Group projects

The best teams have people with complementary skills, but similar work ethic. Academic assignments are the opposite. There’s not much variation in skills, in part because students haven’t yet developed specialized skills,¬†and in part because students are in the same class¬†because they have similar interests. The biggest variation is likely to be work ethic. It’s not uncommon for the hardest working person in a group to do 10x as much work as the laziest person in the group. The person doing most of the work learns that it’s best to avoid working with teams.

Working with people with complementary skills is a blast, but you’re unlike to experience that in an academic project. You might get some small degree specialization. Maybe one of the mechanical engineers on a project has more artistic ability than the other mechanical engineers, for example. But this is hardly like the experience of working with a team of people who are all great at different things.


2 thoughts on “Group projects

  1. This is an interesting point. In my job, most of the work is done in interdisciplinary teams. A given project might have an economist, an operations research analyst, an aerospace engineer, and a physicist. When we hire people straight out of grad school, it can be hard to tell how well they will fit into that environment. Especially the economists, who have typically never worked on a project with a non-economist, and are startled to learn that the rest of the world approaches problems differently and uses a different vocabulary…

  2. Before going to back to school, I worked in some fantastic teams and you’re exactly right: The members had a diverse set of skills and we were all highly motivated. Now, as I spend most of my time teaching undergrads, I try hard to recreate these features in group projects. I survey my students about their skills and background to make the teams diverse. I give the teams a lot of flexibility about what they do and exhort them to pick topics that they all care about. And I have them repeatedly rate each other and factor these ratings into their grades. That way if they aren’t internally motivated, they will at least want to contribute so they aren’t punished by their peers. Team-based Learning is another approach that tries to achieve similar goals (

    Most faculty who use group projects don’t do these things. They let students form their own homogenous groups and then have them do things they don’t want to do. Yikes.

    And per David’s comment above, yeah, economics is a pretty insular field. Sorry about that. Know that there is at least a small minority that pays attention to what other folks do!

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