In the run up to exams myself and my friends in college were all stressed over study and getting assignments completed. In the middle of this I noticed that some essays were individual and some were group essays. Seeing as I’ve been doing a lot of economic thinking, particularly about the difference between collective and individual, I thought I might try and see what economic lessons could be drawn from this.
Traditionally economics would argue that everyone looks out for their own individual gain and in a collective enterprise people lack an incentive to work hard and face free rider problems. In fact economics doesn’t do any group work at all in any module, so all my experiences come from my politics lectures. Everyone has at least one story of terrible people they had to work with, ranging from the lazy, the power hungry, those you never hear from and the plain stupid. I don’t know why but international students tend to be particularly bad, combining poor language skills with general ignorance and failure to even show up (I know one South Korean genius who’s the exception to this rule, but he’s the only one). A friend told a particularly bad story involving a French student who did no work until the day before the essay was due when he sent them his contribution . . . in French. All the while he was pestered by a obsessive control freak who constantly sent demanding e-mails, each one more threatening than the last.
I have two experiences of group work and I think there’s an insight in the contrast with them. The first was in my first year when I was assigned to work with about 6 strangers on a project. We exchanged e-mails and arranged to meet and discuss it. However, on the day only one other person showed up. One other person gave an excuse but none of the others even confirmed they had got the e-mail. Further attempts to meet up and try to arrange something also failed and in the end myself and another girl ended up doing the entire project ourselves. Luckily the assignment was so easy a single person could do it. I drew the conclusion that working with other people was more trouble than it was worth and only caused trouble. Best just to do it yourself and not have to carry wasters with you. Score one for Libertarians.
My second experience came for a 2nd year politics module I was doing. However, this time was completely different. First of the group was much smaller with only 3 other people. Secondly, a good friend of mine was in my group and the other two were very friendly and already knew each other. In fact one of the other girls was one of those supremely organised people who are the driving force behind any group. This time meeting up was easy (we used facebook instead of e-mail which worked much better). Instead of being strangers we quickly became friends. The project was much more difficult (and involved use of a computer program) than the first one and took several weeks to complete. However, it was quite easy as the task was split between the 4 of us which each person having a small job. It was almost enjoyable (as much as any assignment can be) and we got an A. Score two for Collectivists.
So what can be drawn from these two surprisingly diverse experiences? First of all it should be clear that no ideology or principle is always right. For example I am a big government Keynesian, but I am aware that the government isn’t the solution to every problem. Rather things should be studied on a case by case basis. So what was the difference between my first and second assignment? The major one is the social dynamics of the group. The first group was comprised of a large number of strangers, while the second was a small group of people who already knew each other.
My college, UCD is a massive soulless cement wasteland (which isn’t to say I dislike it). It is the largest university in Ireland which means it is far too large to have any community spirit. I remember introducing myself to everyone I sat beside during my first week and never seeing those people again. There are hundreds in my course and yet I consider it an achievement to say I know 20-30 people, even if this is less than 5% of the total. There are few places where you can meet people so everyone keeps to themselves. Unless someone is studying the in the same school as you, you will never bump into them (there are some people from my hometown in UCD who I bump into about once or twice a year). Such a severely individualist climate makes it very difficult to organise any collective endeavour. So if your group is comprised of strangers, it is near impossible to find them again.
The crucial factor in making a group work is the sense of community. If there is one, like in a smaller college, then groups work efficiently and in fact have advantages over individual work. The first and obvious advantage is economies of scale. Four people doing a project should require one quarter the work of each person trying to do it themselves. There are also synergies. Someone else may have an idea you would never have thought of yourself. If you only partly understand something chances are someone else partly understands the other half, so group work is like a puzzle where each person’s partial understanding winds up into a solid project. You can sound out and bounce around some ideas you have in your head and polish them up before submitting. It’s far better to be corrected by a classmate than in your grade. In fact I learned just as much from talking to the other people on my 2nd assignment as I did in the lectures and students are generally better at explaining and easier to approach than lecturers.
Groups are also motivators as they force you to work instead of procrastinating. If you know the people in the group then you don’t want to let them down and if you do, you’re quick to make it up. The best thing about group work is the reassurance it provides. The biggest problem with assignments is the stress and worry they cause. You feel terrible and lost and frustrated that you don’t know what’s going on. Whereas if you’re in a group you usually (from my personal experience) find out that everyone else is just as confused. In fact there was I one area I felt bad I couldn’t fully understand, only to find out that compared to the rest of the group I was an expert and I ended up teaching them. Groups have great social benefits and nothing relieves stress like bad mouthing bad lecturers and being re-assured that everyone else is as ignorant as you.
So groups can work well or they can be disasters depending on the social dynamics of the group. A collective action will fail in an individualistic environment but will thrive in an environment with a community spirit. This is why the welfare state has thrived in Japan and Scandinavia and withered in America and the Mediterranean.