Individual vs. Group Learning Redux

So, this post is almost ten days old, but I just now found some time to actually read the 35 comments on it as well as what others wrote about it on their blogs. I guess it is time to continue that conversation now.

First, let me be clear about the origin of that rant: I've been teaching for quite a long time now and always graded individuals without ever thinking about that assumption. The Facebook scandal triggered the new thought that perhaps all grades should be group grades. As a blogger, I put up a rant, spiced it up with strong language to elicit commentary (which bland stuff cannot do) and waited for the feedback.

The entire idea is new to me and I wanted to see how others felt about it. They did not disappoint and, with a couple of exceptions, both the pro-folks and the con-folks offered thoughtful arguments. The couple of exceptions are the usual stuff of blogs, the short "you are an idiot" comments that add nothing to the discussion.

What did disappoint me to some extent is the unwillingness (I sure hope it was not inability to do so) of some to even try to do the proposed thought-experiment. But perhaps it was my fault - the form and style of my post did not make it clear it was a thought experiment and some people assume that everything written online is an argumentative attack that has to be, knee-jerkily, responded to by a counter-attack to the opposite extreme.

Did the comments change my mind? Yes and no. As the idea is new to me, there was not much mind to change to begin with. It was hard to say I was right or wrong as the post was designed as a question (and yes, it was right to ASK the question). I am certainly not, like some bloggers, stubborn and digging in my heels and never ever saying I was wrong. But in this case I do not see the question even close to being settled yet and I would like to continue this conversation.

So, let me restate, very clearly, what the thought experiment was and lets go from there:

"How would the world be affected if all the grades in all the classes (K-PhD) in all the educational institutions in the world were assigned to groups instead of individuals?"

On details, I think the best way for me to proceed is to respond directly to the comments (under the fold):

In his comment, Greg Ladenwrote:

"....not mentally ready for the 21st century..."

Or much of the 20th century, actually.

Yup, the century marks are arbitrary. But it would be interesting to put a date on the time when the hierarchical, Chain-of-Being, linear thought was first seriously replaced by interactionist way of thinking in which the natures of interactions between elements of the system are much more important for the behavior of the system than the identity, relative strength and particular behavior of the elements themselves. 1859 and the publication of Darwin's Origin? 1948 when Western socialists abandoned the ideas of a top-down state-governed economy (something that rightists have not noticed yet)? 1965 when language, music, social hierarchy and modes of interpersonal behaviors changed (mostly in the USA)? 1977 with the birth of evo-devo? Some other date (perhaps computer-related)? How does it map to geography: Europe first, some segments of US next, Middle East not yet?

Umkomasia failed to do the thought-experiment and substituted IS for OUGHT or SHOULD BE.

nlightnmnt wrote this comment:

A student is threatened by expulsion for organizing a Facebook group for studying chemistry. Moreover, as each student got different questions, nobody did the work for others, they only exchanged tips and strategies.

After the professor specifically stated that each student was not to obtain outside help.

If I could, I would not give individual students grades on their individual performance at all. I would give a common grade for the entire class. Each individual will then get that same grade.

Students: pick classes based on who else is signing up for them! The idea is to do as little work as possible - the bad students will know that getting a good grade means more to the intelligent, hard-working students than it does to them, and so they can sit back while the other suckers do all the work.

How much of this is a matter of administrative fear of the internet?


Nope. The fact that the cheating was on the internet is irrelevant. See above.

1) The point of the thought-experiment was to highlight that the professor's requirement was bad pedagogy. The fact that his requirement was also naive is irrelevant to this discussion.

2) This is important point, but I will turn it upside down now. Students WILL pick out classes based on who else is signing up for them. And this is good. Because it is the good students who will want to take classes with the other good students. What happens to the free-loaders? They get kicked out of one class after another after another (because in the system, the group is allowed to eliminate freeloaders, i.e., have them officially unregistered from the class). The freeloaders either learn to cooperate, or end up in class sections full of freeloaders where they all get an F or shape up and do the work. Or, they run out of classes and never graduate.

3) Some people are unhealthily focused on cheating in this discussion. The group-grading system is designed to organically take care of cheaters (see above) with no involvement (or even knowledge) of the instructors. It is a self-correcting and self-cleansing system, where cheaters are left behind by being ostracized by their peers and kicked out of classes, preventing their graduation. You want tough? How much more tough one can get than this? And if the cheaters all get together and start working together and start getting good grades, then, well, the education worked!

In his comments, the Flying Trilobite said:

I agree with your points Coturnix, by and large. The one thing that continues to shock me time and again is how so many people don't understand that their voices on Facebook are essentially public.

About half of Canadians are on Facebook. The part I don't understand is how they were found out: did they use the course number as a group name? If so, it is essentially announcing their intention to defy the teacher by putting a sign on cork board down the hall from class. At least be discreet if the teacher is frowning on study groups.

Yes. This underlines the generational differences in what is perceived as 'normal'. I bet they put the class number up there on the group and never even thought that anyone could think it was wrong what they were doing - they were educating themselves in the best possible ways, by collaboration, how else? I bet they were stunned when the old fogies, with their strange old-fashioned, authoritarian, linear, individualistic, moralistic standards, came down hard on them. This is most definitely a clash of cultures. The kids did not hide BECAUSE they knew they were not doing anything wrong. It is us who need to re-evaluate where our ideas of wrongness come from. Thus, my previous rant and now this thought exercise.

Derek is correct.

Maffie van Eck must be one of those who thinks that everything written online is a flamewar:

Ah, the self-righteousness of the Science Bloggers! Anyone you disagree with is an idiot or a dinosaur, eh? Scope for all opinions, provided they agree with yours? How does your statement that cooperation is important in this modern world square with your slagging off with cheap name-calling any outfit doing things slightly different from your prescribed theology?

One thing these students have demonstrated is that do not respect for rules. Sometimes that's good, but will they comply with other procedures that they disagree with? "No naked flames near the inflammable liquids, naaa, that doesn't apply to me, I know better..."?

Your almost nihilistic attitude to grading is puerile. There's no point in class grades that give no indication of any individual's level of contribution or achievement; what could anyone use that grade for? Ungraded courses are fine, but your proposal amounts to "turn up, google some words, collect your A".

