Why are schools so enamoured of group projects?

For my son’s PE/health class, he had been assigned to work in a group with about two other boys to put together a project on treating wounds. This project had been going on all week. He and his good friend worked together after school on a writing portion of the project. Another boy was to put together a visual presentation.

Well, on Friday he came home to announce that his group failed the project, and he was feeling pretty disconcerted and upset. Apparently, his good friend took home a copy of the written portion of the project, and it was his job to bring it to school on Friday to present. The boy who was to put together the visual portion of the project–well he didn’t do it, or he forgot to bring it.

I’m sure there is a learning experience here–about how sometimes in life people you rely on goof up and forget, or goof off and don’t pull their weight. But was this learning experience worth all the time it took? Or the stress and potential bitterness it caused? Does this particular group strategy help kids better master the subject matter they are learning?

According to Kidshealth.org, a website my son has himself used to research topics, group projects are popular in school because:

Few of us act alone in the real world. Most things are done with the help or ideas of other people. Group projects are great practice for high school, college, and real life, when you will probably have a job that requires working with others. Right now, group projects can be fun and they often allow you to do a bigger, more interesting project than you could alone. With group work, you can actually learn more in less time.

Group projects also give you a chance to get to know kids you might not otherwise know or talk with — maybe the quiet kid in the third row, the boy who lived down the street when you were in kindergarten, or the girl you’re sometimes scared to say “hi” to at recess.

Group projects are also a great way to practice skills you’re not so sure of. For example: working on a deadline, staying organized, or being patient. And if you’re a little nervous talking in front of a group, a joint project can help you become more comfortable with it.

But as this website also points out, group projects can be stressful because someone may end up doing all the work if the rest of the team can’t quite get it together.

I very much understand the value of kids learning to work together to complete a project. But I wonder if teachers are relying on the group project strategy too much, or employing it in situations that are not ideal.

I don’t remember doing many group projects in school at all–way back when. I have a vague memory of doing one or two of them in a seventh grade social studies class, when we studied ancient civilizations. And, I don’t remember it being stressful, though I’m pretty sure I lucked out and was seated at a table with other smart girls (yeah, I was a smart, focused student in school) who were all motivated to do well. No slackers.

I’d say my best preparation for the adult workplaces I’d eventually find myself was being involved in high school theater productions. Putting on a show, whether you were the star, the student director, or part of the back-stage crew, was very much a team effort. You had to learn to show up, be ready with your lines or your back-stage equipment, to do things on cue, to see your responsibilities as contributing to the greater whole. I’m sure kids learn similar team skills by participating in other sorts of team activities: team sports, Scouts, debate team, music.

And, maybe herein lies a key to a kid and teen enjoying a positive, educational, enriching group experience: the project involves a group of students who are all committed to its success. That’s because they are interested in the subject, and because they choose to put themselves in a situation in which they engage with it.

Kids join extracurricular sports, arts, and other group activities because those activities interest them. They even become passionate about them. They get to stretch themselves physically, intellectually, creatively, socially. They want to do well at it, and they like being around other kids who share this common interest–and even passion.

So, probably, the best setting for kids to do group projects are not in classrooms, but outside of classrooms, when their participation is voluntary. Still, I can see group projects working in certain academic settings, in elective classes that the kids choose to take–or in specialized core English, math, history and science classes that kids take not just because they want to get college credit but because they are interested in the topic.

Recently, my son started an elective home ec class. He is interested in learning to cook. Yippee for me! (Actually, he and I spent yesterday with my sister, a former middle and high school foods teacher, preparing a six-course family dinner–pork tenderloin, creamy polenta, salad with pear dressing and goat cheese. My son put together a really exquisite “mile-high” chocolate cake, learning all about sifting, double-boiling chocolate, and the chemical reactions of baking soda, baking powder and salt in baking!) But, back to his home ec class and its relevance to this group project discussion: As my sister explained, and as I remember from middle school home ec, he’ll end up working in groups in the kitchen. And, I can see that working out just fine.

