Why Work in Groups? Three Tips for Success


“Students fail silently and alone.”

My students hear this phrase from me every semester. My course has built in group assignments and students ALWAYS want to know how they can get out of doing group assignments. I ask them: “Do you want to increase your chances for success in college? Why would you ignore this simple thing that person can do to be successful?” I am perplexed.

Would you go to the doctor and listen to the doctor’s opinion. Pay for that opinion and then IGNORE what the doctor told you to do? As a college professor, I am here to tell you that you should learn to work and study in groups.  If you want a really cool job one day, you should learn to create in groups.  If you intend to be employed at some point in your life or you are employed now, you are working with others in a group.

The Problem with Groups:

Students report that they don’t like working in groups for projects at school. Most of them claim that they “had to do ALL of the work.” First of all on that: some of y’all lyin’, quit playin’. It cannot be that the majority of you do MOST of the work. It simply cannot be. But I do think it is the FEAR that we all have; we will be stuck doing the work and other people won’t do their parts. That is a legitimate fear, but it is not the problem of the people in your group or the work. It is a problem of TRUST.  That means you need to be able to trust each other.

Working for a Company is a Group Project:

Most of the college students I teach have some kind of job. Most of them say that it is important to work well with others on the job. Working for a company is a group project. They understand this, but they cannot translate that to academic work. The reason is not that they are bad or stupid people. My students have come up through an educational system that rewards individuals with correct answers.  The more correct answers the individual has, the smarter they are, apparently. But in most employment situations most people have to work well with others. They understand that a big part of their job performance relies on the work of others and the ability to manage the relationships and communications with those others. In short success is not about “correct answers” as it is finding solutions and creating value.

So What’s The REAL Problem?

Most students in groups have not been managed well. Teachers and professors, frankly, do a poor job of preparing students to work successfully in groups. Students don’t know what is expected of them and many lack the skills needed to resolve problems arising from doing group work. So while that lets students off the hook a little, it won’t change the problem that confronts students trying to work in groups. Furthermore, as I have said many times, humans get better at what they practice. If you keep doing the same kind of bad group work, you will get exceedingly good at it.

So what makes a good group experience?

ONE Know why you are there. Often, I start our the semester by giving small groups of students decks of playing cards. I give them no other instructions than to use the materials I gave them and do an activity that everyone can participate in. They all look at me strangely, but wind up playing GoFish or Blackjack or Spades. They instinctively figure out: “We are here to play cards.”

TWO Know the rules. One of the first things they do in groups is to make sure everyone knows how to play the game they have selected. That mean they know when to take turns and how to keep score. That keeps them on track and they refer to it when they get off track. If you need to select a leader who can keep things moving, do that. Just make sure everyone knows who that is, why that person was selected and what the process was for selection. Good groups make that an open process and change leaders or leadership styles if the first one they picked isn’t working.

THREE Understand the objective. When playing a game or working in a group, one should keep firmly in mind what they are trying to accomplish. In groups, students should establish what they are trying to accomplish. All members should be able to say what they are doing and have an idea of what the end result you are looking for.

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small
groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same
content is presented in other instructional formats.”
                                         –Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, Stanford University
Further reading:

Use Your Super Secret Mutant Power: Your Strengths (Part One, Finding Your Strengths)

Mutant Power

Perhaps some of you are fans of the X-Men comics or movies.  If you don’t know them, the story is not hard to understand. The X-Men are humans who have mutated or are mutating. Most of them come into the story after starting normal lives, thinking they were humans just like everyone else.

But then it happens: they sprout wings or grow scales or shoot fire out of their fingertips.  They think the abilities are cool, at first, but then others see them as freaks or weirdos who need to be rounded up or killed or have their mutations “cured.” No mutant seems to have the same powers as another mutant and in that way they are unique. It makes for interesting stories and the fight scenes and bad guy/good guy match-ups are super cool.

The thing I notice, probably because I am a geeky teacher and I think like this, is that many of us are like this.  We have our own mutations that make us unique. When we are young, we marvel in the things we can do or that we care about.  We are “experts” with the names of our family members and how they are related to us or the way we color or the things we know about who lives in each house on our streets. But then we go to school.

In grade school, we all learn pretty quickly that some people are better at things than others. We also learn that some of the things we are good at may or may not be valued at school.  School tends to force all students to value the same skills which works great for some and not for others.  One very unfortunate thing that often happens to people as they pass through school is that they tend to define themselves by the skills and knowledge they lack and not by the positive skills or knowledge that they have.

That causes many of us to think about ourselves in the negative. Education becomes a battle to overcome our deficits rather than us learning and in our strengths. testing_cartoonWhile this comic is meant to be humorous, it points out the way our education system often deals with people. It is one of the main reason many people learn to hate school and formal learning; they know they will be asked to do things or know things that they don’t know or have a difficult time doing.