In short, grow up.

1) Maffie, last time I checked, your comment was not deleted. You disagree with me and what do I do? I let you have your say on MY blog, in my virtual home. I may laugh at your arguments (theology?! WTF), but I do not try to squelch them. Be more polite next time, OK, kids are around.

2) Respect for rules is a very patriarchal, conservative idea. The most despicable human trait, which conservatives tend to like for some reason, is obedience. Disobedience built this world. Every time people got disobedient, some autarch lost power (or life) and the world became a better place. Obedience is agreeing to slavery. Disobedience is progress. See:Gandhi. As for flames and fluids, that is not the "rule" in the same sense as the Facebook scandal was all about - it is more about common sense and using knowledge about the world to avoid tragedy, i.e., it has nothing to do with obedience to authority, so don't conflate the two sense of the word "rule" as it is disingenuous (as David Marjanovic also noticed).

3) You did not even try to understand the idea in that post. Or perhaps you tried and couldn't due to over-strong biases towards individualism, linearity and authoritarianism?

4) As soon as you get out of your diapers and start walking, I'll take you out for ice-cream.

A very useful (though arrogant) comment by vavatch:

Your proposed alternative to grading sounds like it would make it impossible for the students concerned to get a job anywhere - how could they when employers could not know if a given student were actually any good.

Cooperation between individuals is not in any great danger. Our entire society is based on ever increasing cooperation. Globalisation is just that - "cooperation". Some people are blinkered and can't seem to see that competition and cooperation are in fact complimentary and intertwined. Usually ideological sorts who dismiss the spontaneous and undesigned systems we have today, with their combination of cooperation and competition, and replace it with some crap they have designed themselves in their own heads. Arrogant people, usually. "I've read a couple of books and therefore I can replace the fruits of thousands of years of human striving and tinkering, with this crap I just thought of, cos I'm so smart."

Your proposed ideas are ridiculous. For one, the students would betray your hippy ideals and find a way to be competitive despite them. Secondly, they'd be harmed by it in the long run when they find nobody will hire them after university - why would you when you don't have any idea whether they have the skills you need. They most likely wouldn't learn as much too - why bother when you won't get anything out of it like a better grade.

The reason the facebook students are being disciplined is not because they used facebook but because they cheated. They copied answers. The ones who were cool enough to get invited to the facebook group, anyway. That makes them freeloaders upon the group, and that makes them anti-cooperative. The students and college as a whole are cooperating in a system designed to teach the students as best as possible and some of those students are betraying that cooperation and cheating. And they should be punished for forming their little freeloading clique, online or not.

OK, I am going to invent a very bizzare example now, on purpose, because I do not want to get bogged down in any real-life details, i.e., I do not want the discussion to diverge to "you really need skill X for the task Z" chatter which is useless. This needs to stay at an abstract level so we can think clearly. So, here it goes:

I am an employer at a firm, institute, lab group, whatever. I have a project in mind and I want to hire three people for it. I advertise the three jobs. I ask for a) a person with a degree in English who is skillful with MSWord (I told you it is a bizzare example!), b) a person with a degree in Design who is skillful with MSPowerPoint and c) a person with a degree in Math who is skillful with MSExcel. Now imagine that this is a world of the future in which all the grades in all the classes in all the schools are group grades. How am I affected in my choices of job candidates?

They got their degrees. This means that they a) finished all their classes, thus were not kicked out of them by peers due to freeloading, they b) learned cooperatively so they will likely be good team-players for this project, they c) took all the relevant classes for their degrees, thus they must possess the core knowledge and core skills of that degree or they would be useless in cooperative learning and the peers would not let them graduate, and d) due to their cooperative learning their good grades are not due to their ability to memorize and regurgitate facts, but due to ability to find, share, creatively use and impart knowledge. So, just as with individual grading systems, I can trust the degrees at their face values (or even more than now, when a good selfish memorizer-of-facts may look the best on paper).

Who would apply for a job which specifically calls for a skill you do not have? I can give them a little test ('show me how you do this with Excel') as a part of a job interview. Or, if I hire a person who lied about that particular skill, this will become obvious about an hour into their employment which will terminate immediately.

In other words, I do not think that the individual vs. group grading makes much of a difference for prospective employers. If anything, a world with group-grading-only weeds out those people who are NOT good team players.

Are their jobs for which this is a bad idea? Probably. Jobs in which individuals have to make decisions and work alone. Judges perhaps. Perhaps physicians (unless the practice of law and/or medicine also becomes more collaborative).

Finally, my focus on collaboration does not exclude competition, it just shifts it to a different level: that of the group. In other words, collaboration is within groups, competition is between groups (more healthy than between individuals). So, this idea is in no way "hippy" (I never knew there were people who thought that "hippy" is an insult - Hippies were the coolest!).

In this comment, Barn Owl writes:

I think instructors and course directors have a responsibility to make the rules very clear from the outset, and if the rules differ for various assignments in a given course, then they need to be listed clearly in each case. In graduate courses, I can (and do) assign cooperative assignments, but in professional (medical and dental) school courses, I have a responsibility to prepare students for national licensing exams, which are very individualistic.

Just as our elders had to adapt to our outlandish and annoying differences, those of us who are "baby boomers" or "Gen X" have to get used to the fact that "Gen Y" or "Millenials" do things differently, and view intellectual property and communication differently. I'm not remotely interested in participating in sites like Facebook, but for many of my students, it's an important networking tool to interact with their friends and peers. I'm similarly disinterested in instant messaging, but nevertheless I have to consider it, in the context of teaching. What I think of Facebook or instant messaging or file-sharing sites, or whether I use them myself, is not important; how I cope with such things and adapt to their existence and popularity in my job *is*, however.