He wants to be in that class, and putting together a meal can lend itself very well to a group effort. Yesterday’s dinner was a group effort among the three of us, and maybe herein also lies another key to a successful group project. It has to be a project that naturally, organically, lends itself to a team effort.

I’m not sure a health class lesson on treating wounds was best served by a group project. For one thing, we’re talking about health class. With all due respect to the teacher and even to the topic–yes, it’s important for kids to learn to lead healthy lives–health class is one of those mandatory courses all students have to take but generally don’t care that much about. So, you’re not going to get the kind of commitment involved in making a group project pull together.

For another, we get back to whether this lesson was best suited to a group effort. Dividing up that lesson into a written and visual portion–sure, it can be done–but that structure seems artificial and contrived. It’s a division of labor and structure for a presentation that I suspect was created merely for the sake of doing a group project, rather than for helping kids better grasp the subject matter.

So, those are my gripes and theories about school group projects. What has been your experience, or that of your kids? And, if any teachers want to share their thoughts, please do so.

18 thoughts on “Why are schools so enamoured of group projects?

  1. I'm a young teacher. I hate assigning group projects because like you said, usually one or just a couple of the kids really do all the work. Also, group projects encourages a lot of off task behavior that my credential classes did not prepare me for… any suggestions?


  2. I remember group projects in high school, college, and university, as not being a good learning experience. Like it says there are always the over-achievers doing everything, and the slackers taking a ride. The teachers say we know who is working and who is not, well if they do they never do anything about it. Maybe put all the slacker in one group, and the type A's in the other and see what happens.


  3. In theory, group projects make sense for all the reasons mentioned in Soccer Mom's post.

    But the reality is different, as her post also shows. And why in the world should an entire group be marked as having “failed” a project if one kid failed to hold up his end? That makes no sense whatsoever. Sounds like time for a parent conference with that teacher.

    Are teachers typically required to assign group projects? Or is it up to their choosing? If the latter, can teachers take a stand against group projects?

    (Even when people grow up, you can see some taking advantage of group projects. Anyone on this blog watch Project Runway? There was a recent episode where contestant who had won “immunity” from the prior challenge, was depicted as coasting in the subsequent challenge, which involved working in teams of two. His female partner seemed to be doing most of the work. Maybe in that sense, those darned group exercises are more of a wake-up call to the inequities and other b.s. that awaits people later in life – ha!)


  4. I remember my college Sociology class we had a group project for four. One guy dropped the class, another girl never did the work and used the excuse “I'm a single mom” and the other girl and I did all the work. However, at the end of the project, the teacher had us grade each other on point system. So, Donna and I got an A, flakey mom got a D and goodbye boy got an F.


  5. p.s. I like David's idea, above, about putting the slackers in one group and the Type A types in another! That could be a good solution to having to do any school-mandated group projects.


  6. Thanks everyone for sharing your views, and new teacher for sharing your experience.

    My son says, but I could check this, that the group overall failed, and he was upset about it. He even called my husband at work from the office!

    My husband says he remembers doing group projects in school, and that the teachers would give individual grades and then a group grade, so that if you were the good student and did the work, and got everything turned in, then you'd still get a good grade.

    Maybe this is a curriculum thing? State standards and all that.

    Yes, we'll need to follow up. Maybe my son has it wrong about everyone failing the project.

    I think he was also worried that we'd be mad at him. We told him we weren't, because we saw him working on it.


  7. Sorry Moms and Dads,

    You've got it wrong. You are creating a generation of veal calves here. When little Johnny and Suzy get out in the business world they will run into a little concept called, “OWN THE INPUTS”.

    They are responsible for the outcome of the project, it doesn't matter the John or Jill didn't do “their” part. Project failed = you son or daughter failed.

    If they haven't learned this by time they start working for me I will promptly fire them and believe me I won't be taking a call from you Soccer Mom about how you “saw” Johnny doing his work.

