Group presentations are a vital part of our work in school and at university. The majority of job adverts list “teamwork” and “collaborative skills” prominently, but is working in a group actually helpful? Many of us know, from our own experience, that that larger a group is, the longer it will take to reach a decision, but does working as a collective help us learn or improve our performance? Group work does help develop all the expected skills surrounding labour division, communication and time management, but can it do more for us when we have to learn new things? Are all those study groups just an excuse to chat to your friends?
In terms of motivation, as humans we tend to see ourselves as part of a group (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16262984) and so the desire to do well in that group, thus attain high status, can be a strong motivating factor (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953602001314). Further studies indicate that information learned from friends is actually more likely to be retained than information you’ve gathered yourself, especially when you are tired. The immediate discussion of this information, as is necessary in a group setting, also improves fact retention. Furthermore, while there is no scientific information to conclusively prove the existence of different “learning styles”, we know from our own experiences that some people are better at some tasks and we have our own preferences with regard to the work we like to do. If labour can be successfully divided along these lines then projects are likely to be more productive. Not only will individual performance improve as you are allowed to focus on what you are good at, you might also come to improve your knowledge of something you usually struggle with, as the group expert working on that area can explain it to you in close confines.
There is the possibility that you will make new friends if, as usually happens, the tutor decides who will be placed in each group. However, this can also lead to group polarisation, both within the group and in terms of the group’s output. Introverted members of the group might see their contributions ignored, and so subconsciously abandon the project, allowing the stronger members of the group to carry them along. If you know this is going to happen, then your own performance might be limited from the start. Furthermore, the desire for group harmony might lead to the group offering more extreme views than any one individual might under different circumstances. No matter what the theory and scientific findings, in an interconnected society group work, in education and the workplace, is unavoidable. The smart move is to understand its pitfalls and try and derive a positive outcome from the experience.
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