A Student and a Teacher Try to Untangle Why Group Work Is, Well, Terrible

Teaching and Learning

A Student and a Teacher Try to Untangle Why Group Work Is, Well, Terrible

This educator uses a tech strategy to teach collaboration.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Jul 17, 2023

A Student and a Teacher Try to Untangle Why Group Work Is, Well, Terrible

Everyone has a group project horror story. Maybe you had a classmate who got away with doing none of the work. Or maybe a group member doubled down on doing something incorrectly. For the really unlucky, perhaps a teammate repackaged your work as their own.

If you’re EdSurge reporter Nadia Tamez-Robledo, who’s currently in grad school, you’ve recently experienced all three of these scenarios.

To understand why group work goes wrong — and maybe to vent just a teensy bit — I spoke with college instructor and former computer science teacher Jen Manly about how educators can use a technique from the tech world, called Agile project management, to help students of any age work effectively as a team. Manly co-authored the “Agile Educator Guide” and trains others on using the system.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

EdSurge: My first question is a two-parter, Jen. Why does group work suck so much? And why do teachers and professors continue to assign it?

Jen Manly: Good questions. The first question I'm gonna answer is the second one, which is, why do people assign group work? And the bottom line is that our whole world revolves around groups, right? So in the workplace, people are seen as good employees if they're contributing to the mission of the organization or the good of the team, not just to their own projects. But then outside of work, you have to exist within communities. You have to collaborate within a family, you have to collaborate within a team, you have to collaborate within your neighborhood.

So knowing how to work in a team is a very important skill. And I think, looking at the K-12 space, kids are not just naturally born knowing how to do this. So we have to build in scaffolds, and we have to give them the opportunity to learn how to work in groups and learn how to work in teams that are relatively low-stakes.

The second question is, why does group work suck so much? Great question. Before I became a teacher, I worked in several other career fields. And one of the things I noticed when I moved into teaching is that the way that we're taught to do group work in the classroom doesn't actually mirror the way that group work looks in the real world.

In my education classes, I was taught, “Hey, you need to have groups where you give each kid a defined role. And because the kid does the role, the group work gets done.” And the reality is that all of us can think about times where we've been in groups where one person does a whole lot, at least one, maybe two kids or adults do relatively little. Then there's the people in the middle who are just kind of doing what they're told.

So this whole idea of, “We're gonna give people roles or — in the case of adult learning — we're gonna give them no structure at all and just assume that the group is going to work,” doesn't actually lead to effective collaboration.

I think the reason group work right now is such a struggle is that when we give structure, it doesn't mirror the way that people actually work. And then when we don't give structure, nobody knows what to do.

When I think of group work, just like you mentioned, I think of a teacher saying, “Put yourselves into groups and figure out your roles.” So how is Agile different from that?

Agile doesn't actually have roles. It's borrowed from software development, but now lots of different companies across industry use it, and it's more task-focused and deliverable-focused than it is focused on individuals doing their roles.

So in an Agile project, we are going to look at the big project and break it down into smaller deliverables that we can consider to be done on their own. Then from that point, we're going to prioritize those deliverables so we know we're working on the work that is most important first, and then break it down into tasks. And individual players will own different tasks. So we not only have it where everybody is responsible for different components of the project, but as an instructor, it's really easy to track who's doing what and what they've contributed.

The other thing that's different about Agile that I think really makes it a great fit for K-12 and adult learning is that there's multiple and repeated parts where students are reflecting and talking as a team. So we're not just talking about the product at the very end. Every single day we're checking in on, “What did you do yesterday? What are you planning to do today? And is there a blocker? Is there something that's keeping you from moving forward? And if so, let's troubleshoot.” So students can't really hide. They can't, for whatever reason, not do the part they're supposed to be doing and not move forward with the group.

It [incorporates] lots of time to check in so that students are accountable but also have the ability to move forward. How many times are kids stuck because they don't know what to do and we don't have an opportunity to check in with them, give them the help they need so they move forward and be a productive member of the team?

You touched on another problem that I personally have experienced a lot, which is that accountability factor. And a lot of people's group project experience is probably that your group members aren't necessarily afraid of you getting on their case about doing their part of the project. So it sounds like this method addresses that.

Yeah, and the other thing about Agile that is really good for the accountability piece is Agile has what we call a “visible learning artifact,” which is just a fancy way of saying we have a board where all of the tasks and everybody's status is visible at all times.

So it's not a teacher checking in and being like, “I heard you weren't doing what you're supposed to be doing.” The teacher can float around and see, “Hey, Sarah said she was going to be working on this piece. It looks like she is doing circles in the spinny chair.” I taught middle school. It happens.

Now we can have a conversation about, “You said you were gonna be working on this, and it doesn't look like you're doing that. Can we talk through what's going on? Can I help you troubleshoot? How can we get you back on track?”