I mentioned the Prelinger Library, and an article in Harper's by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, previously in the comments on this blog (and I have a short post on my blog about the bookshelving aspect), and there is some very interesting discussion of intellectual property issues. In the US, for example, copyright changed from an "opt-in" system to an "opt-out" system in the 1970s (as an aside, I realized that it was silly for me to "copyright" my own lame photos on my own stupid blog, so I've removed them). The Prelingers are very concerned with intellectual property issues, in a "good" way, such as to provide free access to resources and information for researchers, writers, and artists. Unfortunately, the Lewis-Kraus article is only available to individuals with a Harper's subscription. :-(

See above - at this point some professions are done by individuals and thus they are tested and certified for those jobs as individuals. Will that change in a century ahead of us is everyone's guess.

I have linked to this post by David Warlick earlier today and I think it fits here as well. The concepts of patents, copyright and intellectual property are completely alien to the young generation. We may think of information the same way we think about goods ("things", "stuff") and services, but they do not. They think of information as a global property, something that, of course, has to be available to everyone on the planet, easily, immediately and for free. It started with Napster, but it has since spread to all other types of information. They do not comprehend why would anyone even try to prevent another person from getting to a piece of information. Trying to sell information must seem like the ultimate in Greed and Selfishness. Information is Free (or at least Information Wants To Be Free) and people who try to shut it down must look Evil to the young generation. And I think they are correct.

Of course, as long as there are countries on this planet, there will be information they will try to keep from each other. Corporations may also want to hide business secrets from each other. But even such sensitive information should, in principle, be available to citizens, via Freedom Of Information act, so that the people in power can be investigated and held accountable. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Transparency is the best business strategy.

Jefrir said:

This attitude of sharing knowledge is actually one that has been encouraged by my better teachers - if you don't understand, ask your classmates. They will often explain it in a different way to the teacher, which may make it easier for you to understand, and the act of explaining will help them clarify their own understanding. Everyone's a winner - provided of course that the aim is for everyone to learn as much as possible. Sure, students shouldn't be just writing assignments for each other, that is cheating and doesn't help in the long run, but then that's hardly likely to be tolerated by the students doing the work anyway.

I'm not sure about class grades, as that may give future employers the impression that someone is competent when they're really not, but certainly more use could be made of group projects.

Yes, as above - cheating will not be tolerated by the good students, and it does not change much for an employer.

I taught an Animal Physiology lab a couple of times back in grad school. I always felt that how the students did on their group projects was the best indicator of how they did in class and understood the material (as well as how good they would be as researchers in the future). Some smart, creative students did relatively poorly on quizzes and exams, often due to fear and paralysis, yet produced fantastic projects (some ended up with really novel, yet unpublished data!). The problems of the Three-exam system also played a role in their grades being lower than what they deserved. On the other hand, some students who memorized all the facts and regurgitated them marvelously were useless in projects - had no sense of proportion (designing studies that would take 5 years and half-a-mil dollars to do, instead of two months with material found in the lab), no idea how to start with a hypothesis (they thought of tons of 'cool' experiments, testing everything and measuring everything, without realizing that their experiment would not really test anything and that all the factors would be conflated beyond any statistician's powers) and not being really good at collaborating (often insisting on doing the project alone, with disastrous results).

Larry wrote:

One of the things I try to teach students is that they will encounter many Professors with different styles of teaching. These Professors will have different personalities as well. They can't all be the stereotypical nice guy, easy grader, that student evaluations seem to want.

I explain that, for the most part, all Professors have something to offer and students have a certain responsibility to adapt to each style and personality. They shouldn't try to cram everyone into the same mold. If they insist on doing this they will miss out on the benefits from some some very eccentric, and brilliant, Professors.

Totally agree, 100%. Different classes, different teachers, some easy, some hard, some fun, some boring, they all taught me something important. Larry continues:

Boris, I gather that you teach very differently. You seem to be of the opinion that every lecturer has to conform to your concept of pedagogy. I think you are making a huge mistake.

Concerning the particular Facebook issue, the Professor specifically said that the students were supposed to work out the problems individually and not as a group. Just because you disagree with the reasoning behind that request does not give you the right to condone cheating by the students. The students broke the rule and they did it in a very open manner on Facebook. You seem to think this is okay because the Professor is old-fashioned. You are wrong. It is not okay.

I have no idea where Larry got this idea that I want people to conform to my teaching style - it was never even mentioned, nor have I ever written about my teaching style online (unless what one could glean from my lecture notes, which are summaries of material I taught, not descriptions of my lectures with their unique form and style). As for the concept of "rule", see above. Disciplinarians will keep getting into this kind of conflict until they learn not to impose bad rules that cannot be obeyed (and those individual students who follow the rules end up under-educated or mis-educated because of it). And my name is not Boris. Though some Boris's are my best friends.

Nomen Nescio (a lot of commenters' names that I do not recognize from before popped up in that thread):

mob hazing as the alternative to simply getting a bad, individual, grade. now there's an idea straight out of... actually, i'm not sure how many godsdamn centuries ago.

coturnix, you're usually a fairly sensible person, but on this point you seem to have been dropping hallucinogenics. i hope you sober up soon; the trip you're on looks to be a very unpleasant one.

(in another several years, i may end up in a position to hire somebody. if prospective employees then come to me with college degrees that were based explicitly and mainly on the performance of their entire classes as groups, the way you seem to be proposing, i certainly would want to know about it --- so i could pass on hiring them, since i'll definitely not ever be in a position to hire on an entire classroom full of people as a group. if those degrees are to be worth anything to anybody else outside the group, they must by necessity say something about the individuals that hold them!)

I have addressed both the way the group punishes freeloaders and the employers' angle above. Once the process/method of displacing freeloaders by the group is institutionalized, it is not 'mob hazing' any more.

The individuals belong to many groups during their schooling years, thus graduating with a high average based on group grades indicates that they can work in ANY group. And the fact they graduated guarantees that they know what their major requires PLUS they have learned beyond memorization how to find, share and creatively use information, i.e., they are flexible workers of the future. Thus, the group grades DO say something about the individuals, they are actually quite informative - this is someone who knows his/her stuff, is not a cheater and can work in any group thrown into. I want to employ such people. Also remember that this is a thought experiment in which nobody anywhere anytime gets an individual grade so you cannot choose.

In this comment, Cherish writes:

My take is that homework should be collaborative. That is the opportunity to learn the material, get feedback from peers, and try to work out all the kinks in the problems and process of solving them. Very often, even if you have an incredible teacher who explains things very well, you'll still find huge gaps in your understanding once you attempt working homeworks. Exams are for individual assessment.

