The Perils of Doing Experiments in Groups

A recent article in “The Teaching Professor” (August-September 2008 ) entitled “Poorly Designed Group Work” caught my eye this past month. Basically, the author says that many undergraduate group projects are not designed to be successful learning experiences. At some schools, group work in pairs (or larger groups) in chemistry laboratory sections is quite routine. Sometimes an experiment needs a division of labor in order to address a complex task such as timing a reaction (one student to mix the solutions, her/his partner to time the reaction). In addition, a group effort allows students to complete an extensive experiment in the allotted time (many reagents to prepare and/or multi-tasking necessary). However, let’s face it, group work in chemistry laboratories is often done to cut down on chemical usage, facilitate ease of set-up, and/or avoid overburdening limited instruments/facilities. I believe that it is possible to design experiments that make good use of group efforts, but this is usually not the case as the aforementioned article proposes. What happens is that experiments that could be easily done by a single student are done as group projects for other-than-pedagogical reasons. I think that this is a situation that should be addressed, especially in private schools where students are making a significant financial investment in their educational experience. The logistical problems can often be addressed by simply dividing the reagents into more dispensing bottles and/or doing a few more set-up things to facilitate the smooth completion of the experiment by an individual student.

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