Unite the Slackers?

Here’s the truth: No matter how hard a teacher tries, there will always, always be a few students who choose* not to perform.  I’m not saying a teacher should give up trying to motivate students or stop encouraging students to try their best, but there will be times when students choose to remain unmotivated and passive.  This happens for all sorts of reasons, too many to go over here since that’s not the subject of this particular post.

So what do we do with those students who won’t perform in the meantime, during the time that we are trying to get them to come around but before they actually do?  What do we do with those students particularly when it comes to group projects when their lack of participation affects more than just themselves?

Well, I know what I used to do.  I used to spread those students around.  If I had 20 students in a class with 3 or 4 slackers, I would put one slacker in each group of 5 for group assignments.  My thought was that being around other motivated, performing students might put pressure on the slacker, and if nothing else, at least the slackers wouldn’t all be in one group, so something would get done.  Two things usually ended up happening in those situations though.  First, the rest of the group did the work of the slacker, and the slacker got more credit than he or she deserved.  This happened to some degree even when I’d built into the assessment both group and individual components. Second, the morale of the whole group suffered as a result of the attitude of the slacker.  Someone once said, “Misery is a communicable disease,” and misery is a particularly aggressive disease amongst students.  Letting students choose their own groups didn’t solve the problem either because slackers aren’t always friends with one another and are often smart enough to put themselves in a group with other students who will do the bulk of the work, i.e. not other slackers.  (Why other students allow this to happen is the subject of another post, I think.)

So currently I’m trying something different in one of my government classes.  The students are working in groups of my choosing.  But instead of spreading the slackers around the room, for the most part, I put all of them in one group.  A couple of things have happened as a result.  First, the remaining groups are working more efficiently, as I suspected they would.  Second, the slacker group is realizing that unless they do the work, it won’t get done.  There’s no one there to pick up the slack, if you will pardon the pun.

Now, I will be honest. I actually have no idea if come Monday I will get much of anything from my “slacker” group.  They may turn in a great product or absolutely nothing or something in between.  Right now, I’m checking on them, I’m prodding them, I’m answering any questions they have.  Ultimately, however, whether they complete the assignment is their choice.  But I think, no matter what happens, there’s plenty of good lessons for them and their classmates to learn, not the least of which is personal responsibility.

There are two other things of note as well.  One of the things I found most interesting about this whole experience was the students’ reactions when I announced the groups.  The students themselves knew when I read the names in each group what I had done – both the slacker and non-slackers.  They talked about how I had “stacked” the groups, not on ability but on work ethic.  The fact that all students were aware (and unashamed I might add) tells me a lot.  Another interesting thing is how the “non-slacker” groups are working.  They appear to be working together more than I usually would see.  The project could be done by dividing the workload, making each individual student responsible for one specific part of the whole, which is what usually happens.  Yet one group asked me today if they could work on the project as a cohesive whole.  When I explained that meant that I would have to grade them as a whole, with no individual component and everyone getting the same grade, they readily agreed.  I believe they agreed because they trusted that everyone in the group would pull his or her own weight, and they believed that the grade they earned would accurately reflect the work put in of each member.

So will I do this for every group project?  No, of course not.  But it is making me rethink how I assess group work and how I reach the less-motivated students.

*Notice I’m using the word choose here.  I’m doing this deliberately.  I’m not talking about those students who can’t perform, but those who won’t perform.


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