One of the early lessons schoolchildren are taught is to do their own work and not copy from other's papers. There is a trend, however, that is on the rise at all levels of education from preschool through graduate school: the group project. Unlike a group activity or discussion during class time, the group project assigns one group grade to several students.
Collaboration versus Freeloading
Groups of scholars through the ages have read and discussed ideas. Students have traditionally been admonished by their teachers to do their own work and to work hard in order to learn new skills. Students have always had discussions among themselves and have tutored others who needed help with difficult concepts. Most importantly, students were responsible for their own work, or lack thereof, and held responsible through a system of grading meant to evaluate individual achievement. It is interesting that professors who rightly devote several syllabus pages to the evils of plagiarism, then turn around and tell students they will be graded, in part, on work done by other people. Once a group grade is assigned, the project moves from scholarly collaboration to teacher-sanctioned freeloading by low-performing group members at the expense of high-performing members.
Like economic socialism, group projects force some people to work for the benefit of other people without just compensation for their efforts. Furthermore, group projects assign responsibility for outcomes without corresponding authority to enforce the necessary discipline to complete the project successfully. Responsible and competent students have nothing to gain from a group project, unless they are able to select only other responsible and competent people as group members. Irresponsible or incompetent students have nothing to lose from a group project; if they are in the lower half of the class, odds are in their favor that other group members will make them look competent and responsible in order to preserve their own grade point averages.
Like the producers in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, good students will just keep working harder, dragging the slackers along because they see no other choice. The slackers will relax, complacent, knowing the producers will not let them fail because the producers care about the outcome. Like the characters in Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, the best students are handicapped so that they cannot appear more competent than others.
Real Life versus Group Project
One argument instructors use to justify graded group projects is that such projects prepare students for real life. This is simply not true. In the world outside the classroom, people do work in groups; however, the similarity ends there. In the real world, somebody in the group has authority to make decisions and enforce them, to evaluate or promote, to retain or to dismiss group members. In the real world, the slackers are often exposed and fired. Real world companies cannot afford to pay people for doing nothing. Companies that insist on paying everyone in a group the same, regardless of performance, will lose their best workers to companies that encourage and reward excellence.
Instructors who want to prepare students for real life should concentrate on teaching skills to all students, evaluating them as individuals, and offering extra help to those who learn more slowly. Group discussion and collaboration should be encouraged as a valuable life skill. Nobody, however, should be allowed to claim a grade earned by others. Graded group projects are not an honest assessment tool.