iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund
“It was good until it wasn’t,” he said. A veteran, he was older than my typical undergraduates, and he spoke openly, though vaguely, about the traumatic brain injury that earned him classroom accommodations.
He tapped his fingers against his jeans. “My group ignores me. I’m too stressed. It’s triggering my PTSD and making me sick. Can I just work on my own?”
Two ironies struck me. One, I had turned to collaborative learning in order to harness the power of social dynamics and Universal Design for Learning (which focuses on making instruction more inclusive and accessible). I had hoped my group project would keep students engaged and thinking and that it might let them showcase their distinct skill sets.
The second irony was that, during this time, my college-age daughter was surviving her own group-work disaster. She has autism and she was taking a math class with a professor celebrated for his commitment to active learning. The class relied on in-class group work, which meant that, in addition to trying to master the math, she had to navigate the social minefield of working with neurotypical peers in a crowded, fast-paced, loud classroom. It proved disastrous.
Both cases made me wonder: Does group work really help all students? Are some students -- particularly neurodivergent students -- ill served by the turn to group work and learning activities that demand strong social skills?
In puzzling through this problem, I went deep into the research on team-based learning, but I could find no research focused specifically on group work and neurodivergent college students. Indeed, research on student teams tends to suggest that students are pretty interchangeable except for two assumptions: some students are freeloaders. They lack initiative and avoid work. Other students are lone wolves. They are so highly individualistic that they resist collaboration. To embrace such stereotypes, however, is to embrace the idea that groups have problems because particular group members are personally defective. In fact, problems with groups are usually social in nature and stem from lived social dynamics and histories.
This doesn’t mean all group members are perfect or have the best of intentions. It does mean that there are concrete reasons people act the way they do. Work by Curt J. Dommeyer, for example, found that perceived freeloaders often have “unique characteristics” (including “language barriers, cultural differences, learning differences, physical or mental problems, personality traits, and time constraints”) that make it difficult for them to contribute to group projects as much as their peers.
My daughter didn’t mean for her autism-related challenges to make her less productive than her other group members, but they did. She wasn’t freeloading. She was working in a classroom -- in a system -- that does not provide appropriate accommodations for neurodiverse students. Conversely, other work has found that so-called lone wolves don’t believe that they can depend on people. Why would they think that? Because they have learned that they cannot depend on people. My student turned lone wolf because his group ignored him with the most benign of excuses -- they were already friends, it was easier for them to get together alone -- and that made him feel discounted. No wonder he wanted to jettison his peers.
But the two students who excluded my disabled student were also pretty high achieving. Without them saying so, I could tell they thought my student with the brain injury might hold them back. According to Thanh Pham and Thi Hong, that isn’t unusual. It isn’t even unwarranted. In semistructured interviews with high school students, Caroline Koh and other researchers found that teachers often assumed students were “master planners” who naturally knew how to delegate and break large tasks into manageable, sequenced steps. But “low-ability” students in particular often lacked the executive-function skills to do these things. As a result, they stopped showing up to class or demonstrated little interest in the project. On the surface, they seemed like classic freeloaders. Clearly, however, what they lacked was scaffolding. Still, for the students paired with such peers, the reasons for underperformance don’t really matter. What matters to them is a sense of equity and accountability.
Nonetheless, it is the underperforming students I worry about. Whatever stew of social and cultural experiences or linguistic, economic or neural realities have reduced them to group-work piranhas, they have the most to lose in the turn toward collaborative learning. They feel flustered. They feel disrespected. They feel silenced. Brought together in a group, they feel alone and alienated. And vast research shows that the more alienated students feel, the worse their achievement and the more likely that they will drop out.
Making Teams Work
Some faculty members might dismiss my complaints. Particularly, colleagues at elite institutions may feel like research separating low- and high-achieving college students does not speak to them. But ability is relative. There are shrinking violets and dominating personalities at every college and university -- and unless students find a way to come together, group work will not harness the power of social learning but instead reify social hierarchies.
So how can we make teams work so that everyone benefits?
First, if group projects are to be considered important outputs, then training students to work in teams needs to be an important and measurable learning objective. The process of learning to function in a group has to be as important as the product. And that means students need to learn how to identify and delegate team roles, how to set short- and long-term goals, how to plan backward, and -- most importantly -- how to communicate.
In a study on social loafing in student groups, Chris Lam found that more than 50 percent of freeloading problems could be explained by the quality of communication in student groups. But how often are groups taught to communicate? (And no, advising students to exchange contact information doesn’t count.) In particular, students have to be taught to manage conflict. As far back as 1963, Bruce Tuckerman acknowledged that conflict -- what he called storming -- was a natural part of learning how to be a group. But if students don’t learn to confront conflict -- if they only try to avoid it -- they will never reap the cognitive benefits of functioning collaboratively.
Second, the process of learning how to be a team requires time. It has to start early in the semester with faculty members providing students time in class to perform low-stakes group tasks, try out different team roles, deal with minor conflicts and pull faculty over when they need support.
Time is especially important if we want groups to benefit from the power of diversity. Here’s the good news: diversity can add an amazing dynamic to groups. Diversity adds messages of equality and facilitates interaction and understanding. More than that, diverse groups are just better. Research shows that when it comes to ethnicity, diverse groups outperform homogenous groups.
But that, too, takes time. For example, a study of culturally mixed groups on international campuses found that homogenous groups outperformed mixed groups in the short run, but by the end of the semester, the mixed groups had gained the edge. Intercultural collaboration led to greater innovation and creativity. We need to extend how we think about diversity, however, and help students see how all kinds of differences can add to what we know and think.
Third, learning to work in a group means learning to trust a process, and students need to know that they will benefit from the process -- even when that process seems to be leading them to doom. We learn from conflict. We learn from failure. That’s why learning to work in a group also means that students need to learn how to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as team members. Instead of focusing on what other team members are doing right or wrong, students need to see how they are personally growing.
Journals, knowledge surveys and personal narrative writing are all tools that help students self-reflect. When students can learn to value what they are personally getting from the arduous process of working in a group, they can worry less about whether other people in the group are pulling them up or down.
I wish I had known this when my own student was struggling. I didn’t. So I told him he could do his own thing. Doing so, I taught him not to grow, not to communicate, but to avoid -- to be a lone wolf. I taught his group members the same thing. Worse, I confirmed their suspicions that struggling students have little to offer.
But with the majority of organizations committing to some sort of team-based structure, none of us can afford to blow it when it comes to having students work collaboratively. The work we do in the classroom sets up ways of thinking that students take with them in the world. If we care about equity and diversity, then giving students the skills to function and grow as group members is a good place to start.