Letter to the editor: STEM replies to group work

Dear Editor,

As faculty of the STEM division, we strongly disagree with the recent letter from the editor in the Horizon issue (October 24, 2017). It’s nice to talk about one’s personal experiences with regards to group work, but as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math faculty, we’d like to talk about the data and the research behind learning. The editor argues that group work isn’t appropriate for the STEM domain because it would be better to, “get the most accurate information the most efficient way possible” in order to prevent the “spread [of] inaccurate information while giving teachers a break.” While learning wrong information can be detrimental, there is overwhelming evidence that group work, active learning strategies and working through content with your peers is the MOST effective way of learning the content.

It is troubling to us as educators in a higher learning institution that the editorial is focused on grading and not learning.  And yet a recent meta-analysis (one which looks at many different papers, studies, and datasets published or otherwise) looked at active-learning classrooms vs. “traditional” lecture only classrooms (Freeman et al., 2014) and found that you are 1.5 times more likely to fail in a traditional lecture style classroom! This divide becomes even more extreme with systemically non-dominant populations who are greatly underrepresented in the STEM workforce, which results in huge wage and opportunity inequities. In fact, some recent research indicates that one learns more from doing a quiz before you know all the content, than regurgitating what you already know (Brown et al., 2014).

The focus of the editorial appears to be on the grading of “group work.”  An article by Johnston (not Johnson) and Miles, quoted by da Rosa, appears to be taken out of context as the research conducted focused on peer assessment.  In STEM, we often utilize active learning strategies that may be perceived as group work by da Rosa.  Today’s student has an enormous amount of information at their fingertips that they need to be able to critically assess for its accuracy and validity.  Opportunities to work with your peers provide important learning opportunities to critically think about the content in a course.  These learning opportunities (or group work) are much more time consuming to develop than a lecture and are not “…assigned when a professor doesn’t feel like teaching,” da Rosa wrote. The Education Week article quoted by da Rosa, focuses on the need for students to be able to collaborate in today’s society.  While acknowledging that some group work is not always used effectively, Timothy Quinn also points out, “A good collaborative assignment requires much more of the teacher” (2014).

Our technology has advanced tremendously over the last 100 years, why shouldn’t our teaching practices also advance as we learn more about how people learn? As we say frequently in many of our classes, “anecdotes are not data”—don’t let them misinform your perception about what’s best for your learning.

Faculty from the STEM division

Kaatje Kraft                Dana Beatty                Tealia Slagle               Wendi Davis

Heidi Ypma                Lee Singleton              Kim Reeves                 Carrie Muir

Jason Babcock            Hilary Engebretson     Scott Smartt                Nathan Hall

Tran Phung                 Eric Davishahl            Lauren Maniatis          Steve DeRoy

Tommaso Vannelli      Travis McEwen                      Paul Frazey                 Ryan Parsons

Yumi Clark                 Debra Lancaster          Kirsten McDade                     Mei Luu

Crystal Holtzheimer    Will Webber               Sara Julin                    Wendy Borgeson

Leslie Glen                  Garrett Leque              Michael Greiner                      Victor Kozaczuk

Jody DeWilde


Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1-6

Johnston, L. and Miles, L. (2004). Assessing Contributions to Group Assignments. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 29 (6): 752-768.

Quinn, T. (2012). G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K doesn’t spell collaboration. Education Week.

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