Writing Is Not a Team Sport, Learning Is Not Team-Dependent

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I earned (ha!) only one failing grade during my entire college career, and that grade was in a class in my major area, Education of the Deaf. I had to retake the class, of course, but I waited until I could attend a different college in another state; until I could take the class from a professor who actually taught the class instead of assigning group projects that forced us, unwillingly, into peer-led instruction.

Since I tend to be a rather outspoken person, I reacted immediately, and vocally, to the Team Sport Paradigm in the class. I complained about the process, pointing out that if the students were so skilled as to teach the class, they would have had no need to enroll in it! Still nothing changed and I soon despised the class. On the day of the final exam, I decided to put in extra hours at my second job in order to earn much needed real money; decided to pass up the opportunity to participate in a phony process to earn fake college credits.

Because the professor happened to be a friend of my mother’s, the professor knew where I worked. When she realized that I had not shown up to participate in the games, she phoned me, at work, to say that if I hurried over to the university, she would allow me to still take the examination. I was shocked that she would call me, especially at the small factory bar where I served beer and shots to Ford assembly line workers just coming off the midnight shift! The exam obviously meant more to her than it did to me.

I had no time to gather my wits in order to respond with anything other than pure honesty, so I simply blurted out my reason for being at work instead of taking the test. I told the professor that when I went to study for the exam…I found few notes relative to her instruction. I told her that I only had untrustworthy notes, from vague sources, as delivered in monotones, by uneducated student spokespersons, representing the various disinterested and minimally-educated groups to which they had been assigned. I pointed out that I had found nothing to study; nothing worthy of even being put on an exam. The result was as expected — an F on my permanent record…that I actually regard with pride. That was in 1970.

Here, thirty-seven years later, at a different university, and that same student-despised, student-led, student-ineffective, educationally-near-worthless "group work" is not only still in use, it is now in composition classes! As usual with public education and its Pet Fads, the names change but not the plots and ploys that dictate curriculum and methods.

The language, Edu-Speak, now includes terms like: peer groups, peer editing, peer review, peer led, peer directed…but fails, of course, to include, peer disgust, peer disinterest, peer miseducation, peer failure, peer laziness, motivated peer doing all the work while all other group members benefit from a higher (group) grade than deadweight peers could have ever earned working individually,… But such is fad-driven educational policy.

I find the idea of peer reviews especially off-putting in the area of composition and writing. My college freshmen, as a whole, did not arrive at university with enough high school English skills to even be noticed. Most cannot handle verb tenses more complex than present, past, and future. Many do not know when to capitalize letters; when to accurately and consistently use commas or any other types of punctuation; how to plan and organize what they will write; how to find subjects and verbs in sentences. The list of missing pieces in their education is lengthy. Although students may have sat through four years of high school English, most have no idea how to use it for any crafted sentence more complex than "I will now write about…" (Is that not the purpose of a title?). "Next I will tell you about…" (Is that not the purpose of transitional words and phrases?)

Had I not just gone through 16 weeks, and several red pens, I would not have believed the number of corrections needed on papers at the university level. So, picture assigning a group of four students, all with comparable (lack of) skills, editing each others’ papers! Shudder as the group adds bad corrections and simplistic, if not downright inappropriate, suggestions and rewrites to an already deficient paper!!

A peer-edited paper, with four (4) sets of ungrammatical rewrites, times 80—90 papers, and the instructor’s job becomes impossible. Or, might I be the only one who believes that assigning unskilled students to a peer review team multiplies errors; adds confusion, teaches little, and has the potential to drive the instructor insane? Of course, instructors who may use such assignments to mask the depth of the underlying individual problems probably view group work as a gift from Above.

I am also bothered by the fact that students, incapable of writing even a B paper on their own; manage to earn B and even A papers with the help of The Writing Center. So…do I give a Group Grade to "student + Writing Center + peer group", then just pretend that I am such a skilled instructor that weak students, thanks to my skills, develop into quite good writers almost instantly? But what should I then do when the truth comes out — like during the final exam when they have no tutor to help them write the exam? What should I do in the event that a student’s future employer contacts me to discuss the (lack of) writing abilities? Do I suggest that the employer hire the student’s entire peer group? Should I suggest that the employer recruit the tutor from The Writing Center so that that person can help the employee with each writing task during his/her tenure with that employer? I certainly will not offer to go, myself. I will not go to work with college graduates, and will not go along on honeymoons with poor readers. I have to draw the line somewhere.

As I recently summed up my thoughts on Group Work in a communication to a friend:

  1. Students hate being forced to participate in such a farce. (At a Christmas party this very afternoon, I mentioned my concerns to a cousin and she could not stop herself from blurting out, "I HATE group work!" Even though she has now taught for many years, her first thought was to verbalize unpleasant feelings that so negatively affected her education and life. Me, too!)

  2. Students and parents pay a lot of money for a university education and have the right to expect that it be provided by educated instructors and professors; NOT by a group of peers at the same (mis)educational level.

  3. If the other students were capable of providing such skilled instruction, they certainly would not have enrolled in the same classes as students with critical needs!

  4. With students arriving in classes lacking so much knowledge, and so many skills, the last thing a professor needs is for three or more other students, themselves lacking similar skills, adding suggestions and/or making revisions to an already weak paper.

Writing simply is not a team sport, and one of these days the sham grades will be exposed for what they are. Hopefully. The reckoning might even occur the first time that a student hands a handwritten application to a potential employer.

Writing. Reading. Spelling. Arithmetic. Mathematics. Geography. Sciences. English. … The process of learning; of retaining, retrieving, thinking, comparing, analyzing, problem solving, creating, are all skills necessary for an individual’s development of scholarship excellence. Neither the classes, nor the individual’s commitment to study, are team sports. In order for learning to be successful, each individual must be taught how to learn, process, internalize, access then use information and concepts.

A group project might fool a few people for a while, but it will neither serve the needs, nor prepare each of the group members, to meet the challenges of life — individually.

Linda Schrock Taylor [send her mail] is a reading specialist (continually seeking ways to improve her methods for Rapid Reading Remediation); a former public school teacher (The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered…); and a former homeschooling parent (whose son, now 20, insisted upon growing up, putting an end to all the fun). Linda now teaches English composition at a state university and is writing her first book.

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