Group learning “is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning,” argues Bruce Gans, who taught English at City Colleges of Chicago.
At a community college where he worked, non-tenured English instructors were evaluated on whether they fostered “group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Those who didn’t use group learning risked losing their jobs.
Gans observed teachers who were up for tenure or contract extensions.
A literature instructor wanted students to understand metaphor. She “circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyric’s figures of speech.”
During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups. There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.
Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.
In a class on how to write a research paper, another instructor paired students, distributed readings on the research topic and told students to teach each other how to paraphrase the passages.
Students texted, made phone calls, chatted and joked. It “seems exceedingly unlikely” they learned about paraphrasing, Gans writes.
The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility.
. . . The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment. If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.
Group projects are supposed to teach students to collaborate. Gans is dubious. “Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.”
Having students evaluate each other’s writing doesn’t work if nobody’s a good writer, argues Troy Camplin, a lecturer in English at University of North Texas in Dallas.
A remedial writing student asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”
. . . I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!
Good writers tend to be avid readers, Camplin argues. “The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.” Students need to read extensively “before they can learn how to write well.”