I think an ideal scenario is similar to a class I'm taking now. We have group homeworks and ideally discuss them in the class on the day they are due. Our labs are also done as a group. But all this counts for less than a quarter of our grade. We have 3 exams and presentations that account for 75% of our grade. This gives you an opportunity to spend time collaborating with your group and learning from each other while providing the instructor with a good assessment of individual learning.

A compromise that we'll probably have to work with for the time being. The attitudes take a generation to change, after all (as this thread shows quite well). Does not really address the thought experiment, but is realistic for here and now. For the 3-exam problem, see the links above.

In her comment, Julie says:

The reason why many people disrespect rules is because many rules disrespect people.

In a well-functioning workplace, people collaborate, build, and learn. A person who is a good collaborator is a real gem. A person who merely tries to take credit for other people's work without doing any of his own quickly develops a bad reputation, at best. Giving exams and grading students individually is fine, but forbidding them to study with anyone else is NOT preparing them for the jobs they'll have after college. In fact, it's actively sabotaging their future attitudes towards work.

If students copy someone else's work instead of doing work themselves, they're guilty of academic misconduct. That's true whether the student copies the paper remotely from an online site or directly from her roommate, and students who commit this kind of offense should be held responsible. But I've never known a professor who forbade students to form study groups. (And, a student who merely parasitizes a study group as a source of free homework answers is not going to learn enough to pass the exams.)

I hope this "academic misconduct" case is laughed out of the room by the university administration.

Amen (or am I supposed to alway say 'Ramen' instead?).


I agree with nlightnmnt. From the article:

While Neale admits the professor stipulated the online homework questions were to be done independently, she said it has long been a tradition for students to brainstorm homework in groups, particularly in heavy programs such as law, engineering and medicine.

Sharing ideas on Facebook is NOT working independently. If the students thought they should be able to work together, they should have made their case to the prof, not gone behind his back.

I suspect this partly reflects an attitude that profs are too clueless to know about things like Facebook. In many cases, that may be true, but it's not a valid justification.

Coturnix wrote:

In other words, the kids were set up. Damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they do what they are told by this idiot, they will not learn. If they decide that learning is more important, and do it right, then they are accused of "cheating" by someone who has power over them.

Frankly, that's just BS. Collaborative learning is certainly valuable. But independent learning is valuable too. It's ridiculous to claim that the students won't learn if they work an assignment independently, and calling the prof an idiot only reflects badly on you, Coturnix.

In this case, doing it right meant doing it as instructed. And using scare quotes doesn't change the undisputed fact that the students violated clear instructions.

By the way, have any of you ever been to Yahoo!Answers? At least in the biology section, more than half the questions are students outright asking others to answer their homework for them. Is that 'collaborative learning?' I don't think so.

The article suggests these students didn't go that far, which is good. Nevertheless, I can definitely understand why a prof might forbid on-line collaboration on specified assignments.

In the scheme proposed in this rant/post of mine, independent learning is something individuals do IN ORDER to be able to function within a group, i.e., studying on their own so as not get kicked out by their peers, not in order to be punished by the teacher.

I am still surprised by how many people are ready to tow the line of "rules are rules". Obedience is a bad idea as it encourages authoritarians. Bad rules are to be busted and the givers of those rules exposed publicly for being idiots, lest they learn to think better next time. That is how the world is changed for the better.

Sites like Yahoo!Answers will be useless in the scheme proposed in my thought experiment. The factual information is always there, online, for everyone to get. It is what you do with that information, how you creatively use it, is what is graded.

Bill knows me well and why I wrote the post the way I did:

Nice rant, Bora. Sometimes it's good to come out swinging, stir up a few strong opinions on the other side.

The work in question was homework, not an exam -- in other words, it was assigned to help the students learn the material, not to test whether they had already learned it. Making it worth a small portion (10%) of their grade seems like just a way of trying to make sure they do the work -- that is, receive the assistance in learning that it's designed to provide.

(I'm not a teacher, so if that's not how homework is viewed by professional teachers, someone please correct me.)

But if I'm right then yes, it seems idiotic to insist that they do the work in isolation -- it merely cripples their learning. I agree with Cherish, homework should be collaborative, and with Bora -- we should be teaching collaboration explicitly.

I don't think, for reasons (strongly!) expressed above, that 100% of a student's grade should depend on the class grade. Individual exams still have a purpose... perhaps each class could give two grades, one for individual and one for group work? For that to be meaningful to, say, an employer reading a resume, it would have to include more information -- the means for the class, and for a selection of that teacher's classes. The logistics of that would be difficult, though, to say the least -- which is why I prefer the model that embeds collaborative learning in homework and take-home assignments, then tests individual mastery of the material in exam format where cheating is much easier to define and detect.

Yes, in some classes, a combo of individual and group grades may be necessary. Perhaps an individual can have a grade combined from individual and group effort. Or, the group grade may in part be dependent on the compounded individual grades of all the members of the group (which would further motivate the group to help each member actually learn, not just memorize). That is more detail than this thought experiment warrants at this early stage, I guess.

Andrew says:

While you seem to think you are more in touch with the way youth envision the future of their education, I'm afraid you are wrong. I'm currently a senior at a large, research-focused university in a life science field. I'm familiar with the types of students who share answers to assignments. Frankly, they're not the motivated, intelligent, eager, forward-thinking scientists-of-the-future you imagine them to be. Rather, they're lazy. They want to do as little work as possible to get their marks. While I don't think that what they did warrants expulsion, I'm quite certain they did not intend to rock the foundations of university education by starting a Facebook group.

With regards to your group marks idea, I think it is laughable. Every smart, motivated student I know wouldn't venture near a class like that. Whether you like it or not, not all students care. In group projects, the ones who do care end up shouldering the load. And trying to build some sort of Lord-of-the-Flies learning society is equally ridiculous. I don't care if Slacker A doesn't want to learn about glycolysis, and I have no right to punish him for it. I also am under no responsibility to take the time to teach him about it.

