The introduction to sustainability course I teach has one group assignment that students need to do if they want an A in the course. (I use a grading approach called specifications grading where letter grades are determined by the amount and type of work rather than the overall quality which all must meet a particular standard.) I totally understand the fear and loathing students have for group projects. I remember those feelings well. So then why do I subject the students in my class to such torture?
Sustainability is full of wicked problems. These are problems that are complex, messy, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. We look at them through the lens of systems thinking and even though this helps, done as a solo enterprise it still falls short of recognizing the complexity of a topic. This is where the group project comes in. I group the students based on interests but also based on their academic discipline – students are from multiple faculties and departments. My goal is to get the most diverse groups possible so that they might draw on this diversity to discover and recognize greater complexity in the systems they are analyzing.
The question remains though, do I believe that the diverse groups support the task because I have anecdotally seen it happen? Or is there any research to backup my insistance on keeping a group project for at least the students aiming for an A?
Collective intelligence, which is the augmented cognitive ability of a group is a known occurrence that support groups in tackling complex problems. Aminpour et al (2021) studied whether increased group diversity impacted a group’s ability to analyse complex human-environment interactions in the real world, which, by the way, is exactly what my students are doing. They found that more diverse groups developed more complex models that better matched expert scientific models.
So why does this matter? If the models are similar to what experts produce why not just rely on the experts and skip the group work? Communities and organizations of all types are facing enormous sustainability issues and they do not always have access to expert opinions. In addition, in the world of politics, experts are not always the most influential voices so having the group as a whole come to similar findings and recommendations could be extremely beneficial. Added to all of this is the reality that experts, with disciplinary knowledge may also, unintentionally, ignore or miss complexities from outside their discipline so having group assessment may indeed broaden the scope and thereby be more able to model the complexities and identify appropriate responses.
This is why I subject my students to the thing I hated myself. To be sustainable we need to be able to work, solve problems, and implement solutions together and my goal is that the group project supports the students in my classes in doing this now and in the future.