Schools don’t do a great job either defining strengths or working to develop them in people who don’t already lean in that direction. In fact, I went looking for a definition of strength and I found one that applies. It is taken from the Journal of College and Character:

“According to Rath(2007), a strength is consistent and near perfect performance on an activity. This definition is comprised of three factors: talents or naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior; knowledge, which consists of facts and lessons learned; and skills, or the steps of an activity. These combine to create strengths.” (Bowers & Lopez, 2010)

So your strengths are:

1) Talents or things you do naturally

2) Knowledge that you have about something

3) Skills you possess

Here is the deal.  We all have things that we know and can do that makes us an expert with that particular thing. There are things that we gravitate towards partially because we have those strengths. Some of us like to meet new people or we like figuring out how machines work. Some of us like taking care of babies and others like tending a garden. Some of us love studying history and others love the precision of math.

Alternatively, things you don’t do well and you don’t gravitate towards are weaknesses.  These are the things you would rather not do. We all have them. Some of us hate to cook and others hate to clean.  Some people don’t like to read while others don’t like sitting and watching a movie. Some people hate physical activities and other people cannot stand being cooped up indoors.

Weakness are:

1) Lack of Talent like not being good at spelling or reading aloud or feeling unsure of where to stand when playing sports or an no eye for art and no ear for music or lack of sensitivity to the emotional states of others.

2) Lack of Knowledge: like the History of the Kings and Queens of England or the Civil War or how many Pokemon characters were derived from Pikachu or the correct present-perfect tense of a verb.

3) Lack of Skill: like the fact that you cannot kick-flip a skateboard or Eskimo roll a kayak or talk comfortably with members of the opposite sex or you don’t know how to write a college entrance essay or apply for a home loan.

If you sit down and think about it, you could probably make a list of your strengths. You could think of things that you lean toward. You could also make a list of your weaknesses that trouble you and vex you.

If you are having a hard time coming up with things, people around you are great sources of information about this stuff. They see you being happy or sad or joyful or frustrated in all kinds of situations in ways you don’t even know about. Talk to them. They will surprise you with their observations when you come out and ask them. They can validate some of the things you probably already know about yourself and they can surprise you with some things you didn’t know.


Bowers, Kelly M., & Lopez, Shane J.. (February 2010). Capitalizing on Personal Strengths in College. Journal of College & Character,VOLUME 11(Issue NO. 1), pp. 1-11.


Two Websites with Additional Information



If Learning Is Boring, You’re Doing It Wrong

boring imsge

When students enter my “Introduction to the College Experience” course, the think that learning is boring.  They figure with a syllogism like this

P1 – 1) School is a that helps students learn.

P2 – 2)  School is boring.

Egro 3) Learning is boring.

While P1 might be true some of the time, without a conditional, it isn’t always true which therefore makes it false. P2 is also demonstrably false so some people some of the time and therefore makes the conclusion false.

I would say that P1 is NOT true most of the time and P2 IS true most of the time which makes the conclusion seem true, but I would actually argue with the validity of the underlying notions in P1. For many students, school is not a place where students learn or at least learn effectively and they don’t learn things they want to learn, which begs the question, of what is learning in the first place.

What is learning?

When I asked a student in class today if she knew how to ride a bicycle, she said yes, but she hadn’t ridden in over 3 years. When I asked her if she learned anything in her Earth Science class last year, she also said yes.  I then asked her if she was to be given a grade based on a test on a test of whether or not she could ride a bike or a test covering what she learned about Earth Science, she told me that she’d rather take the bike test. When I asked why, she said it was because she knew she could pass because she actually knows how to do that. While it is true that Earth Science might be more complex than bike riding for most people, it is also true that this student sees a real difference between these two learning experiences and it is instructive to note.

When we learn things that we want to know and things we can connect to ourselves, learning is fun. Even if it is difficult, like falling off the bicycle or struggling to understand the evaporation/condensation/precipitation cycle, we continue to try because we want what is there and we can connect something important to our ability to ride a bike or understand earth science to something we want in the world (“I want to ride to the store with my friends” OR “I want to understand how clouds form”).

How do we get learning wrong?

Marcus Lemonis, in my favorite TV show (The Profit  http://www.cnbcprime.com/the-profit/) talks about business being about People, Products and Process. Often, when we are in classes for school, we are not connected enough to the subject matter or the people or the purpose. We need to know that our brains are hardwired to learn. We need to focus the our attention on things that are worth learning or place ourselves in situations where we are likely to care about the People, Products or the Way (Process) we use to learn.

When we are in situations where we know very little about the subject so we have little background knowledge, we cannot place the information we are supposed to be learning to anything meaningful that will stick. We get bored and frustrated. In short we fail to launch because we are not connected. That isn’t learning

We also don’t learn when we are not challenged. All of us do things where we know we will be successful, where we have enough skill or knowledge to perform well.  Stretching to do something new is scary. Making mistakes is not valued in school so we learn to take little if any risk and we don’t move so we get bored.  That isn’t learning either

How should we get learning right? 

