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Regular version of the site

Collective Conscious

Advantages and drawbacks of studying in small groups


Students can learn difficult material much more efficiently by collaborating than by studying individually. They help each other, share information, and build collective knowledge. However, things are not as simple as they may seem. Cooperation between students is effective for certain activities, but not others. As researchers from the HSE Institute of Education have shown, knowledge is absorbed more effectively through group work, but the same benefits are not found when it comes to the practical application of knowledge. For example, academic writing—an indispensable skill for a scientist—requires individual experience that group efforts can hinder.

Leaders and ‘Free Riders’

School and university students usually work in groups of three to five people to write reports, do projects, and discuss various topics. This has both psychological benefits (students learn to listen to others and network) and educational advantages. Working in a group helps to reveal gaps in one’s knowledge, learn material more efficiently, gain deeper insight into problems and work out creative approaches to solving them. This tends to improve academic achievement.

Another advantage of collaboration is a more equal distribution of cognitive load (a way of acquiring knowledge, which includes cognitive abilities, mental effort, student memory, etc). This results in a division of labour.

However, there is the danger that certain leading figures in a group can dominate its work. Other members may feel disadvantaged and limited in their ability to engage in the work, or may simply have less of an understanding of the material.

As the researchers point out, collaborative learning may even inhibit students' ability to acquire their own knowledge. After all, everyone absorbs information in different amounts and at different paces.

Some people take advantage of collaborative work to g et the benefit they need from the project without making much effort of their own. This is called the ‘free-rider problem’. Free riders (those who want to benefit from resources without paying for them; in other words, they want a ‘free ride’) expect others to work and to shoulder all the relative costs and expenses. This is a short step away from academic misconduct—copying classmates’ work, downloading materials from the internet, or using cheat sheets.


However, 'free riding' does not work with certain activities that can only be successfully completed through active individual practice. Among them is academic writing, such as the preparation of a scholarly article. Personal effort and skills are the crucial component in this case.

HSE Associate Professors Jamie Costley and Evgeniia Shmeleva, together with co-authors from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Lancaster University (UK), have studied the efficiency of information assimilation and better performance in academic writing among master’s and doctoral students. The participants were divided into two groups and asked to take notes on videos about approaches to writing scholarly articles. Students in one group were asked to take notes individually, while students in the other group were to do so in small teams of 3–5 people.

About 200 students were involved in the study, all of them majoring in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. The participants watched a total of 56 course videos. The researchers then counted the number of words written, which reflects the completeness of the recorded content (completeness is analyzed in another study by Jamie Costley).

It emerged that those who took notes collaboratively were generally better at recalling the material and were able to answer course-related questions during a weekly test. However, those who took notes independently were more successful in creating a scholarly text at the end of the course. In other words, collaborative work yields different results in different contexts, and this method should be applied depending on the learning goals.

Hopeless ‘Collectivization’

One does not need to go far to find examples of fairly unsuccessful group work. The ‘brigade’ teaching method spread throughout the Soviet school system in the late 1920s and early 1930s, primarily thanks to one of its founders, Nadezhda Krupskaya. The method was largely borrowed from the American educator, philosopher, and representative of pragmatism John Dewey. Other approaches similar to the brigade method include the Dalton Plan and the project method.

Many think that the project approach so popular in today’s education is a new phenomenon, but in fact, it was created by Stanislav Shatsky in Russia at the very beginning of the 20th century. In truth, the project approach and collective work by students are far from a recent development.

In the Dalton Plan, teachers essentially played an advisory role, while students mastered much of the material themselves. There was individualization of learning as well. Soviet schools of the late 1920s emphasized students' independence, but the emphasis was on collaborative work and gaining knowledge in ‘brigades.’ This method was also used in vocational colleges and universities. Students formed groups and had to learn the material through joint effort.

This method was introduced as a well-meaning initiative. It was supposed to help the young Soviet education system successfully educate young people. The very idea of the proactive acquisition of knowledge was productive. Independence, responsibility, a sense of comradeship—all these qualities had to be forged in brigade work, which was not in itself a bad thing.

However, the ‘collectivization’ of learning did not live up to expectations—not only because the teacher’s role was diminished and gaps in knowledge appeared. In a brigade, one member (for instance, the brigade leader) often studied on behalf of everyone else. This person had to report the results to the teacher. The leader usually learned the topic, but there were no guarantees that the rest did. Many members of the team just pretended to study and did not progress much in their understanding of the subject. However, projects would receive high marks thanks to their leaders’ efforts.

These methods were abandoned in 1932. Many teachers later spoke about ‘brigade’ teaching as a mistake. However, group learning in itself—and peer learning, when a certain environment (favourable or not so favourable) is created in the educational process—remains significant.

