Ahhh group work - the bane of my existence, yet I can't seem to stop using it.
I see the advantages of group work as follows:
1. Tasks can be larger. Students are able to be given something that would be challenging for them to complete on their own but very possible with help.
2. Tasks can be more complex. Students are able to collaborate and share ideas, thus allowing a stronger student to "carry" a weaker one (more on that in a sec...)
3. It models what we all do. It's rare that I work on a project on my own anymore. I think it's rare that anyone really works on a project on their own - the world is too complex to have to focus entirely on your own work.
The issue arises in that all students are expected to demonstrate everything, which in a science class, means they have only a short period of time on a specific topic. I only spend so long the human body and I need to ensure that everyone has a deep understanding of all the various pieces.
Thus, group work becomes challenging because attempting to structure it so that everyone understands everything is completely contrary to why we get into a group in the first place!
As an engineer, I know the value of group work. What schools don't consider, however, is that that in the "real world" (used loosely) groups are formed of DIFFERENT types of people who bring DIFFERENT skills to the table. So, while I may be the computer and technology expert, I have no earthly idea how to make the final product look decent in a display, hence my excellent artistic colleague.
Furthermore, it's expected that some people will do more than others in their assigned area, or even in general. There is always a point person and they will very much be doing more than the others in terms of actual work or organization. In a classroom setting, that causes....problems. Students expect that every group member will contribute the same amount, and furthermore, that they can completely abdicate responsibility for their group members work.
It therefore makes it not only challenging to complete group work, but to assess it. How do I honestly say that one person understood less simply because their group member didn't complete the work to a high standard? But if that's the case, I didn't make an authentic group project!
While I use group work because I think it's important that students work together to solve a problem, I still question how to make it "fair" for all (or teach them what fair really means), assess the various learning outcomes, and keep everyone sane!
Photo Credit to Budzlife - http://www.flickr.com/photos/budslife/1771179517/lightbox/