When college programs rely heavily on group work, choosing a group can make or break the learning experience. Many students choose groups blindly, facing the nightmarish possibility of getting stuck with… slackers!
If I were a professor, I’d announce on the first day of class that everyone will be working in groups… and they should pick group members like they’re hiring for a job. Group rosters would be due the following week.
The first week of class would be about hiring and reference checks. The whole week’s notes would be available online from day one. Students would be warned, “If I were you, I’d get a head start today.”
I’d encourage students to check references by talking to their potential group members’ study groups from years prior. (Freshmen could produce references from high school groups or special projects.) References would be questioned about the candidate’s work ethic, past performance, knowledge and honesty.
What’s likely to happen?
The “A player”, i.e. committed students and overachievers, will get started immediately, quickly assembling a group made up of other A players. The “B player” will give it a half-hearted try, putting some effort into it, maybe delaying a little. The “C players” in the class will skip the recommended process, falling into groups of like-minded students on the last day, when there is very little chance of finding an available A student.
At the end of the class, the powerhouse A groups will do the best work and get the top grades in the class. The groups dominated by B players will get Bs and Cs, and the groups of C players will get Cs, Ds and Fs.
Is this fair?
This is, perhaps, the most fair system possible. Here’s why:
- All students get equal warning about what they need to do.
- With lecture notes about ‘hiring’ available before groups are formed, students have an equal chance to get ahead…and make better decisions about who to work with.
- Students who want to work hard can find others with the same work ethic and not be dragged down by the lazier students.
The “real-world” lesson here is that your career performance is heavily influenced by your team’s performance. This is, perhaps, the best way to teach students about the importance of hiring. In the real world, if you want to get to the top, you must hire A players.