Brainmatters | How can I survive group work - it’s a balancing act


Group work is terrible and we are doing it all wrong. I see this every day when I look at my students, my children, myself. The endless waiting, the incomprehension, the misunderstandings, and then they don't deliver what's been agreed, or don't understand that I really had no time.

Group work is undoubtedly one of life's great balancing acts. That's understandable, in work group we are confronted with several major social dilemmas. It is great fodder for psychologists. Firstly, we have free-rider behavior - a textbook example of the classic public goods dilemma. Each person must resist the temptation to catch a free ride on the cooperative behavior of the others in the group. In addition to this, each of us unknowingly becomes less productive as the group grows in size. This phenomenon, also known as the Ringelmann effect or social loafing, undermines even physical group work, such as in a tug of war.

Then we have the fundamental fear of being judged negatively: you are supposed to call others to account for their attitude or the quality of their work while all the while you want them to like you. After all, the need to belong is fundamental to us humans. On the other hand, good grades are also a way of gaining other people’s respect…

But the biggest dilemma lurks somewhere else again: the social trap, the dilemma in which short-term and long-term gains conflict. And then to think that is happening at the group level.

One person is good at math, another at English, someone else at design. So it is only logical that as a team you decide to use each person's strengths. It is just a pity that this provides so little opportunity to learn. Yet more regrettable is that we lecturers reinforce this behavior. After all, we assess the group product - and in so doing we reward the group's making maximum use of individual competences and effort - while what we actually want is that students learn from one another and therefore invest time in each other. Time that does not directly benefit the piece of work, but which in time will move all the group members forward.

Who is in any hurry to leave a playground?

So, lecturers: we have to break this habit and do things completely differently. Not assess the report, but how much learning has occurred in the group. Unfortunately, it takes time and energy to devise a good way of doing this. So I'm going to wait and see whether someone else does it first.

And students: don't fall into this social trap. Think of your study program as a playground. You want to get to the top of the climbing frame, but in the knowledge that you got there by your own efforts, and along the way had fun and made friends. So take a look at the others, learn from those who are faster, climb more nimbly, dare to go higher, and help team members who don't yet know that useful trick you have mastered. We can learn something from each person around us, and the more different the other is, the greater the gain. This takes time, but then again who is in any hurry to leave a playground?

Yvonne de Kort, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Human-Technology Interaction

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