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Sunday, February 14, 2010

My worst fear

As a student, I was not a big fan of collaborative or group work when I was in college. I rarely saw the benefit and usually ended up feeling like I had to do a lot more work, since I would want to make sure that what my group did was as good as if I had just done it myself. Free-riders were annoying (since I was usually the only trying to keep my group organized and on-track) but just as bad, if not worse, were people who simply didn't do very good work. Then I'd have to figure out a way to make whatever we turned in better but without hurting their feelings (I was, um, not very diplomatic when I was younger).

As a teacher, I still don't love group work and I only use it when I think there are large benefits that cannot be achieved any other way. For example, I have several assignments in my writing class where students work in pairs or teams of four, but I believe that this is necessary because they need to see that in the 'real world', writing is not usually the solitary endeavor that they experience in most classes. But although I see the benefit, I still have a lot of empathy for the stronger students. So when I do require group work, I think long and hard about how to structure assessment in a way that I think will be fair to the stronger students while providing the right incentives to everyone. One of my biggest fears is that some student will turn in a first draft that is so appallingly bad that their partner has to basically re-write the whole thing from scratch. In my view, this is worse than if a student just doesn't turn in anything at all; at least in that case, I feel perfectly justified just re-assigning the partner. But if a first draft is truly terrible, I feel bad for the partner but have no idea what to do about it.

I have not had to actually deal with this situation, until this week. The assignment for my writing students this week was quite challenging - I asked them to write the text of a two-minute oral presentation, proposing a topic to be the subject of a longer policy brief. I didn't actually realize how challenging this would be when I created it. I was focused on the part where they would have to find some data and write about it but by structuring the prompt as proposing a topic for a longer policy brief, I opened the door to a lot of confusion about how to talk about policy, explaining why a topic is interesting and relevant, without advocating for a particular policy and getting all normative. I'll discuss that more in a future post but my point here is that although I realized it would be challenging, I think a lot of my students did an admirable job. There was, however, one paper that was just all wrong. The student not only seemed to completely misunderstand the assignment but the writing itself was really, really bad. Even after submitting a second draft, the paper is still really not good. At this point, the co-author is supposed to take over and revise the paper, and will be presenting it in class. The co-author is quite a good writer so I'm not actually worried about the final product but it seems unfair that the good student is put in a position of having to do so much more work.

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