A group project actually taught me something

One of my favorite classes this semester has been Intro to Cognitive Science. I took the class because more than a few of my friends who think the same way I do are Cognitive Science majors, and this semester the class was taught by one of the rock-star professors in the department. He’s a great lecturer, and I think I’ve learned a lot from the class about cognitive function, as well as the crossover between cognitive science and computer science. I might even get more into studying artificial intelligence before I graduate.

That said, while I think very highly of this professor, he did something I thought to be ridiculous this past week: he assigned a group essay.

I dislike group projects as much as the next person, because I worry that my group members will slack off and leave me with the brunt of the work. But even if they’re all hard workers, it still doesn’t feel fair to me that my grade will be partially determined by the efforts of people I have no control over. So to take control and ensure a good project, I feel pressured to take extra time and help the group members who need extra coaching to produce a decent piece of writing, which still does not seem fair.

Just having a group project is one thing, and I probably would have been okay with a different kind of project. Usually in these sorts of situations the group members can divvy up the work and put it all together close to the due date, spending minimal time consulting with other group members. But this assignment was a group essay. Essays, as I know them, are supposed to have a single point of view throughout to create coherence. How were we supposed to write the paper, I thought, without sitting together the whole time so that the person who wrote the conclusion knew what the person who who wrote the introduction had written? How was one paragraph supposed to follow smoothly to the next when the next paragraph had not been written yet?

The worst part, I felt, was that this was the last assignment in the class before finals season, meaning that during the time everyone was rushing to finish final class projects and study for finals, we also had to find time to meet as a group. It would have been more courteous, I thought, for the professor to have assigned this project much earlier in the semester.

Despite the fact that I spent a significantly larger amount of time worrying about the paper than actually writing it, the method we used to divide the work actually worked fairly well. Everyone did their research and came up with topics for the essay independently, and we went with the best idea among the four of us. The essay prompt came with 8 questions that had to be answered, so we divvied up the questions and answered them each in a paragraph or two. To put the whole thing together, we used Google Docs to compile our sections into one document, then sat around a table for a couple hours, each on our own laptops, reading through the paper, asking each other questions about what we had written, and editing simultaneously (Google Docs is cool with simultaneous editing like that). The end result did not flow as a paper written by one person might have, but it was at least coherent. My fellow group members really liked the simultaneous editing idea, and they had fun watching comments and corrections appear spontaneously in their writing.

I understand why students have to complete group projects: working in groups doesn’t stop in school, and we’ll probably be doing collaborative work the rest of our lives. For this paper specifically, the professor told us outright that the reason he assigned it was that no one researcher writes a scientific paper alone anymore, and that articles are now expected to include descriptions of how each author contributed. However, the difference between group projects in business and in schools is that in business there is usually a designated group leader, whereas in school the group members are expected to agree on everything democratically. This slows down the group’s progress and increases the need for constant consultation, which is the part that bothers me the most.

In retrospect, I guess assigning a group essay was not all that silly. I did learn some cool stuff about how the brain processes vision, and I did introduce my groupmates to the wonders of Google Docs. But the experience was still stressful, and like most students, I wish my professors would refrain from assigning group projects altogether!

  • Sonia

    If you go into research, you’ll have to write group papers for publication, so I can understand why he’d want you to get practice doing that. But when you do that, you’ve always got a “first author” who gets final say on stuff and delegates the work. Which you’re right, you can’t do in a classroom environment. Le sigh.

    I hate doing group projects because I invariably care more or am more responsible with my time than the rest of my group. I’ve noticed that being less of a problem as I advance through my college career, thank god, but still … bitches!

  • Evan

    Honestly, if anyone was the first author, it was Carolyn. Not that the rest of us weren’t working. Also, cool blog

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