There’s No Way You Don’t Already Know That Students Hate Groupwork But Just in Case, Here’s Why.

zoha batool khan
11 min readNov 27, 2020

We studied Daniz Kandiyoti’s conceptualization of ‘classic patriarchy’ back in Fall 2019 and I have kept coming back to it since. Her analysis was a succinct description of everything I had observed already so it made perfect sense on the very first read. For that text, Kandiyoti analyzed patriarchy in South Asia. Her understanding of the family was Marxist, so it saw the unit as a site of conflict between the powerful (the patriarch) who extracted labor from the powerless (the women). Of course, there were ways to ascend the hierarchy. You could start out an oppressed wife and work your way up the ladder by having sons who will bring in wives that you can exploit.

I keep coming back to this reading because it’s relieving to have someone with credentials tell me I’m not imagining things.

With the lockdown, education went online. Professors who were already too fond of group-work saw that it was their time to shine. Thanks to the Zoom breakout room feature (which allowed students to be split into separate private rooms within a meeting), group class discussion became a graded feature in most of the courses offered. Many courses started having daily group discussions which often made up half the class itself.

I have an important clarification to add here: I am not entirely blaming professors for having to resort to this. It is unrealistic to expect them to speak themselves hoarse to a largely unresponsive class two hours a day. For teachers with multiple classes, this becomes impossible to do on a daily basis. It is natural to expect that students will feel more comfortable interacting with other students. It is natural to resort to Zoom breakout rooms to have any activity.

However, because they implemented this measure, they should be ready and willing to hear any complaints from students when they enforce it. The professors should anticipate potential conflicts and have ready solutions. What happens if a student is a freeloader? What happens when someone tries to play leader? What happens when one student is working ten times harder because they need the grade and everyone else is coasting on their work?

Calling Thing Good Doesn’t Make Thing Good (Surprise)

In my three and a half years, I’ve only been part of one group that didn’t make me want to stab a bitch. The group was from SDSB (finding camaraderie in the business school, of all places), which meant it was outside my school (humanities). My problem starts here. It starts with professors insisting that group-work is inherently a benign thing, that it teaches us collaboration and compromise simply by virtue of being group-work. To that, I say: bullshit. Students don’t magically shed their socioeconomic identities when they enter a classroom. Their personalities are not erased; the habits formed from a lifetime of privilege are not undone for the greater good.

Unsurprisingly, a Zoom breakout room often replicates pre-existing social dynamics, apart from making miscommunication much worse because everything keeps getting cut off. Men who don’t take their education seriously know that there will be one desperate woman in the group they will compel to pick up their slack the way they have compelled every woman in their life. The woman — who is probably trying to ‘earn’ education by overachieving to show her parents that she’s smart enough to be allowed to study and to be given the same opportunities as her brothers — will suffer in silence, as she is taught to.

A financially constrained student who is either on aid/scholarship or is seeking one in the future will carry the rich kids on their back to the finish line, because they depend on the grade to get the seat the rich kids can just throw money at. The disabled and neurodivergent students will burn themselves out, trying to manage their symptoms, because the able-bodied and neurotypical kids (and professor) don’t understand or they don’t care, because no corporation or postgrad university cut them some slack for having lower grades on account of their conditions.

What a stroke of luck to fall in all 3 mentioned categories of the overworked student. Maybe that will explain the rage that underscores this piece.

There are hundreds of these dynamics at play. I am obviously not denying that there aren’t students in class who need help and would benefit from group activities. Many socio-economically powerless kids could find someone understanding and kind enough to assist them. But the professors already tokenize them enough to prove their point about group work being the best thing since sliced bread for me to not need to explain that point in detail.

This is for people who lose out in this setup and are not attended to, who are often accused of being selfish for complaining about a group that is exploiting them. There is a unique fury you become familiar with only when you’re in a university that prides itself on treating its students like adults when it’s time to punish them for drug usage or substance abuse because they’re ‘old enough to know better’, but is quick to turn on them when they have complaints, overruling their real problems by telling them they know better.

The Blame Game

One of the most patronizing responses from professors is to hear that ‘this is real life’. You mean the world will exploit my labor without due compensation and tell me to stop complaining about it? Gee, you don’t say. Many of us come from conflict-ridden homes where we have to work overtime to manage the fallout we weren’t even responsible for. We have lived real life plenty. To hear social sciences and humanities professors respond with this, that we should become numb to the inevitability of our suffering at the earliest opportunity, is hilarious. Instead of teaching their students solutions that they can take with them into the workplace if they are faced with unfair labor practices, these professors do the work for the capitalist and train the future workers to be compliant, to expect theft and dismissiveness.

Many of these professors — if not all — are also the type of people to split the class up and then detach themselves from the groups (re: the whole ‘you’re an adult’ thing). Others try to justify this by telling students they chose their group so they should deal with it ‘like adults’. Never mind that a sizable bunch of students just sign up for a random group. If you bring this up, you are then criticized for ‘failing’ to make friends in so long (very curious about what professors think happens when they teach 4-month classes where they barely learn half the students’ names themselves).

Either way, this means they have little to no knowledge of the inner workings of any group, so when the time comes to arbitrate a conflict that’s erupted, they have no clue what to do. They don’t even attempt to be fair. They just opt for the easiest fastest solution that will gloss over the very real resentment, uncaring of a student losing faith in them because they can console themselves by saying they tried their best.

