Group work is benign at worst and often greatly more effective than individual work. As an educator of children, I used group work with varying degrees of success. Most of the time, with one project, one group would make terrific progress and another would fail catastrophically. I found that success or failure often had little to do with the intelligence or skill of the students in the group and more to do with how well the group worked together. Working with adults, I cannot say that I have experienced much success with group work in any format, and again, that seemed to be more related to the dynamics of the group.
My Adult Experience With Group Work
As an adult learner, my experience with group work has been in professional development sessions. The groups were typically the people at the same table, and often one or two people would do the assignment as given while the others chatted about difficult students in their classes, the amount of papers in their grading piles, or the most recent edict from the administration. There was no individual accountability. As long as the assignment was finished by the end of the time, the presenter did not seem to be concerned that less than a third of the class actually participated. That is not how group work is supposed to function.
Benefits of Group Work
When it works as designed, group work requires students to do more thinking for themselves. By comparison, lectures and note-taking involve very little processing of the information and no application of it to a scenario. Even discussions can result in some students being very active while others sit and observe.
With properly structured group work, however, all students become more engaged. More discussion happens, and students must learn the material well enough to apply it to the problem. This usually involves some higher-order thinking.
Furthermore, students who normally would not ask the teacher a question out of embarrassment or fear would not hesitate to ask their peers. They find their peers more approachable rather than an authority figure.
Unfortunately, my experience with group work is not unusual, but that might be due to a misunderstanding of how to do group work. Too often in these situations, I have seen an instructor arrange groups in some way, give a task, and then tell everyone to get started. Then the one or two people who do the work get started while the rest of the group goes back to chatting about useless things.
Like many kinds of assignments, students might find greater success with more control over the situation and some direct instruction on expectations. Here is one possible process to follow that might give better results.
Start by having students jot down their initial reactions to the idea of group work then share with those nearest them. Give a brief lecture about the benefits and pitfalls associated with group work then give a description of the assignment they will be doing as a group. Divide the class into the groups they will be in for the duration of the project.
Review a couple group work contracts from previous classes, and ask the groups to analyze them for strengths and weaknesses. After a brief discussion, have each group write a contract all can agree on that will include a division of labor, deadlines, and a scoring rubric. Students should also consider their concerns about the problems of group work and make sure those are also addressed in the contract. For example, if the members had concerns about someone shirking responsibility, the contract should include consequences for being irresponsible. Meeting with each group to review the contract with them might be beneficial.
Before launching the groups on the official project, start them off with some smaller activities that teach some of the skills they will need to be successful group members. This might include things like how to be an active listener or how to critique work constructively.
Once the groups are off and running on the main project, the teacher should check in with groups periodically and perhaps schedule some time in class for the groups to meet. That allows the teacher to see the group interaction.
Unfortunately, many people have a negative view of group work because their experiences, like mine, have been unfavorable. With some careful planning, however, these problems can be overcome and group work can be beneficial.