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Team Assignments – When Two Plus Two is Really Four

Dear teachers, tutors, and professors. I am sorry, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Similarly, there is no such thing as “magical synergy during team projects”. Just – no. Trust me.

Team assignments are the second worst invention one sometimes involuntarily encounters (beaten only by Hannah Montana games – no, really). The idea that “if you put students together, it will make it easier for them to come up with amazing ideas and enable them to do more than each person individually” is unrealistic at best. It would work only under very specific conditions, namely that:

a) all students are equally motivated to do the assignment (i.e. you don´t have one hard-working student and three slackers)

b) all students are equally skilled (i.e. you don´t have three students with an average of D and one with an average of A+) and

c) the group actually works as a team (i.e. you don´t have four control-freaks who prefer to do everything on their own and then be accountable for their own mistakes)

Unfortunately, these conditions rarely hold in real life. So, in contrast to what many teachers believe, 2+2 is not “5” (yes, I am counting the extra magical synergy/creativity/what-have-you), but can be equal to 1, or 2 – if you are lucky (depends on how many ambitious students that particular group has).

However, there IS a way out for all those unhappy high-flyers who always did the team assignments on their own because “they had a terrible team”: It is called “division of labour”. Let me give you three simple steps how NOT to do a whole project alone:

1. Find a (reasonably) good team. Find either smart people, or at least the hard-working ones. Avoid party-goers, irresponsible guys and demotivated do-nothings.

2. Divide (and rule). Split work evenly, try to give everybody a part he or she feels comfortable with (i.e. do not force someone who hates maths to calculate monopoly profits or do not force a shy IT-guy to prepare a presentation). Make sure you control if people do what they were assigned in a timely manner, so that you don´t have to redo something in a rush just because somebody forgot.

3. Meet before the deadline, put everything together, all people check that all parts are of good quality. If you are all happy, submit it; otherwise correct it together.

There. Done. You might not get the mystical “creativity boost” in this way, but at least you won´t have to carry the world (project) all on your shoulders. Good luck!

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Posted by on 23 September, 2012 in Education

 

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The curse of being an overachiever

A top student who always knows the correct answer, aces all exams and gets full marks for homework assignments. A student who is unhappy as long as there is someone else in class slightly better at a particular subject, a student who wants to excel at everything. Welcome to the world of an (average?) overachiever, who does everything in his/her power to be above average.

What an unhappy world this is, if such a student lands in an environment that does not challenge him/her. Getting straight A´s (and cum laude) is not a big deal – because “yeah, everybody can do it”. Sure, 20% of students may be failing and kicked out, but that does not make this overachiever feel any better. (S)He feels that “everything is too easy” and that “this cannot be one of the best universities in the world because I do not have to study that much”.

The problem is that the top students tend to put the benchmark for success very high and if they reach it without much work (read: if they do not break down twice before they reach that specific goal), they feel that they are not working hard enough. A logical consequence is that they take up an extra course (usually one for older students) and find the challenge they were looking for.

However, there are two scenarios what could happen after that: A) The overachiever finds the right ballance of work and finds it rewarding (plus having a CV extra is a nice bonus) or B) the overachiever suddenly has too much on his/her plate and fails.

Unfortunately, unlike his/her peers, the overachiever is unable to deal with failure that easily. Going to bar and drinking herself (himself) to sleep is not an option (because tomorrow is a deadline for an important assignment!) and going to the resit exam is so embarrasing! Depression, loneliness and frustration follow, even though this student may still be among the top 5% at the university. Freaky? …

Today´s overachievers have it tough since hardly anyone is aware of their mere existence, but there is a way to help them: If every university designed a programme for “normal” students and added an “extra” workload for ambitious people (e.g. Honours Programme) that would be neither too low nor too high, it would provide the high-flyers with an opportunity to feel that they are doing their best and the university would make sure that they can stand the extra pressure. Just like in microeconomic theory – more is better (the more chocolate you have, the happier you are), but only up to a certain point (you become sick). So simple, yet so difficult to understand for most institutions. What a shame. High-flyers are people too!

 
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Posted by on 13 November, 2011 in Education

 

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