I guess Andrew is an A-type, super-competitive pre-med! Climbing up the ladder of success by stepping on his peers' hands and heads and pushing them off the ladder. How selfish. How greedy. I have met a bunch of those before... all of his colorful complaints have been addressed above already, but here's some more: who is doing the sharing?

The lazy ones do not share answers because they do not have them in the first place, don't you think?

The good students do not share with the lazy ones because they want to punish the slackers.

In my experience, it is the competitive types who refuse to share with anyone, good or bad, and want to do everything alone, on their own, me, me, me.

So, who shares? Good students with other good students. That's the best situation anyway.

If the individual memorization prowess becomes unimportant in the greater scheme of things, it is the selfish who will do bad, not the lazy. And if you have no choice, you will have to take all your classes in this way, group-graded, and then you will have to learn how to cooperate, share, learn and use the knowledge creatively, not just declaratively. If you insist on going alone and not collaborating, the group will kick YOU out. And if the system is institutionalized, there is no Lord-of-the-Flies effect - it all works smoothly and with no blood spilled.

Larry again:

The purpose of a university education is to teach students how to think. It is not to prepare them for some job. That may be the attitude that many students--and their parents--have but that's part of the problem.

As university instructors we should be working hard to convince the general public that a university education is important for its own sake because it teaches you how to learn. It should also teach you how to behave properly in a society (i.e., don't cheat, follow instructions). Those are valuable commodities. Incidentally, and only incidentally, those are commodities that some employers value.

Larry is actually right here! Who would have thunk?! I would argue, on top of this, that group work teaches students to think much better than individual work which almost always relies on the estimate of the ability to memorize. Cheating is taken care of by the peers (less for the teacher to worry about). Following instructions is highly over-rated - I was always (from K till PhD) a student who publicly challenged the teachers who gave bad instructions and forced them to change them right then and there in front of the entire class. Trouble-maker? No, improver of teachers. When they deserve authority over me, they get it. Until then, nope, sorry, we are equals and I'll make sure you remember it (I did it when I was seven years old, so I am surely going to do it now). And all I got for it was their respect.

Back in second grade elementary school I once spent 45 minutes explaining to the teacher and 30 classmates that their solution to a math problem was wrong and mine right. I got up to the blackboard and tried it with numbers, tried it with formulae, tried it with drawings. The kids yelled at me to shut up and listen to the teacher. How did it end? The teacher bowed to me, acknowledged I was right all along, and gave the class a stern lecture about the perils of blind obedience to nominal authorities and the importance of thinking with one's own head and the courage to stand up for it against the odds and against authorities. They all (but not me) got double dose of homework that day.

A. Mercer posted this comment:

I'm not a scientist, but I hope to contribute in creating the next generation of that profession. I teach in elementary school and my undergraduate major was in the social sciences.

1. This is completely contrary to how students are taught science in elementary school. Yes, they get a state test once in elementary on science where they work on their own, but most science lessons involve cooperative work, and exploration. There is a movement bringing back texts (and getting rid of project kits like FOSS), but I expect that as the texts get (rapidly) outdated, the kits will be back.

2. In college, many classes featured group projects. The business majors I was friends with had similar projects. The common complaint about the grading was, what if I do all the work? My husband's professor said basically, welcome to life. Many times you work on teams where not everyone pulls their weight, you need to work that out in the group before you talk to me about it. Many also did team self-assessments to suss out such problems. I'm hearing from profs today that they like wikis for projects, because it tracks the authoring and edits of pages, so they can see exactly who did what work.

Last I checked, it's a competitive world, but you still have to work in teams. I can't think of many work situations that depend on you keeping information from your co-workers.

Beautifully put. Thank you!

Ian B Gibson must be another one of those enamored of authoritarian rule-making and the unquestioning obedience of the "subjects":

Last I checked, most bosses frowned upon workers ignoring specific instructions about what to do and what not to do. Saying the instructions were stupid is also unlikely to help matters.

Ironically, if they'd had the brains to cheat in private they would have probably got away with it; perhaps they should set up a facebook group to discuss how not to get caught in future?

"Most bosses" can eat me.

SDyuaa said:

I've had classes like that. Only one where the entire class was graded as one, but three or four where 75%-100% of our grades was based on smaller group work, and many more where a single assignment (for 10%-25% for the grade) was entirely group-based.

The whole-class one was a bit imbalanced. We had the option to grade each other. If one person received a significant number of low grades from his or her peers, they could be excluded from the whole class's grade. We kept track of who did what work by doing it all on a wiki, where we could see changes, how much, and when, and determine quality ourselves. This prevented the lazier people from doing nothing at all, and no one got "voted out." However, some people did a lot more work than others. Some people provided more quality than others. Some had more initiative. We all benefited from our classmates - but some people clearly benefited more and gave less, and they still got the same grade.

This, except for the wiki and the high amount of data on who did what when, is representative of all such group projects and classes I, personally, have experienced. YMMV.

This is a good approach to testing these kinds of approaches. I am glad to hear that some teachers are trying things out.

Mike Fox:

One thing that you could try doing in terms of grades is to have a class-group component to the grades. Say that 10-15% of your grade is based on the average class grade. It wouldn't be enough to pull the lead-butts grade to a pass, but it would be enough to encourage the top quartile to help out the bottom quartile. I think this would better create a positive work / teamwork attitude.

Another hybrid-class proposal worth thinking about for some types of classes.


Bullshit. There is nothing morally wrong about violating an unjust and illogical rule. (There is not necessarily anything morally right about it, either.) An authority figure has an implicit responsibility to create policies that will efficiently and and reliably accomplish a legitimate and beneficial aim for those concerned without unduly burdening them. When a person in a position of power, through stupidity, closed-mindedness (but I repeat myself), ignorance, pettiness, malice, or a materially selfish agenda, creates policies that a reasonable person in the same position would recognize as contrary to the above criteria, he or she betrays the trust of his or her subordinates. In so doing, he or she thereby forfeits all moral authority within any context relevant to the issue, and the weight of his or her demands shrinks to the scope of his or her practical ability to enforce them.

