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Do Teachers Hate Group Projects as Much as Parents?

Photograph by Twenty20

Like most school-aged kids and virtually all parents, I hate group projects. In fact, the only thing I like about group projects is that it brought the following story into my life, which I tell whenever I'm trying to express just how much I hate group projects (which is a lot. Can you tell?)

My daughter was working on a project with her classmate Amanda, and on the day before it was due they planned to get together to finish up. Except a few hours before she was supposed to come over, Amanda called to say she wouldn't be coming at all—she was going to a party instead.

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I called Amanda's mom. I figured she'd probably scold Amanda for even thinking she was going to party when she had a project to finish. But instead I heard, "Well, she really wants to go to the party. So what am I supposed do?"

I gave her a piece of my mind, but I don't think she was even listening. I could hear Amanda screaming in the background that her party dress hadn't been dry-cleaned.

That night at around 11 p.m., after my daughter had spent the entire day cutting and gluing and writing, there was a knock on the door. No, it wasn't Amanda finally coming to her senses—it was her mother, coming over to work on the project.

A few diligent students are burdened with all the work while the others shrug off the responsibility but still get to share in the credit.

I didn't want to let her in but I did, and for the next 90, awkward, agonizing minutes the three of us sat on the floor of my daughter's bedroom finishing up that project. I don't think we ever spoke to either of them again.

Most group projects aren't this dramatic (or weird, or involve the mothers of your kid's classmate coming over in the middle of the night) but one thing is constant: A few diligent students are burdened with all the work while the others shrug off the responsibility but still get to share in the credit.

So why do teachers assign the damn things in the first place? I asked a few of them why they like to torture us so, and how fair it is to the kids.

As we suspected, group projects are intended to teach kids to work together. "Group projects are mostly for students to learn collaboration/communication skills," says Ms. E, who teaches second grade. "They learn to delegate work, share ideas, motivate one another and accept other ideas openly, so that the project will be completed on time. You know, since the real world has deadlines, too."

Eighth-grade teacher Ms. W adds that the new Common Core standards stress collaboration as a real world skill. "If you think about it, usually in a work situation, one generally works with others at some point," she says. "The thinking is, how will students ever learn to work together unless someone teaches them how?"

And while she does look at these projects as team building efforts, third-grade teacher Ms. H. admits it has its drawbacks. "You're right, it always seems like one or two of the kids end up doing all the work."

Talking to kids and parents, one of the biggest concerns is fairness in grading—do teachers know if kids are not doing their share? The answer is yes, and there seems to be a new system in place where kids are tasked with grading and evaluating each other.

"I have a rubric where each student grades each other student on his/her job in the project," says Ms. W. "The student must give clear evidence as to why each of the other students receives their grade."

"The students are generally ruthlessly honest!" she adds. "I look through the grades for each student and usually they match up very well."

Ms. E has a similar system. "Teachers give students an evaluation to find out what their contribution was. I use these questions to gauge who did most of the work, and each student gets their own grade." (She says even her own daughter hates group projects.)

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If anything, take heart knowing that teachers feel our pain, having gone through the same thing themselves. "I was always the student that got stuck doing all the work because I wanted an A+," shares Ms. W. "So I'm aware of what a nightmare group projects can be if not organized properly."

It looks like group projects are here to stay, but the next time you're up with your kid way past midnight cursing the other group members for not coming through, you can take some comfort in knowing that their grades won't suffer and they'll someday have vastly superior collaboration skills. And they won't need their mothers to do their projects for them.

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