Our brains our wired to spot patterns and notice variance in the pattern. We should be looking for the sweet spot when we learn. What is that? When you find a task that is easy enough for you to attempt it but hard enough where you are not successful all the time. No teacher or school can tell you where that spot is.  You have to discover it on it on your own. You have to monitor your thoughts: Is this too easy? Is it too hard? Or do I not know enough yet?

When I mountain bike on a trail, I push myself. Technically speaking, I am not a terrible rider, but I am not a good or great one. I am competent. I know how to ride and what to look for.  Sometimes I get into a rhythm and it feels like magic the way the bike and I turn together like a seamless machine. But, if I ever hope to better, I need to fall down. I need to push myself beyond what I think I am capable of. If I stop pushing, I can relax but I will soon be bored.

5 Levels of Maslow I Use in Learning


Maslow helped us rank our human needs and as students and teachers we sometimes forget why that is important, meeting our needs is a primal force that often operates below our consciousness. Raising those needs to our conscious perception can impact the way we arrange our learning and troubleshoot when things go wrong.

According to Maslow, we have physical and safety needs that trump other needs like growth or esteem needs. We have seen the effects on people who don’t have what they need and how it warps them. But we often don’t look at situations for the need satisfying value that they might have.  Some instructors think more about the content they are teaching than the context of the learner whom they are attempting to teach. Some teachers and administrators think concentration on the needs of their learners to be “touchy feely” and frankly, unnecessary. As students and teachers, we can overlook our needs and see them as extras or wants.

My students often tell me that while they believe that food and water would be needs, having companions is not a need.  I remind them that all humans come into the world connected to another person, literally and that without help until at least about the age 5 – 7, most human children would die if left totally on their own.

When learning or teaching or working, we should look for and encourage environments that satisfy the greatest number of needs. Need satisfying environments give us what we often seek and those things are beyond money or material things.  In fact, most are not.

1. Survival

This goes almost without saying.  If you are hungry or cold or homeless, you will not be thinking about quality learning or work. I have had a number of homeless students or students who were experiencing some other basic for of deprivation, but they wanted to continue their educations.  I can tell you, without a stable environment, they were just going through the motions. Even those of us with reasonably stable situations need to be on the lookout when our basic health and well-being or that of a fellow student is not being care for that it will negatively and immediately influence learning and working.

From a less extreme situation, recall a time when you were trying to learn when you had to use the restroom or you were starting to get sick. How much were you actually retaining of what you were supposedly learning?

2. Safety and Security

While this seems outside of what normally happens in a class, I have heard from many students that they have been in schools where they constantly were in fear for their lives and safety. It was a preoccupation that never allowed them to settle in and trust the best intentions and lessons that a teacher might have.

Think about your own self.  If you are in a place where you have to make a lonely walk in the dark after a night class or cars are being broken into in the parking lot, that can influence your decision to attend classes. Fear can loom large and can crowd out a student’s ability to focus on the learning or work at hand.

3. Belonging

This is where my students usually have a problem. They think that we don’t need each other.  I try to get them to look at the positive. I ask them to think about what it feels like when they do belong or they feel that sense of belonging to a group, even if it is with the people who smoke weed in the parking lot, they all need to feel like there is somewhere that they fit in.

I tell them to make friends in class.  Friends make people more likely to learn or care about what is happening in class.  It pairs experiences we want to have with information we might need to learn, but often when people want to get better at learning something, we don’t tell them to go out and make friends with others who are trying to do the same thing.

4. Freedom and Purpose

While these can be combined in a variety of ways, I find that people who have a sense of purpose and feel empowered to accomplish the things they set out to do are happier and learn better and faster than those who feel aimless and have efforts thwarted. While it is true that some of this would be based on an individual’s outlook and personality because some people naturally are more positive and resilient in the face of adversity, but schools and classrooms can and should build purpose into activities and learning.

Think about a time when you have been asked to do something that you consider to be pointless or when you have worked really hard on something only to have your efforts go unrecognized or blocked. That is not something that you look forward to. If purpose and the ability to achieve purpose is available, people become animated and connected to what they are learning.

5. Fun/Learning

Maslow calls this self-actualization, but I call it learning and I equate it with fun. I believe that what we call fun is a state of mind where our conscious self-perception (or just thinking about ourselves) and we just experience what is going on around us; we become totally absorbed and the perception of the passage of time disappears.

This rarely happens in classrooms.  These are usually the places where people state at the clock waiting for torture to end. But I think all of us have gotten pulled into an interesting subject, movie, book, person, sporting event when our consciousness was totally engrossed.  Think about how much you could learn if you were in that state all the time. Teachers can create these spaces in classrooms and students should seek out teachers who can do this.

I have some specific ideas about how this can be done, but let me hear what some of the rest of you think.  Add something to the comments section.