When those who oppose such rules do so out of a sincere and principled belief that they are unjust and should not be applied to anyone, then it is these rebels who are in the right. When, as is much more common, people defy the rules simply for their own benefit (trying to sneak around them rather than change them is often, but not always, evidence of this), then the issue is reduced to a morally neutral (provided no substantive harm is done to innocent parties) contest between two purely self-interested parties - business competition, of a sort, if you will. I contend that even in the most uncharitable of reasonable interpretations, the latter is what happened here. In any case, the servile habit of mindlessly ascribing the moral high ground to the higher-ranking or more powerful party in such a contest is, I think, the single greatest factor contributing to the redefinition of copyright and formulation of the concept of "intellectual property" described by "derek" above - not to mention many other societal tragedies with a far more substantive and devastating impact.

Honestly, though, I don't like the idea of class grades and an extensive emphasis on group projects. I remember too many of my classmates all too well.

What s/he said! Eloquently.

To which Larry responds:

You are free to form your own personal opinion about the justness of a rule. If you think that a rule is unjust and illogical then you may choose to violate that rule.

But you must suffer the consequences. That's what civil disobedience is all about. You aren't entitled to a "get out of jail free" card just because your opinion differs from the rule makers.

I would think that Azkyroth would agree with this. You gotta fight a good fight and there will be pushback from the authoritarians. Nobody said it would be easy.

On the other hand, authoritarians are essentially cowards. They speak the language of force and power. Unless they have the capability of summoning the country's military to kill you, they will back down if you show your teeth. Showing you have a spine and have no intention of backing down is often enough to send an authoritarian running with his tail firmly between his legs (if only the Democrats would wake up to this fact). Authoritarians live in linear, hierarchical mindsets - they think of themselves as Alpha-males until you show them that you are an Alpha-male (or female, just to make them hurt even more) at which they quickly concede defeat and go somewhere to lick their wounds and grumble.

Back to the classroom - more the teacher is an authoritarian, more respect you will get with a forceful pushback against stupid rules. But it will be hairy for you for a few days, for sure, so be brave and organize your peers to support you if you can.

Opisthokont responds:

Individual and group learning each have their place. I say this as a grad student myself: I am a member of a research team, but I also bring (or at least like to think that I bring) unique capabilities and knowledge to that team, some at least of which I learned through the sort of individual hurdle-jumping that is emphasised in traditional classwork. I would question the utility of grades that were given to the whole class equally. It could result in a blot on the record of outstanding students, unless the whole thing was scaled to the best students' performance, in which case one might as well not mark anything. Anyway, like it or not, there are situations in which one has no avenues for collaboration, and one must know things oneself -- or know how to find things out by oneself. Individual learning is important, any way one looks at it.

Networking, however, is a good thing, and setting up a Facebook group to work on problems together cannot but help in the long run. I have always found that I retain things better if I have to explain them to others. Telling students not to have some sort of study group to work on problem sets is stupid.

What outrages me about this case is the mismatch between the "crime" and its punishment. What this student did does not merit expulsion, let alone a failing mark. The treatment meted out here is appropriate for plagiarism, which is manifestly not what is described here. Letting this punishment go through would be a gross injustice.

As I stated above, there may be some cases in which individual assessment or a combo might be warranted. This may change in the far future, though, and it is the far future that my thought experiment is engaging.

Silver Fox and Mike add approximately zero to the discussion and their comments can be safely skipped.

Tracy W

I would give a common grade for the entire class. Each individual will then get that same grade.

The thing about the real world is that often the individual is expected to be an expert on whatever they learnt at university.

For example, I did an electricial engineering degree at university. I have seldom worked with someone else who has that training. I work in teams, but I am working with people who are experts in their own subject areas. My value to the team is dependent on my individual knowledge of what my professors taught me at university, not on how my class at the engineering school performed overall.

No individual can know everything needed knowing. No individual can make the necessary societal changes on one's own. So why teach them as if it is all up to an individual?

Because they will go out into the world as individuals. And the more you know as an individual, the more effective you are at working with other people. It's also darn useful to know things as an individual for those times you are alone. For example, say you are out hiking with a friend, somewhere without communications, and your friend suddenly collapses with a heart attack. What happens next is up to you as an individual.

Thus, education, especially science education, from Kindergarden through post-doc and beyond, should be organized around collaborations, teaching people and letting them practice the networking skills and collaborative learning and action.

This should most definitely not be at the expense of teaching children as indivduals, and teaching them the knowledge they will need as individuals to survive and thrive in the world around them.

Individuals will make mistakes and get punished by the group (sometimes as harshly as excommunication). They will learn from that experience and become more collaborative next time.

Or they will learn to give up. Punishment has unpredictable effects on people's learning.

Then, they would take this approach to the Real World, where such things really matter, where sucess is that of a community, not that of any individual.

Communities do not succeed unless the individuals in them succeed individually.

You appear to be operating from the old, linear, 20th century view that there is a dichotomy between the individual and the community.

Most of this is addressed above. I do not see how group-learning ends up with individuals being ignorant - it is learning: everyone in the group learns A LOT. Also, I still do not see the value of the insistence on individual teaching that some are pushing, as if individuals in group-learning situations do not learn.

Evaluating groups does not mean that groups learn and individuals do not - which is exactly what I've been harping on my blog for three years about the poverty of the linear ways of thinking, which Tracy totally misunderstood and turned upside down.

My example is exactly the way to combine the individual and the group/community, not to separate them the way she did in her response. To clarify: emphasis on individual teaching, learning and grading splits the individual from the community and then completely ignores the community. Emphasis on group teaching, learning and grading combines the individual and the community: the individuals learn better and the groups/communities become more efficient and successful as a result.

The comment about the possibilities of giving up and the unpredictable effects of peer punishment on learning is a good comment, though, and something we need to think about more.

Now to the commentary on other blogs:

Kim Hannula (click to read the whole thing) has a whole set of practical ideas (not really for the thought-experiment here, but more for the situation here and now, perhaps the way to get from here and now to the glory future of the thought experiment):

The simplest answer is to let homework be collaborative, but give individual exams. But I like to give students individual feedback when they're learning, before they're tested. That goes for the social aspects of group work, as well as the understanding of the material - I want to encourage the students to work well together while they're working on an assignment. So I've got a lot of different ways to try to judge mastery and encourage students to work together well while they're collaborating.

