As students in classes as varied as PoliSci 1 and ME 101 know, group projects are not unheard of at Stanford, and it is quite common for students to complain about working in groups. Having reached Stanford by succeeding as individuals, the temptation and even preference to “just do the work yourself” is a common one on campus. Nevertheless, group projects are extremely valuable, both as a format of applying academic knowledge but also for the real-world learning experience they provide. The Editorial Board calls for Stanford students and faculty to embrace group projects as a valuable form of learning, and to expand their use in programs of study.
Group projects are useful because they test students on more than one level. Students, of course, need to have a grasp of the material that is applied in the project itself, and they must understand the format of the project – how to best organize a presentation or convey an argument in an essay or build a functioning model. They also, however, have to understand how to work with other people in the group. This can often be positive, as it has been shown that teaching others, like fellow group members, is one of the most rigorous ways of mastering new material. Similarly, splitting up work means (in theory) that each individual can do their portion to a higher standard than if they had to do the entire project alone, and James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” suggests that groups often produce better decisions together than any individual could make. It can also be more contentious. Multiple group members mean that responsibilities must be delegated, and there are multiple interests, varying work ethics, and conflicting schedules to juggle, as well. These difficulties are frustrating and may well lead to lower quality group work if members don’t cooperate successfully.
Above all, though, group projects are what the ‘real world’ is like: Work in the real world – whether it be doing basic science research in a lab, working on a political campaign, producing a computer program, or writing a novel – involves collaborating with others to produce a finished product. Even the dreaded ‘group essay’ is akin to real-world reports found in many fields that are rarely written by just one author. This collaboration involves some of the very same pitfalls outlined above, and it usually offers the same upsides as well. Thus, having more group projects in college allows students to show that they have mastered the material in the manner they are likely to apply it post-graduation. While the free rider problem exists both in college and in the real world, many professors include a component that lets students grade their fellow group members to mitigate it.
Some courses may seem to lend themselves to group work more than others. Even those disciplines that seem less amenable to group projects, however, should – and often do – incorporate more group work. A philosophy class that requires students to prepare a debate, for example, or more collaborative pieces in students’ studio art portfolios, would offer some of the same learning. While the debate about the University’s role in educating students in a “practical” manner as opposed to educating for the sake of expanding the intellect may go on – indeed, it has been raised in several previous editorials – there is no doubt that almost all students will have to function in the professional world at some point. To this end, departments should utilize more group work in their curricula because regardless of which educational approach you prefer, group projects have clear benefits.