There Is No ‘I’ in Team (But There Should Be)

Why college students are reluctant to work in teams

Student Commentary

By Matilde Pozzato / Matthew staff || Edited by Ilenia Reale

Photo by Pixabay

I enrolled in JCU in the Fall of 2020, and this semester, two years later, everything feels different. Well, I guess now everything is considered normal again, but for me, JCU had always been about wearing masks, having limited class capacity, booking seats at the library, and professors adapting their syllabus and turning group projects into individual work. During my first week at JCU I did not know a single soul in any of my classes and every time a professor introduced the syllabus and said, “This is usually a group project but because of COVID-19 it will be an individual assignment,” I would sigh in relief. It might sound weird but among all the differences between when I enrolled and now, the most destabilizing one for me is that now we are back working in teams in many classes. This semester, three out of five of my classes require a group project.  

Every time a group project is announced, I feel the weariness coming onto me, and I always think I am the only one that feels this way. But one thing I know for sure is that it is never “just me” feeling or doing something. I wanted to know if other JCU students shared my burdens, so I informally asked 15 of my fellow students what they thought of group projects to get a general impression of the situation. It is definitely not “just me”, given that 11 of them said they hate them. While there is a general appreciation of group projects when you can choose your team, only one person said they prefer working in a team they picked compared to working alone. My rough investigation suggests that eight out of 10 people prefer working alone rather than in a group.  

Despite the above I’ve shared, group projects have their perks: they teach students how to communicate with others, they might lead to everlasting friendships, they might even create a bridge with very knowledgeable students in the subject, and lead to better grades.  I myself was very lucky this semester with my group projects.  

Even though there are some benefits, the majority of college students simply do not like working in groups, and here are six reasons why. 

  1. College students’ schedules are a Rubik’s Cube, and it is challenging to find a time to meet with the whole group. After jumping through hoops to set up a meeting, someone might not even show up. Not a great start. 
  1. Every group needs a leader or at least someone who takes the initiative to communicate with all the members and check in with them to make sure they are all on track. While this might give one control, it is one more thing to worry about while your teammates might not cooperate with you. 
  1. One word: procrastinators. I guess this is one of the hardest things to deal with when working in a group. If one works alone, they have all the right to wait until two hours before the deadline if one needs last-minute panic to get creative. I get it. I have my own working preferences. For example, I like to work early in the morning but I would never dream of meeting with my group at 7 a.m. Group members should try to meet each other halfway, but this is hard because people are often reluctant to compromise. 
  1. Some people are difficult to reach, which is ironic considering modern-day technology. One might send emails, text messages, and Teams invites, and still be left wondering whether they have the wrong contact information or whether the other person is on a beach with their phone on airplane mode. 
  1. Countless people hate group projects because they have hope in their team members until the very last minute and then they find themselves the night before the deadline doing other people’s parts. 
  1. There are some people who are responsible, show up to every meeting, and do their tasks on time but are too shy — or lazy — to contribute to the discussion. It is not easy to work with people that never share their opinion and are unable to make decisions. 

However, all this doesn’t add up considering that humans are supposed to be social animals. After all, we got where we are because evolution is essentially a big, everlasting group project. Science has proven that humans need to belong to groups, but people often prefer working alone and, when they are forced to work in groups, personal interests prevail over team spirit, completely missing the point of a group project. For a group to work effectively, the members should be carefully selected based on the goal of the project, the personalities, and the skills of the people selected. Despite this,  college groups are usually randomly put together by the instructor at the beginning of the semester, and one ends up with 30 percent of their grade depending on a stranger. One might get paired up with someone they work great with and find a friend for life, but there is always the chance that they get paired up with someone that does the bare minimum, submits three minutes before the deadline, and only cares about passing because they see the class as a mere requirement to fulfill. 

Often instructors justify their group projects with the fact that these teach us how to work with other people, something that we will all have to do in the course of our careers. But I don’t think that is true: one thing is knowing how to interact with other people (and I think almost everyone has that one down), and another thing is working as a group. There are some people that are born leaders and know how to spot everyone’s strong features and motivate the team to do their best, people that are very open and enjoy confronting their ideas with others and having the support of a group, and these people will go on in careers that require group effort. But there are also people that are lone wolves, that find it extremely exhausting to interact with lots of people at the same time and that prefer to manage their work by themselves, and these people will go on with more individual careers. 

You might think that I am being dramatic. I know I am, and it is about to get darker. I think the idea of having to do a group project sometimes causes us more trouble than doing the project itself. And the reason for that is that, at least in my experience and according to what I see my friends doing, group projects in college are not group projects but individual projects that get assembled. You can get your teammate’s e-mail from Moodle, you maybe exchange phone numbers to text each other and split up the parts, you create a shared presentation document where you do your own thing, and only meet the other person on presentation day. While I think the purpose of group projects is ultimately defeated this way, I also don’t see another way to do them as long as we perceive them as a burden, something to just get over with. Good or bad, the day is always too short, and the to-do list is always endless. It’s already hard to make time to hang out with the people we want to see, so I imagine you see how much harder it is to make time to meet with a stranger to do something it would take you half the time to do by yourself.