Decrepit Old Fool (click to read the whole thing):

Facebook is a social networking website with both synchronous and asynchronous features. Like it or not, online social networking is here so it makes sense to adapt to that reality. It doesn't do any good to pine away for the days when students could only form study groups that met synchronously in libraries and coffee houses.

In his post Coturnix and commenters examine what Facebook means for the concept of "cheating", for grades, for the interface between academia and employers, and for the concept of enterprise collaboration. The thing that makes a roller-coaster ride so much fun - or so terrifying - is the pace of change. But the information technology roller-coaster isn't on rails; nobody's exactly sure where it will go next. Which suggests we need to keep our eyes open lest we wake up in an unfamiliar reality with no idea how we got there.

Yes, it's a fun ride, and analyzing the way technology will change education is an important thing to do.

The Science Goddess (click to read the whole thing):

Over time, I've discovered that one of the major reasons is that kids' operational definition for "cheating" differs from mine.

Yes, and we need to evaluate both their definition and our definition, and the way they change with technology and the way they should change if we want to make this a Better World.

Propter Doc (click to read the whole thing):

Finally, we're all going to have to figure out how to combat plagiarism and collaboration. We give students mixed messages. On one hand we're encouraging them to work together with peer assisted learning, many group projects and creating forums for them to interact. On the other hand plagiarism and collaboration issues have never been more problematic. How do we tell students that it is OK to work together on somethings but not on others?

Is it possible to make assignments that are not plagiarasible? Something that requires creative thinking, not just regurgitation?

Omega Mom (click to read the whole thing):

Different students respond in different ways to different approaches. Some students do not like to work in groups at all. Some students like to work in groups for some classes, but not others. Some students work in groups all the time. Some students work in groups to get off easily-but how does that help them when it's time to take a test? Some students who work in groups learn that they do all the work and others take the credit. Some students learn better through reading, some through working through problems on their own, some through discussing, some through teaching others.


I don't know. I think requiring college/university students to work alone on homework assignments is not the best approach; I think that by that age the student knows whether s/he wants to collaborate or work alone. I also feel that the students who are actually getting specific answers from others without doing any of the work are cheating mostly themselves. They're the ones who will end up doing poorly on quizzes and tests. They're the ones who won't be able to do the basic work when they get into a more advanced course. They're the ones who will constantly be scrambling to keep up or cover up as they move into the workforce.

This brings the differing learning styles into the discussion - is it in societal interest to force everyone into a group-learning situation? Perhaps some of the time at least?

Brandon (click to read the whole thing and especially the discussion in the comments):

There are, of course, many ways to do something like this, and how one goes about it will vary a bit from discipline to discipline. But it's not a minor issue. As Randall Collins has noted in a few works, every system of credentials goes through boom and bust cycles; the pressure is always toward credential inflation, which reduces the value of the credentials. Institutions that keep to the same evaluative approaches, and that do only the same things as everyone else, suffer or fail, while those institutions weather the collapse best that have been innovative rather than stagnant in their approach.

Yes, so let's continue the discussion....


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Oh, and all this comes from a person who himself likes to do everything alone (though I am a good team player when needed).

2) This is important point, but I will turn it upside down now. Students WILL pick out classes based on who else is signing up for them. And this is good. Because it is the good students who will want to take classes with the other good students. What happens to the free-loaders? They get kicked out of one class after another after another (because in the system, the group is allowed to eliminate freeloaders, i.e., have them officially unregistered from the class). The freeloaders either learn to cooperate, or end up in class sections full of freeloaders where they all get an F or shape up and do the work. Or, they run out of classes and never graduate.

As a practical question, how are the good students supposed to know who the other good students are? In small programs and / or small schools, or in honours programs where everyone moves together this might be feasible, but I did my entire undergraduate degree in classes where I rarely met a person whom I'd shared a class with previously. Or, I just never knew that I had shared a class with them, since the classes were too large and numerous even at the upper levels. You can't even depend on their personal academic histories then (ignoring the *rampant* abuses of privacy this would entail) since knowing an individual's entire transcript at that point would only reflect the class grade! I was a straight 4.0 student throughout my undergraduate, but if I was in classes that couldn't get it together, would no-one want to work with me because my grades would now be C's and D's?

In fact, that raises similar problems in other areas. For example, scholarships are currently based - at least in part - on academic scores. How are these decisions to be made under your system which wipes out individual variation in grades? And how do you respond to the person who comes to you and says that you need to give the class an 'A' or else they'll lose their scholarship? Even if that student actually is stellar, the rest of the class can end up ruining that student's financial position.

I'm also concerned that "cooperation" could turn out to be a distressing stand-in for "socially adept". Should someone who has a lack of social skills be denied an education (i.e. getting kicked out of classes as you suggest)? The professor would likely then be forced to step in to adjust things, which leads to potential charges of favoritism and the like. Speaking as someone who never made the rolls of the popular kids at any point in my education, I greatly fear this outcome. How would you handle that?

I want to echo comment #2: the ability for students to exile others is deeply problematic from my perspective because it assumes that students aren't racist, class-ist, sexist, or homophobic. It assumes that students have the patience and maturity to deal with students who are intelligent but perhaps have a learning disability, or have ESL problems. It means that they are already capable of giving up the momentary pleasure of working only with people they like for the longer term benefit of learning from one another. That's something that most high school and college students aren't ready for.

I think the source of confusion for a lot of students (and teachers) is "cooperative learning" vs. "group assessment." The first is well supported in the research literature; but, it is only one tool for the classroom. Grades are not meant for learning in progress...nor should they be used for groups. They are representations of an individual's learning.

I think the mode of cooperative learning will move more and more into a digital format---but one student should never be held responsible for the learning of another with a grade.

Hmmm. The thought experiment really relies on the assumption that the students will be fair and reasonable when the decide to remove someone from the class. I wonder whether they would - or whether popularity (like in comment #2) or other factors (like in comment #3) would play a role. (And even if factors such as popularity, race, gender, etc weren't the main thing that controlled who was allowed to stay in the class, how could you make sure that they weren't factors? Are there any groups of adults who make those decisions entirely fairly? Perhaps it's no worse than a professor making the decisions - professors can be biased as well - but I still worry that the group process could be skewed by various kinds of politics.)