    -Good Day


  8. Knowing how to succeed in group projects is a work-skill that's lacking in many college grads entering the workforce. (Knowing how to handle sophomoric posers like 11:53 is another useful skill.)

    The problem is that kids aren't taught group dynamics, task allocation, consensus building, tracking, etc. They're just put on a group project and expected to figure it out for themselves.

    We absolutely need to teach kids to work in groups but the problem is we're assigning them to do it without teaching them how.


  9. How about the WCI teacher that assigns a group project the day before a long weekend and have it due the Wednesday following the long weekend. Are families supposed to keep their schedules clear in case a teacher decides a group project is necessary?


  10. Dear readers,
    My son wants to clarify a few points (I guess I should fact-check with him before writing!): he said there were six kids total involved, and my son and one other boy did much of the work, though one boy, who failed to bring a part of the visual presentation twice, got what little credit was accorded them.

    My son said his concerns are: teachers should be aware that some students work better indepentantly and some don't. Oh, and he doesn't categorize himself as a high-achiever. He wonders if teachers are paying attention to how kids interact with one another–whether the groups are, unfortunately, made up of kids who bully and those who are inclined to take it.

    He was still feeling bad about it this afternoon…

    But he loved hearing everyone's input on this message board: New teacher's point that group projects encourage “off-task behavior”; The idea that teachers aren't aware as they should be of who is doing the work and who isn't; and the point that it's not fair to stick kids in this situation and expect them to know how to deal with “group dynamics, task allocation, consensus building, tracking, etc.”

    Dear 1:54 p.m. Fortunately, we have not yet dealt with the group project being assigned and made due the following Wednesday after a long weekend! Oh, joy! I can't wait!


  11. Here's my $.02. Group projects are designed to encourage collaboration, which is nearly always a necessary skill in the workplace. And, let's face it. How many of us have collaborated on a project at work, and one or more of us has pulled the vast majority of the weight of the project. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn't work well. However, collaboration is important and a learning experience, even if you don't like your partner(s).

    It's just one of those life's lessons. When I complained about a teacher, my mom told me to learn how to get along with him/her because I probably wouldn't like all of the people I worked with when I began my career. She also gave me the lecture on life not being fair.

    If I had a dime for every time one of my bosses took credit for something I did, I'd be a millionaire several times over.

    IMO, it's not a bad thing to learn how it will be in the real world when our kids grow up.


  12. So it sounds like your son and my son are in the same classes and the same boat. He was in a group of 4 boys for his PE group project and only he and one other boy actually did the work. Luckily my son figured this out towards the begining of the week and was able to alert his teacher about it.

    6th grade is hard enough without having kids do group projects. They are still learning who they are and most can't stand up to the “bullies” who just assume they can do no work and get a decent grade because they are in a group with kids who will work.


  13. Learning the group dynamic is extremely important. People get PhDs just in Organizational Behavior.

    As a kid, I was a natural leader and was pushed by every adult around me in twoards a leadership role. I felt very uncomfortable in this role. After acquiring the skills and experience to lead, I now know it is all about delivery and shaping expectations.

    I got my foundation before the ninth grade and it has served me well in my academic and professional life.


  14. Thanks for the heads-up on this SM (Thank your son too).

    My son starts the Health cycle this week. Your post will help me work with him on navigating the project. My boy is the type who internalizes and doesn't readily share his social problems. So I don't find out there's an issue until it's gotten really bad.

    Thanks again for sharing this.


  15. group projects in highly academic subjects were frustrating for me, i usually ended up doing all the work because i didn't trust the others to do it. i wanted a good grade and the only way to assure that was to do it myself. i agree that in after school activites group projects were fun because everyone wanted to be there.


  16. Several years ago Acalanes High School District hired a consultant who spoke to staff and parents about grading, and some changes the district could make to its policies. One thing he mentioned was that group policies are valuable, but should not be graded due to the equity issues. He said teachers need to make students individually accountable for specific aspects of a group project. I so regret that this recommendation was not adopted. It would have eliminated so much frustration at our house over the past few years!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s