Much has been made in recent days concerning the power of social action. Regimes have been toppled. Legislation has been changed. Clean drinking water has been provided. Why, then, do we think that students are better when we encourage them to work alone on projects? Notwithstanding repeated demonstration of the value and quality of group work, many students indicate a marked preference for individual over group assignment. However, the finding of careful studies is that students who form study groups in university have better chances of academic success than those who study alone.
The first advantage of working in study groups is that the burden of note-taking is shared. I remember what it was like to take notes as a professor lectured in class. Most of my note-taking was by hand, using pen and paper. However even now, I believe I would get typing cramp from trying to keep up with the material spoken by people in class. This is especially true when you consider that note-taking is not just a matter of simple record-keeping. The good student must not only record ideas faithfully, but also find a shorter way of putting them on paper well while attending to what is just ahead of what you are writing. When students take notes together, they can jointly understand, record, process, consider, and evaluate what has been intended. This allows one person to catch another’s slip-up or momentary distraction. When individual’s try the same task, mistakes are made, but there is no one to monitor and correct the errors. This means that students’ individual notes contain errors that are studied and carried into examinations and out into life.
In study groups, the burden of second-guessing professors is also shared. Students working as individuals often study the wrong concepts, thinking that the prominence of their notes reflects the prominence of ideas held by their professors. While such individualised records are often correct, they are also often incorrect. Again, the performance of multiple evaluators is superior to that of individuals doing the same task.
In addition, the task of prioritising is shared. Although this simple sentence might seem to be saying the same thing as in the preceding paragraph, its intent differs. It is not only during the construction of a class record that group performance exceeds that of individuals; it is also when the study group are preparing for examinations and other performance that prioritising is necessary.
Once the actual task of note-taking and organising is complete, a group shares in the production of study materials together, providing more study aids, but also providing a higher quality of materials than a single individual can hope to.
As in life generally, so it is with university performance: ‘everyone together is smarter than anyone alone’ (Richardson 2010, 57). Students who work alone are only as good as they can be on the particular day; some days are good, and others, not so much. Just as a team working together can outperform a group of highly skilled people who do not know how to work as a team, so also the academic tasks required of today’s students can be better performed in teams than individually.