More generally, when students are working in groups, are there any red flags that tell you this is probably not going very well?

In Agile group work, if I see that a student has been working on the same task for days, that's a problem, right? Or if we do a daily check-in and they've been working on the same thing for days or if they're not going into detail or you can tell when kids are not getting along — they are not that good at hiding it on their faces.

Adults, we're better at saying, “You know what? I can work with this person that I don't wanna work with, and I'm not gonna tell anybody about it.” But kids are not as good at that.

But then just in the work, too. If the work is not moving forward, we know that there's a block that we need to address as an instructor.

And in your experience at the college level as well, are there any differences between younger kids and college-aged students in terms of those blocks? Or is it the same things that everybody experiences that get in the way of doing that group work effectively?

I've personally used this style of group work with [sixth grade] through college, and a lot of things are similar because collaboration is not a skill that a lot of people have. I think we see relationships with other people are hard, period. Those problems exist at all levels.

I think the one difference that I've noticed is the older students get, if they decide they've checked out, the harder it is to get them back on board.

I would cosign that. And that's disappointing because, at every level, group projects are stressful.

I mean, it is. But at the same time, I think the older that students get — high school and college age especially — they have so many other things going on. I think about being in grad school, and people have families and they have full-time jobs and no longer have energy to waste on this group project that is not working right. “I'd rather just white-knuckle it, get it done, and make the grade that I earned.”

That doesn't work for me — sorry, to my group project members, if any of them are reading this.

When you and I first spoke, you told me you knew that this Agile project management style was working when you used it while teaching a robotics class. Can you tell us what you observed?

When I first started teaching, I was teaching middle school and I was teaching Project Lead the Way's automation and robotics course, which is not an easy class. And the year before, I had really advocated to make that course open to all students and not just our STEM magnet students. And they gave me that in the form of 34 students: eight with [individual education plans], one nonverbal autistic student with an aide, and two students with behavior issues in addition to sort of those high-flying kids.

And the way I knew that Agile project management was something that did empower every student to be actively engaged in group work is that it allowed me to get every student actively contributing to a group project in that class.

Specifically, my student who was nonverbal was able to contribute to a group project for maybe a handful of times in his academic career. So because Agile is task-oriented, I was able to add him to a team and allow him to contribute in the form of taking tasks at different rates, and maybe different tasks than other students, but he was still making an active contribution to that project.

And so Agile is a fantastic way to manage a class where you have lots of different types of students with lots of different types of needs and maybe group them together in ways that you normally wouldn't because we're focused on moving tasks forward and not necessarily in each student owning an individual role.

In your experience, did the COVID-19 pandemic make group work harder now that we are back in the classroom and we have students working together again?

I think the pandemic made everything harder about students working together in the classroom. Even something like cellphone usage. I was talking with somebody about this yesterday, that I was a pro-cellphone in the classroom teacher pre-pandemic, and it's just different after the fact, which also impacts group work, right? If students are on their phone, they're not effectively collaborating.

I think the other thing that's interesting post-pandemic is that now everybody has one-to-one devices. They're using them in every single class, and if you have [students] on screens, they're not necessarily talking to collaborate. They're maybe pulling open a Google doc, and each student is contributing to that Google Doc, and their form of collaboration might not actually include talking with each other, which is a really important part of collaboration.

It's really important in managing relationships with people to be able to have those kinds of conversations, and so Agile is really nice [because] the way that I do it is the board itself is a manila folder, it's physical.

At the beginning of class, students are standing around that board and talking about the work they're doing. Maybe they are still gonna go get on their devices and they're going to work individually through some tasks, but there's always that physical check-in where we're talking as a team.

You're blowing my mind right now. I'm even thinking about just being on Zoom in an online class, and there's an awkward moment where the teacher or the professor stops and says, “Any questions?” And nobody says anything. So it's like we're gonna have to relearn all of these in-person behaviors and in-person collaboration.

Is there anything that college students can learn from the way that your sixth to 12th grade students have used the Agile method?

I think having worked with college students now for several semesters, college students are the worst at just divvying up the work and all working on the same document. I've noticed that when I'm teaching, and we have group projects and I'll say, “Hey, this is gonna be a group project workday. Some of you are gonna feel like you don't need to come in and you can just all divvy up the work. Please come in and work, use this time that we're having for group project work.”

And they still are like, “This is the time that I set aside to go to this class every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but I'm not gonna do this today because we can just split up the Google Doc.” And that's just not really effective collaboration. That's each person working individually and then putting it together at the end.

So you're saying we do have to interact in order to have effective collaboration.

I'm saying that life requires interaction. I don't believe there's any job that requires zero interaction. Relationships with people that you're friends with require interaction. So you're still gonna do it, but it's good to practice it even if you don't like it.

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