new topic, working in groups

Linda S. Berris lberri1 at
Sun Jun 23 18:46:32 EST 1996

Dianna L. Bourke wrote:
>I would wait for about 30 uncomfortable seconds and
> start the discussion. Somehow I always managed to do the lions share of
> most projects (like and idiot) or risk it being done badly and I never
> really liked study groups. 

I've had this same experience myself, so when I began to TA courses I was 
wary about groups but I've had some surprises.

This past term I TA'd an advanced physiology lab where the students had 
to work in groups because of the large amount of work involved but the 
paucity of equipment, computer terminals, etc.  Depending upon the lab 
exercise, sometimes they formed their own groups and sometimes I assigned 
people to groups.  They really worked well together, and I think they got 
 more out of the exercises than they would have had each worked alone, or 
in pairs.  No one appeared to be slacking off, letting one person 
shoulder the primary burden,etc.  (Well, I did have one group composed 
entirely of the few slackers in the class).  I have had the same 
experience when I have TA'd the ecology lab; they go on day-long field 
trips, and there is a lot of data to be measured/collected, often under 
adverse abiotic conditions (mosquitoes, strong winds off Lake Michigan 
early in the morning in October, etc.).  They have to work in groups, and 
again I have noted the same equality with respect to sharing the workload 
(one student measures, one writes down the data, another does the setup 
of quadrats, etc.).  

On the other hand, when I have TA'd discussion sections in genetics, 
evolution, etc., there are generally a few students who participate in 
the discussions, while the rest kind of stare out the window, etc.  When 
I call on them, they will speak up, but only when called upon.

I wonder how much of the active/passive participation has to do with how 
active/passive the class exercise is?  In the physiology and ecology 
labs, the students had to "do" things:  measure EKGs, determine the 
diversity and abundance of plants in 30m transect, etc. ... they had to 
do these things carefully since they later had to do statistical analyses 
which would be compared with results from other lab sections.  On the 
other hand, in the evolution and the genetics discussion sections, 
they're _sitting_  in a lecture hall or classroom, which they may be 
unconsciously relating to _sitting_ in lecture, so they are not (as a 
group) very responsive.  And I doubt that if (in the latter situation) I 
divided them into groups they would all equally participate.

Actually, this smacks of a game from game theory called tit-for-tat, and 
it is similar to Hamilton's Rule,  which forms the foundation for 
altruistic behavior noted in social animals (bats, lions, primates etc.). 
Animal A will perform an altrustic act (feeding Animal B's offspring) 
only if there is a chance that Animal B will reciprocate at some point.  
In the actual game tit-for-tat, cooperation can evolve because each 
player "cooperates" (makes the same choice as) the previous player.  In 
order for this to occur: (i) there have to be repeated interactions 
between players, (ii) each player must be able to retaliate against 
non-cooperation (usually called "defection" in game theory) from another 
player, and(iii) the number of players needs to be small.  I think this 
translates a bit into small groups of students who must complete an 
exercise because some kind of specific grade (the payoff in game theory) 
hinges upon it:  hence the successful completion of a lab exercise which 
will be graded.  On the other hand, when groups just need to discuss 
something (and each member knows they can read up on it when they get 
home) there is not the same kind of direct payoff, and so you will get 
"cheaters" -- not in the academic but rather in the game theory sense:  
cheaters are spongers, those who let others do all the work then glean 
some reward, for example in lion prides there is usually one lion who 
kind of "hangs back" and lets the others in the pride do the dirty work 
of bringing down a prey, but then they participate in the reward of the 

Whew! Sorry for the length of this post!! Anyway, this is what I have 
observed! :-)

Linda Berris
University of Illinois at Chicago

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