Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups

Feichtner, S. B., & Davis, E. A. (1984). Why some groups fail: A survey of students’ experiences with learning groups. Journal of Management Education,9(4), 58-73.

“From the (often blind) viewpoint of instructors, we had always viewed group work as an added advantage for the students – an opportunity to receive additional support while working closely with their peers.  We had never really considered what a disastrous experience some frustrates students must endure, or why some students reported only positive experience from classes utilizing group learning techniques.

       The issue of group learning has become an even greater concern in recent years as more college and university professors have begun to incorporate specific group assignments (i.e., assignment which require that students meet as a group and equally contribute to….”

Snapshot: A excellent review of issues that contribute to group failure, which means it also acts as a roadmap for how to work to make sure group work does not fail.  The researchers focused on group experience from the students perspectives and translate that into concrete suggestions for what instructors can/should do in order to be sure that a) group work is the best pedagogical options, but also b) that once the decision is made to use groups, they are more likely to be successful.


  • I’m not sure the research bears out that teachers like group work and think its good for students or that they had no idea students were frustrated.  Both research and my own anecdotal evidence shows that faculty are keenly aware of how frustrating group work can be for both themselves and their student.
  • “In recent years there has been a marked trend for business decisions to be made within groups rather than by individuals acting solely on their own.  One possible reason for this is the growth of professional management teams, together with the general movement within the business world towards more participative management styles” (p. 58).
  • “Their responses indicated that students are more likely to have positive experiences in classes where groups are either formed by the instructor of by a combination of methods (e.g., one instructor collected data on students’ research interests and then grouped those with similar preferences)” (p. 60).
  • “we strongly advocate the use of permanent, heterogeneous groups formed by the instructor.  Although some students may prefer the freedom of making this choice, it often prevents close friends (sorority and fraternity members, foreign students, etc.) from forming subgroups from the start.  Learning to work with a new set of peers and forming interpersonal relationships is an added advantage of group work” (p. 61).
  • “The results also indicated that it is important to utilize peer evaluations as a part of the course grade (see Appendix A, question 1). When no peer evaluations were used, only one student in three reported a best group experience (see figured 6).  By contrast, three students out of five reported a best group experience when instructors employed a grading system in which peer evaluation counted for between 21 percent and 40 percent of the course grade” (p. 65).
  • “Our results indicated that if student influence on the grade is too great (over 61% – see figure 6) the impact of peer evaluation will probably be negative” (p. 67).
  • “One of the most crucial reasons is that, overall, they are very like to blame the group’s problems on the attitude or lack of competence of the instructor” (p. 68).
  • “Thus, at our universities instructors who use groups are liable for much of the blame when problems occur but are not likely to receive credit when the groups are effective” (p. 68).
  • “One technique is to carefully think through why we want to use groups and to communicate this rational to our students through the ways we structure their group experiences” (p. 68-9).
  • “’Exercise Brazil’ (Huse and Bowditch, 1977) which is a simulation where the correct answer is impossible to obtain unless all group members contribute” (p. 70).
  • “What Not To Do     Forming Groups     * Allow students to form their own groups or deliberately create homogeneous groups. * Establish groups that are either too small (3 or fewer members) or too large (8 or more members). * Dissolve and re-form the groups on a frequent basis such as after each activity or simulation” (p. 70).
  • “The teaching methods and skills involved in group learning classes differ significantly from those utilized in the traditional classroom, for both the role of the student and the teacher changes in the radical way [sic]” (p. 71).

To Look Up

Huse, Edgar F. and Bowditch, James L. Behavior in Organizations A Systems Approach to Managing. Second ed. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1977.

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