Losses and Bonuses of Co-learning

Peer effects should not be underestimated in the broader perspective. In education, this refers to the influence that the characteristics, behaviour, and success of other students have on a student's academic performance. Essentially, it is the impact of an individual's environment on their personal achievements.

American sociologist James Coleman was the first to analyze peer effects in his report ‘Equality of Educational Opportunity’ (1966). Since then, the phenomenon has been explored in a variety of aspects, as it has important implications.

For instance, if a student's classmates are motivated and study well, they often aspire to high achievements as well. On the other hand, the success of their classmates can make them doubt their abilities. Sociologist James Davis wrote about this effect (a ‘Frog Pond’) in 1966.

Peer effects can manifest when a teacher gives a high-performing group of students more complex material and more advanced assignments. By doing so, the teacher raises the bar, showing the students their capabilities and further motivating them.

If, on the contrary, the group is dominated by weak students, they can hold the group back by diverting the teachers’ attention and causing fellow students to waste their time. Demotivation can occur in such groups. In addition, weak students may be ‘free riders’ who want to coast at the expense of others, resorting to dishonest practices to do so. Overall, group interactions can vary greatly. As Jamie Costley points out in another article, they change over time.

American psychologist Bruce Tuckman developed a well-known theory of group development. In a 1965 work (which he later supplemented), Tuckman outlined four stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Scientists believe that the real accumulation of knowledge occurs at the fourth stage, when a group becomes a ‘well-attuned team.’ By this stage, the ‘players’ have spent a lot of time together and have learned to communicate successfully.

The researchers also identify conditions under which team play is truly effective. These include, for example, when participants who have a common goal interact constructively with each other, coordinate actions, know how to take individual responsibility for the outcome, and are aware of what other team members are doing. When all of this occurs, the collaboration is more successful. The master's and doctoral students in the study by Jamie Costley, Evgeniia Shmeleva, and their co-authors met these requirements.

Shared Lecture Notes

Jamie Costley, Evgeniia Shmeleva, and their colleagues Mick Fangai, Matthew Baldwin, and Kyonghmi Lee explored how collaborative note-taking during online tutorial videos is beneficial to student achievement. The videos focused on different aspects of academic writing, from ethical issues to the nuances of peer review. The clips (which lasted 12 minutes on average) were reviewable. Participants of the course were taught how to write an academic paper on their research for publication in an academic journal.

Notes on the content of the lectures were taken online in Google Docs and were accessible to all group members. The researchers considered the effect of group work on two types of educational outcomes:

 learning and memorizing the material (which was checked by tests)

 applying knowledge in practice by means of a creative writing task (students were asked to write a paper structured like a scientific article with an introduction, a description of research methods, results, discussion, etc).

It is important to note that the course was focused on writing research papers. Therefore, memorizing the material was only an incidental result.

It turned out that those who took notes collaboratively were more successful in tests. They performed on average 1.38 points better in weekly tests on the material covered. However, students who worked individually had a 3.08-point advantage on written assignments (44.63 versus 41.55). It was the written work that contributed most to the ability of students of the course to write papers on their research.

Other interesting findings from the study included the observation that those who had worked individually took twice as many notes (compared to those who collaborated), watched all of the course videos more frequently, and were more likely to revisit them when necessary. In other words, they were much more immersed in the material.

Individual participants were likely more focused on the course content because they understood that they could only rely on themselves. Those working in teams, on the other hand, may not have felt the need to watch all the videos, since they had access to their teammates' notes as a safety net.

Unequal Participation

Group respondents made different contributions to the overall note-taking process. Some took more detailed notes, while others relied more on others. Some were more serious, while others had a more relaxed attitude. What’s more, each participant's contribution to the overall document was easy to track.

Efforts and costs varied. While the group students were better at memorizing course material, the students who worked individually outperformed them in terms of achievement. One possible explanation is that by working individually, students work with the information in whatever way works best for them. As a result, they end up with a deeper understanding of the material and apply it better in practice. Finally, some people are better suited to ‘individual performances’ (and individual lessons) than team play.

In terms of the volume of notes, the ‘team scoring’ approach for group students might have encouraged them to take more concise notes to prevent the final document from becoming unmanageable in size.

Finally, the last crucial point is the opportunity to practice the relevant skill. Clearly, students who practice less than others will achieve more modest results. Although group work should stimulate the performance of practical tasks, it may in certain contexts lead to a reduction in individual practice of the new skill. Therefore, group work may reduce the results of learning.

It follows that group work is not always an effective way of increasing educational achievement. It is not very appropriate when it reduces the opportunity to practice a skill individually. Therefore, collaborative activities need to be well thought out in order to make collaboration truly effective.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 13, 2021