I also suspect that parents would be very, very upset to learn that their child had been dropped from a course by peers.

(I do have group projects in which students occasionally come to me to complain that a member didn't do any work. I give the non-participating student the option to do the work independently, but don't give him/her the group grade. That seems like the fair way to do it - and sometimes the lone student comes through and does a good job.)

I'm going to echo the concerns of other commenters about the ability for a "mob" of students to unfairly others. While theoretically undergraduates are adults, anyone who's lived in a dormitory knows that they can still be childish, petty, and form cliques which are cruel to others for any number of reasons. Quiet, shy, or otherwise socially awkward? Have a bad break-up with a popular member of the group? Any kind of bad social encounter could endanger not only your personal relationships, but your education as well.

While there are some really good ideas in your post, I don't think a 100% group-graded system would work unless you also had a way to improve the maturity and tolerance of the under-22 age bracket as a whole. And speaking as a recent grad, I think that would be even more impressive than fixing the education system. :)

1) Yes, lots of people use "hippy" as an insult. They are usually pretty conservative, I'll give you that.

2) About the "if grades are given collectively, then employers will not be able to identify individual skills". I have an degree from a "class A" French engineering school, and from what my former classmates tell me, no employer ever asked them for details about their grades. (Getting an official transcript for entering grad school was somewhat tricky for me, actually.) Knowing what school they graduated from (and with which specialization) is enough for the employer - regarding specific skills, they can be tested throughout the interview. I actually had not realized before reading this thread than employers would want to look at grades in details... (welcome to the reality, Self!)

3) About "good students only share work with good students". I don't think that's true. Good (or average, for that matter) students will share with their pals, with the big impressive black guy, with the pretty girl they fancy... that, and also what the previous comments say about students being prone to, on the contrary, exclude other students based on subjective and non-academic criteria.

When I took calculus a couple of years ago the prof gave us group quizzes, I think they counted for 20% of the final grade. It was a great learning experience because he was able to give us questions on the quizzes that would have taken even the best of students several hours to solve. We had to decipher the problem and split the work up. I learned more doing the quizzes then any other part of the class. We all got the same grade on the quizzes (usually 100%). We also needed the practice on hard problems because he used difficult problems on the exams (but not as difficult as the quizzes).

To clarify: emphasis on individual teaching, learning and grading splits the individual from the community and then completely ignores the community. Emphasis on group teaching, learning and grading combines the individual and the community: the individuals learn better and the groups/communities become more efficient and successful as a result.

Ah, linear 20th century thinking again! Individual teaching, learning and grading splits the individual from the community and then completely ignores the community. By definition. No need to worry about complexities here. No thoughts that occasionally individual teaching, learning and grading might be used to function better in the community - say as when a football player uses their individually-taught and -learnt skills to pass a ball to their team member.

However, it is possible to think things like that even completely ignoring the community in a teaching ,learning and grading situation strengthens the community overall. For example, as a kid I was identified as having a speech disability and was dispatched off, as an individual, to a speech therapist, who taught me individually. The improvement in the clarity of my speech made it easier for me to integrate with the community - I now deal with a variety of people who are not familiar with my accent so the clearer I speak the better I work with them. The individual teaching meant that the therapist could identify exactly where I was having problems, figure out exactly the skills I needed, break down those skills into small bit and put them into words I could understand, and then make me, as an individual, practice them. My peers did not have those skills.

When group teaching, or grading, or testing, it is very easy to miss the one individual who is struggling, or the one individual who has no idea that they are struggling in the first place.

Also, in a group situation, it is quite possible for an individual to manage to avoid learning. There are cases of illiterate adults who managed to hold down jobs that were thought to require reading, without any of their co-workers being aware of their illiteracy. In those cases, the illiterate adults generally displayed a lot of imagination in avoiding situations that required them to read and in delegating work that required reading. In a battle of wits between the individual and a group, it is entirely possible that the individual can win without the group even noticing that there's a battle.

Splitting an individual from the community allows the teacher and the individual to concentrate on precisely what the problem is. Completely ignoring the community may be necessary for the skill to be practiced and made fluent first. Then it can be integrated back into the community. The more distractions there are when learning a new skill, such as being in the middle of a community, the less attention the student has to focus on the new skill. And skills can be taught individually which are designed to improve the efficiency of the individual as part of a community, such as teaching a person how to cooperate in groups.

You say:

They got their degrees. This means that they a) finished all their classes, thus were not kicked out of them by peers due to freeloading, they b) learned cooperatively so they will likely be good team-players for this project, they c) took all the relevant classes for their degrees, thus they must possess the core knowledge and core skills of that degree or they would be useless in cooperative learning and the peers would not let them graduate, and d) due to their cooperative learning their good grades are not due to their ability to memorize and regurgitate facts, but due to ability to find, share, creatively use and impart knowledge. So, just as with individual grading systems, I can trust the degrees at their face values (or even more than now, when a good selfish memorizer-of-facts may look the best on paper).

now lets see:
a) not necessarily. They got their degree, which could also mean they had *something* their group valued, which may have nothing to do with learning :) they may have provided friendship, food, transportation, sex or any other things to the group or to some of its members, so although the group considered them to be valuable; they may not have learned a thing.

b) again, not necessarily. They may have been a-holes who threatened to kill their groupmates unless they accepted them :)

c) again not necessarily, they could have gotten away in many different ways; in particular, without going to the extremes in a) or b), you may have people who are good at one thing but not at others; for example, If I'm good at math, I could trade with my group members; I do all the math homework, do nothing in history or English; so I still get the degree, but do NOT have *all* the core knowledge

d) that has nothing to do with group grades or cooperative learning :) the assessments may still involve regurgitation. Their grade may be just on the ability to find 'smart' friends :)

I think group assignments help in learning, and can increase motivation; as assessments, though, they suck :), because you are assessing a proxy now.

If you put me in a group with Bill Gates and Pamela Anderson, we are rich and sexy :)