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.