

What I’m trying to express with this formula is that, for one reason or another, the group’s results are not only worse than the work of two individual members but also worse than one person doing the work alone! I would argue that this is, in fact, not too unrealistic — imagine the archetypical hard-working student paired with a “freeloader”, and you can see how this could actually happen.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that anyone would adapt this sort of mathematical lingo into their vocabulary, but that is not my objective here. When we start thinking in multiplicative terms, the premise of group work becomes defined with better accuracy. Most people do not land into the first category of 3x3=9; in fact, I believe it is rather rare. Teachers, managers and staff should rethink why they are choosing group work as their format, and whether it actually fits the task at hand.

What could be the reasons behind the negative results? The first thing that comes to mind is simply the fact that a lot of people are introverted. Personally, I do not view that as a negative, but more as a fact of life — some people are just more suited to working individually, and as such, it is much more beneficial to split up the work. Another issue is the task that is given to the group. Tasks are often composed of smaller, linear tasks, which is not suited for groups whatsoever.

“Individual work is not “passé”, nor am I saying that it is objectively better. Group work is just a tool in our toolbelt (…)”

As an example, imagine giving a group the task of reading a fictional book. Realistically, this cannot be split up in such a way that the members could work in parallel — in order to read further chapters, one should first read what happened before. What ends up happening is that either everyone reads the book fully, or one person reads it and discusses the content with the others; either way, as a result, the group dynamic did not benefit the task whatsoever. Following this example, one could argue that the group could discuss the plot and ideas of the book, and that is indeed a valid point — some creative tasks can work rather well in a group setting, but on the other hand, the phrase “designed by committee” is pejorative for a reason — not every creative task is suited for groups. Moreover, the task of reading a book in and of itself is not a creative one.

Even when we disregard the raw productivity of group work, there are other reasons why this format is not always the best approach. In academia, teachers have the task of grading their students, and more often than not, they choose to group the students. This, of course, results in less work for the teachers, as the work is consolidated into fewer parts, but individual students often do not get an accurate assessment either, as is often the case with “freeloaders” in the group.

In closing, I would urge everyone to really think about whether group work is the correct solution to the problem at hand. Individual work is not “passé”, nor am I saying that it is objectively better. Group work is just a tool in our toolbelt, and as such, we should avoid using a hammer to screw in nails.

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