Sunday, October 23, 2016

Team Production

The most common sort of team projects I have worked on have been group projects for my classes.  In these projects, most of the time we are assigned a group to work with, then once the project is completed we all receive the same grade.  This to me seems, in some sense, opposed to the theory discussed in the New York Times article we read about collaboration.  In essence, the article claims that when people are forced to collaborate in order to get any sort of outcome, they are much more likely to share the benefits of their work equally.  The idea is that, when forced to work together, people will share the outcomes of that work equally by choice.  In group projects, however, the sequence of events is inverted.  Group members are encouraged to collaborate, yes, but not matter how they get their work done, they are forced to share the “benefits” equally (in this case, the final grade).  All members of the group will receive the same grade regardless of how the work gets done or who does most of it.  To use the metaphor from the article, it is almost like there is one giant rope which gives the same marble to everyone in the room, regardless of whether they play the game or not.  Teachers and professors set the “game” up so that students will all pull on that single large rope together, similarly to a tug-of-war match, but this is often not the case.  One or more group members can easily “sit out” and still receive their marbles at the end.
    Knowing this, it is true that the more members sit out, the less likely the group is to pull the rope far enough to obtain the marbles - so there is risk involved.  Some group members may decide they don’t care enough about the outcome to do any work on the project; they make up the laziest of group members.  Others may act opportunistically, gauging the difficulty of different aspects of the project and only pitching in when it is easiest or most convenient for them.  Other members may be dedicated to the project because they want to ensure that they get something out of it; whether that is a good grade, improved skill sets, an impressed professor, just to put in their best effort, or all of the above can differ based on the student and on the project.  The students who put in the most work may also be those who are the most risk-averse; if they don’t put in their fair share, then determinance of the grade is in large part up to the rest of the group.  The members who do not contribute as much are the ones more willing to accept that risk.
    The article talks about the idea of hitting the “shared sacrifice” button in people’s minds in order to get them to “share the spoils”.  In a group project scenario, the “share the spoils” button has been pressed by an outside force before group members had to even start thinking about what kind of sacrifices they might need to make.  This alters the group’s motivations and puts sharing sacrifice on the back burner.  
    Giving the entire group the same grade is also a form of turning shared group efforts into a transaction.  The group is rewarded for completing the project, which, similar to the ideas of article on selfishness vs empathy/altruism, turns it into a utilitarian transaction.  This puts group members in selfish frames of mind, encouraging them to think “How can I maximize my grade using the least time and energy?”  When group members think about using less time and energy, it makes sense that they will also think less about how to help their fellow group members - their mindset is not focused on compassion and gratitude, but on efficiency and outcomes.  To get rid of the “shared grade” idea could change group members’ motivations for the better.  The question, then, is how to grade the members of the group and the project itself without undermining the human propensity for compassion and altruism.


  1. Hmm - I wonder if it is right to view the grade as the primary product of the group work rather than the project itself and if instead the grade should be viewed, at most, as byproduct. So a related issue is whether members of the group perceive the project as educative or as busy work and then why that is. If it were perceived as educative, wouldn't participation of team members be easier to elicit?

    Now one of the issues with student projects, in particular, is that students are taking multiple classes and course work can have peaks and valleys. If several courses have peaks at around the same time, then the students has to juggle obligations and this sort of thing can make an otherwise responsible student put in less than full effort on a project, even when it is perceived as educative. So that problem needs some solution, which occasionally would entail picking up the slack of a teammate.

    But there may be quite a different issue here, which is team members providing feedback for teammate after the teammate has made some effort. The feedback then might be a kind of sharing. I have said in class and in the instructions on the project that each student is to own the entire paper. If you write one section, you edit the other sections. The feedback you provide as editing is a kind of sharing. What would encourage students to be good at the editing function?

  2. I think that if students are genuinely interested in the course material, then the group work would be seen as educative and students would want to work hard in order to get the most out of it. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen as often as it should. Especially with multiple classes at once (as you mentioned earlier) and grades to worry about, students often lose some of the passion and enthusiasm they once had to the subject. A common goal that almost every student has is to get good grades - hence, the overarching team goal in a project is to do the project well enough to get a good grade. In a lot of cases, the project is viewed as a means to an end. All the better if students delve deeper in order to learn, grow, and explore the subject, but in a busy and competitive world this is often not the main focus. So, participation is elicited mostly just enough so that students can earn the grade they desire.

    Maybe to solve the problem of peaks and valleys in coursework, group projects can be introduced at the beginning of the semester and spread over a longer period of time, so that students can put in the work at times when it is best for them.

    In the case of our current group project, the idea of each student owning the whole paper definitely encourages them to share. I think that students will want to edit their group members' work to the very best of their abilities so that the project is cohesive and understandable overall. In this case, the shared grade function is a strong motivator for students to collaborate and share.

  3. According to the Marble article in NY Times, I think the theory’s assumptions is that when people are forced to work together, and at the same time people are all putting efforts in their work, people share the outcomes of that work equally by choice. People will not be willing to share the outcome equally if any of the two requirements are not satisfied. Thus, the group project example you mentioned with a free-rider composition would not be a case for this theory. When there are members in the group that “sit out”, unfairness will become a confounded factor that restrains people’s willingness to share. I think if everyone in the group do their best to contribute, and even if contributions to the project are different due to difference in their ability, people will still share the outcome without a feeling of unfairness.

  4. I think the question becomes: How much work is equal work. Effort is not a verifiable thing, without the context of someone's whole life. Also, equal effort does not mean there is equal work distribution. More skilled members in a group who do their best will inevitably contribute more that less skilled members who perform to their best potential. This reminds me of the trophy argument for peewee sports. Personally, I do not believe people should be rewarded for their efforts, but instead their results, in most cases. Nonetheless, I think that there are exceptions to this rule.