The Tyranny of Group Projects

Sometimes, I feel like a library school unicorn. At this, the (almost) halfway point of my journey to my MLS, I seem to be the only one who hasn’t fallen victim to something that oftens engenders weeping and gnashing of teeth in graduate school – the dreaded “bad” group project. I emphasize bad here because there are (and can be!) excellent group project experiences, but far more often anecdotal evidence seems to point to severe deficiencies with the group learning model. In my experience, much of this comes down to the most unknown of variables – your fellow classmates. Like all people, some are good, some are bad, and some are…well, just plain awful. Frequently, there may also be a lack of clear goals laid out in the assignment instructions. And, furthermore, when teams are arbitrarily put together by instructors, a student can feel like much of their agency, at least in ensuring that the final grade matches the work put forth, has been stripped away.

While all of that is arguably true, this post is not intended to mindlessly denigrate the group project writ large. Learning to work together and balance competing demands is essential to our work in libraries and information science, after all. Rather, I am hoping this post might be a way for both instructors and students to reconsider the group project and its role in our academic experiences.

I was unexpectedly called to reconsider group project one day when I was scrolling through Twitter. While I post rarely, I often find myself deeply exploring the tweets of individuals who, in my opinion, have exciting things to say about the things I care about – like education and the future of the information science profession. This particular tweet came from someone I happen to know personally – Dr. Emily Vardell. Dr. Vardell is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University and I have been lucky enough to be a student in several of her courses. In late September 2019, while attending the 2019 Association of Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dr. Vardell tweeted this:


Without getting too deep into the philosophy and theory behind scaffolding, I think Dr. Saunders is spot-on! It is not enough to just put students in groups and then hope it will work out. Rather, we (both instructors and students) need to “go beyond”. Using Dr. Vardell’s tweet and Dr. Saunders’s insights as a jumping off point, I think there are (at least) three main ideas that need to be considered in conjunction with creating “good” group projects:

Slow and steady wins the race

Who does anything new completely right the first time? People need methods to learn and experiment – room to grow and test boundaries. No group of people just thrown together can be expected to work together perfectly and implicitly know each other’s boundaries. Rather, for group projects to work best (if they are to work at all), smaller assignments and tasks can help a group bond and develop the skills that will be needed when a big task comes their way. That way, when the 30-page group paper or 25-minute presentation on readers’ advisory services comes due, the group can function more as a well-oiled machine, and not a clunker that even a junkyard wouldn’t take.

Individuals learners need to be respected

Just as groups must be given the space to grow, so must individual learners. As groups develop, different talents held by different group members will influence the overall course of the project. These different talents must be respected and appreciated. In doing so, the instructor must be responsive in their evaluation. For example, if one member of a group is extremely technologically proficient and they apply those skills in developing the final product, that contribution should be considered as worthy as the student in the same group who is willing to talk in front of a class for 30 minutes. By having a more holistic understanding of what each group member can (and will) do, instructors can ensure that the learning of each student is respected.

There needs to be accountability

This might be one of the hardest things to account for in group projects. Not because it is hard for accountability to be ingrained into group projects, but rather because a fine line must be walked. One between letting groups govern themselves and the instructor intruding in the group’s development. Indeed, this tension highlights the role that the instructor can play when it comes to group projects. How can instructors best support group work while maintaining authority in the classroom? I think this points back to my earlier two points – build it slowly over time and respect each student’s needs and style. In doing so, I believe, accountability can grow organically and take a form that is useful for both instructors and students.

Ultimately, I think that as we ponder about the future of library and information science generally and the pedagogy behind it specifically, group projects simply must change or they must go. Unless they can respect the individuality of the learners involved, allow for the more intentional application of LIS skills, and integrate ways to keep both learners and instructors accountable, I would argue that group projects have no place in programs designed to educate thoughtful, collaborative, and engaged 21st-century librarians and information science professionals.

Cover image by Zackary Drucker from The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Nick Dean is a first-year master’s student in the School of Library and Information Management (SLIM) at Emporia State University. Nick currently works as an academic advisor at a medical school in Kansas City.

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