Wednesday, December 19, 2007

There is an "I" in "Write"

When I was a sophomore attending a university widely considered to be among the best in the country, I took a biology course that had a unit on bioethics. As part of this unit, we were assigned a group research project, including an oral presentation and an accompanying policy paper. I had the misfortune to be assigned both a topic in which I had little interest (the declining water levels of Ogallala Aquifer) and to a group that included a varsity football player. Now, he was a talented running back and also personally a likable guy, but he was let's just say out of his league academically. He was as much an deadweight to our group as my DH (who played a couple years' worth of football at his prep school) would've been on the university's Division I team. Effort and attitude are certainly important, but they're not enough- there also has to be ability. Had my teammate been assigned an individual paper, he probably would've had difficulty pulling off a C. Yet he was able to free-ride on the rest of us and wound up with a B+. By contrast, I had an A in the class up to that point. The lower group grade meant that I had to work even harder to make up the lost points on the final exam. How fair is that?

I was reminded of this incident when reading "Writing is Not a Team Sport, Learning is Not Team-Dependent" by Linda Schrock Taylor. She criticizes the "cooperative learning" fad thus (emphasis in the original):

The language, Edu-Speak, now includes terms like: peer groups, peer editing, peer review, peer led, peer directed…but fails, of course, to include, peer disgust, peer disinterest, peer miseducation, peer failure, peer laziness, motivated peer doing all the work while all other group members benefit from a higher (group) grade than deadweight peers could have ever earned working individually,... But such is fad-driven educational policy.

Amen to that, sister!

I find the idea of peer reviews especially off-putting in the area of composition and writing....Picture assigning a group of four students, all with comparable (lack of) skills, editing each others’ papers! Shudder as the group adds bad corrections and simplistic, if not downright inappropriate, suggestions and rewrites to an already deficient paper!!

I can remember arguing with
the other members of my group about why they couldn't include the phrase "uniformly two tier rate structure" in our presentation and paper. I just couldn't get through to them that something cannot be both "uniform" and "two tier". I even pulled out a dictionary to show them the definition of "uniform". Even then they insisted that I was wrong and that having two flat rates is "uniformly two tier". Oy! I flat-out refused to give in and they finally did cut the word "uniformly" but we had wasted a ridiculous amount of time on it.

Yes, in the workplace colleagues do often have to work together on group projects. But salaries, raises, and promotions are not handed out collectively!

By all means, students should sometimes be required to participate in group projects. However, grading should be done on an individual basis for fairness. Those team members who contribute the most should be rewarded and "free riders" should be punished.

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