Are Collaborative Educational Experiences Valuable? To Whom?
Today's college students are more likely than ever to have future employment in mind when they choose their college, their courses, and their majors. (1) Undergraduate students are also increasingly likely to seek out applied learning experiences, such as internships in an effort to make themselves more attractive to future employers. In 2014, 60 percent of graduating seniors reported having participated in an internship program while in college, up from 53 percent of graduating seniors in 2007. (2)
National surveys of employers confirm that they are more likely to hire recent college graduates who have completed an applied learning experience such as an internship. (3) However today's undergraduates may not know that collaborative research projects done with peers are another form of applied learning that employers regard very favorably. Four in five employers say they are more likely to consider hiring a recent college graduate who has collaborated with their peers on a research project. About four in five employers look for evidence of ability to work effectively in a team when reviewing resumes of job applicants. (4)
Collaborative pedagogies such as group projects have become quite common, even ubiquitous, at the college level. In 2014, more than 95 percent of graduating seniors reported having worked on a group project with classmates either occasionally or frequently during college. (5) A substantial body of research, across many different disciplines, suggests that collaborative pedagogies not only have positive effects on students' "soft skills," such as the ability to work well in teams, but also have positive effects on students' mastery of course content. (6)
My own research on collaborative pedagogy confirms that student learning is enhanced by group projects. (7) This research includes data from more than a decade of using group projects to teach one of my courses, sociological research methods. For the first nine weeks in that course, students learn about research design, measurement, sampling, the ethical issues involved in doing research on human subjects, and so on. Students are tested on this material on midterm exams. For the last four to five weeks of the course, they are assigned to small groups. Each group designs a research project, collects and analyzes the data, presents their findings to the class, and receives a group grade for their project. Instead of taking a final exam in the course, each student writes a final paper describing and critiquing their group's project, and proposing a follow-up research project. Students work on these final papers as individuals, not in groups, so that I can make a summative assessment of their individual learning in the course.
One of the key findings of my research so far is that both high-and low-achieving students benefit from having been involved in a high-quality group project. When students were involved in a high-quality project, their performance on the final paper was better than one would expect given their individual characteristics and prior performance on the midterm exams. High-achieving students learned more from having been involved in a high-quality group project than the lowest-achieving students. (8) For example, if a student's average grade on the midterm exams is a B or higher, and if their group project earned an A, their grade on the final paper was typically half a letter grade higher than students with the same average grade on the midterm exams but whose group project earned a B instead of an A. In contrast, students with an average grade on the midterm exams of a C- or lower get a smaller bump on their final paper grade--just a third of a letter grade--from having been involved in a group project that earned an A.
IF student's average AND IF group THEN student's grade grade on midterms: project earns: on final paper is B or higher an A is half a letter grade higher than if the group project had earned a B is C- or lower an A is a third of a letter grade higher than if the group project had earned a B Students Tend to Have Positive Experiences with Collaborative Pedagogies, But...
If, as my research suggests, students' learning is enhanced by participating in group projects and high-achieving students tend to benefit the most, one might...