At this point in the semester, I am dictating points to a group member to speak on the group’s behalf because I can’t go represent the group too often. I have stopped complaining to teachers because I know what I look like: the grade-obsessed uncooperative bitch who’s too intellectually arrogant to suffer anyone else’s stupidity. Fair enough. I’m all of those things. I see no reason why I should work my ass off in getting both an A and in teaching my wealthy peers for free, when I need to be earning to cover my own expenses and need to reserve my strength for another rich kid’s stupidity who’s at least reimbursing me.

I understand that teachers can’t explain everything in one-on-one interactions with students because they have 4 months to drag everyone through the curriculum. I get it; we’re all trapped in a broken system that fails everyone sooner or later.

But of course, I have questions. If my teachers are really that invested in cooperation, why don’t they reward efforts to help with extra credit? Why not adopt an absolute grading scheme so students aren’t competing with each other and see one person’s comprehension as a threat to their own progress? Why not tack on extra 5% to someone’s grade for explaining concepts to a peer? I understand even the destructive need to grade group assignments.

Professors think it will compel students to work. This is based on the false premise that students care enough about their grade to magically start caring about learning. After seeing this come from instructors with years of teaching under their belt, I can only ascribe that belief to a delusion. I have no idea how a teacher’s years of experience haven’t torn that delusion apart yet; I can only surmise that it’s wilful stupidity.

Students who genuinely care about learning will be free to learn because they won’t be pressured to score. Students who slack off will slack off either way. They can slack off in ungraded assignments and not drag anyone down with them or they can slack off and force other kids to scramble to cover up for them. Even students who may usually slack off might perk up at a fun ungraded discussion. These dismissed ‘slackers’ often only seem careless because they are actually terrified of failure. They prefer to not try than to fail, a phenomenon widely documented in educational psychology.

Ungraded assignments allow both paranoid overachievers and immobilized slackers to meet someplace where neither is driven by their fear, so they can actually learn instead of being reactive or shutting down.

Despite popular belief, most students don’t enjoy reporting their peers, so the solution to just report the freeloaders is an empty gesture. It’s especially the powerless kids who are sympathetic to the people behind their exploitation. They cover up for other kids because they understand what it’s like to be overburdened. Many have lifetime habits of compensating for others which they will not unlearn in one class just to lodge a complaint. Take it from the resident bitch: nobody enjoys being the bitch. Even at their most frustrated, most students do not want to assume malintent from their peers.

It’s All About the Psychosocial, Baby

Just as students can’t shrug off their socioeconomic identities so they are easier to teach, they can’t dump their traumas at the door either. Of course, this sounds like a stretch — until it’s your trauma being triggered. Then it makes perfect sense.

Many students have their own baggage with conflict, often because of abusive families. Their history means they are very familiar with suffering silently and cleaning up the mess neglectful or destructive parents leave behind because they know there’s no authority figure who could actually help. Group work often replicates those dynamics, where you’re lumped in with people that you don’t have any connection with outside of this space. You have to keep putting up with their bullshit until you can be free of the course, trying to contain the damage they’re inflicting on your future. It feels like your hard work doesn’t matter, because you can’t outwork ruin of this capacity, especially when all of you are graded collectively. Your needs and your circumstances don’t matter. Even if you try reporting them, the authority figures say they’re helpless.

This is infuriating enough on its own but when it triggers decades of family trauma, it becomes too much for any student to bear, especially for 2–3 months in one go. Many students simply shelve and forget because there’s no time in a semester to reflect on the injury you’ve sustained. It’s only a reminder of your powerlessness, of the instructors who say they care but dismiss your concerns when you work up the nerve to voice them. It’s better to hold onto the illusion that they care, than to find out you put your faith in someone who disparages you. Your list of untrustworthy instructors is already too long to make you feel safe in your institution.

People are not stupid when they keep trudging. They are tired. They are exhausted from trying. By third year, you just learn to keep your head down, assuring yourself that graduation is just on the horizon and you’ll be out of here soon enough.

Just Do the Bare Minimum

Instructors, please don’t start something you can’t preside over. Please don’t do this just because you don’t want to check 40-something final papers. Don’t make group work such a massive part of the grade; that only upsets the trapped students even more. They can at least hope to recover from a 10% component. The administration has failed you, so don’t take it out on the students. Don’t deflect responsibility by feeding them false promises about how it’s just one grade and it doesn’t matter and we’ll forget it in postgrad anyway.

We may forget the grade but the feeling of betrayal and helplessness stays with us. It makes students afraid of collaboration. They become so accustomed to compromising and to lack of oversight that they start staying away from group projects in general.

Just because you had to deal with it growing up doesn’t mean we should too. Stop passing this shit on. Practice the pedagogy you love bringing up in class so much. You learn how to teach from us, just as we learn how to learn from you. It’s our responses that are half of this exchange (and yes, I called it an exchange for a reason). If you’re irritated by the tone of this piece, that’s part of the problem. Your students get to be upset from years of not being heard and you don’t get to dismiss concerns just because you think they sound too aggressive.

Education is not a dictatorship where you lay down the terms and we accept them because there’s no other option. It’s a process and we’re equal contributors.

P.S. the abundance of memes I found on this alone should tell you just how many people hate groupwork. Listen to your students. Listen to the studies conducted on students complaining about groupwork. Stop acting like you don’t know exactly what you’re putting your students through.