The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

It’s 4 a.m. I don’t know the date. I barely remember where I am. Dried coffee and tea stain the inside of paper cups that are littered across a desk decorated with sheets of papers I vaguely recall receiving in class.

My eyes are droopy, my energy drained; the rest of my body feels as though I’ve been in a brawl and I was definitely not the winner. Yet, somehow, my fingers are still tapping away at the glowing keys attached to my computer, desperate to make coherent sentences appear.

I am a lot of things but a procrastinator, I am not. So why am I sitting in a pool of my own mess at this ungodly hour on a school night? The answer is quite simple: Group projects.

When I graduated high school and got into university, I was ecstatic — never again, I thought, would I have to partake in group projects where other members didn’t pull their own weight. Surely, people accepted into higher education were capable adults that didn’t need the same kind of helicopter partnering as some of my peers in high school.

Obviously, given the predicament I am in, I was wrong. So very wrong. Groups projects in post-secondary education remained just as horrible as they had ever been, if not worse. Suddenly, adages like “the more, the merrier" and "two heads are better than one” were lost on me.

In university, the classes weren’t necessarily harder, but the assignments had more ground to cover, which meant that helpful and hard-working group members became your elixir to all the stress associated with the increased workload.

But when you’re in a class of 30-plus students, very few of whom you’ve actually met, group projects can become a lot more complicated. Good group members became unicorns and though I’ve stolen a glimpse of brilliant teammates in some classes over the years, I’m sad to report that none of them have managed to change my overall perspective on group projects.

I would be more reluctant to write about this issue if I were the only one experiencing this ordeal, but the fact-of-the-matter is that I am not. Based on my conversations just this year alone, it seems many students in universities can attest to the agony of working later-than-expected nights because other people failed to meet their end of the work. So, why are group projects still a requirement in so many post-secondary education courses despite loud complaints?

Voices Computer Sam NThe brightness of my laptop falls as the fan of the computer grows hotter and the battery level drains, reflective of my dying sanity.Photo by Sam Nar

Tim Loblaw, an educational developer at Bow Valley College, might have an idea. According to Loblaw, who has been in the education industry for more than two decades, there are two main types of group work that professors often use.

The first is a project that challenges cooperation skills by dividing members of the classroom into groups and tackling one assignment together. The primary learning objective of this method is developing the experience of working with other people. At the end of the project, professors assess students based on their individual performance in the group.

The second, which is much more pervasive in my case, is the kind of project that makes me question my sanity because regardless of my performance as an individual, the only thing assessed by the professor is the final deliverable.

The argument I hear most often from university professors to justify their choice in assigning the latter type of group projects is that the experience helps build a strong foundation for collaboration; a skill that translates well to real-life scenarios.

“We work with people who are not perfect — that’s the world and it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in.” —Debi Andrus, Professor at U of C 

Except, most group projects don’t really teach teamwork.

Group projects, in reality, teach students who care more about their grades to play a part they never wanted in the first place — the leader. It shows these students that should no one step up to the plate, they’ll have to carve out time and effort to motivate their unenthusiastic teammates in addition to completing their portion of the project.

When motivation falls flat — which it almost always does — these students are forced to undertake the project themselves and they’re taught to settle for mediocrity because the amount of work needed to achieve excellence is near impossible to balance with other classes and part-time jobs.

That feeling sucks. It sucks having your work not be representative of your standards and it sucks seeing people who you're competing against for jobs get a grade they don't deserve.

Debi Andrus, an adjunct associate professor of marketing at the University of Calgary, has employed several types of group projects throughout her career. Although she understands the struggles associated with collaborative work, she says participating in group projects provide valuable lessons to the way businesses work in the real world.

“We work with people who are not perfect — that’s the world and it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in,” Andrus says, adding that she’s tried many options in the past to ensure fairness for her students in terms of balancing work and grading.

Loblaw notes that many academic approaches involving group projects have shown promising results in effectively teaching collaboration, but he admits the success of group projects highly depends on the nature of participating students.

Keyword: depends. The thing is, group projects only really succeed on paper. Divvying up responsibilities and creating a pool of expertise to tackle more complex problems sounds terrific, but the concept lacks real-life applicability because it’s not practical to assume everyone has the same agenda in academia.

Collaboration ultimately relies on accountability. Teamwork can only be taught when conversations are exchanged between two or more people — it doesn’t exist in singularity.

Voices Sam N CupMy blood type is caffeine, evident through the number of emptied cups of Tim Horton’s on my tabletopPhoto by Sam Nar

When group members don’t show up to class or ignore frantic messages and emails begging them to do work, collaboration skills aren’t taught. Unlike reality, students aren’t paid to motivate their peers. Aside from the grade, there’s no incentive and sometimes, it's not worth it to pull that all-nighter right before a full day of work and school.

Although I’m unhappy with the way group projects are assigned now, I don’t think a better way to teach collaboration exists. While I know there's no chance for a solution before I graduate, I hope that one day, there will be a way to solve all the issues associated with group projects. Until then, I and others like me will have to continue sipping on the bitterness of doing someone else’s work the night before it’s due.