A ubiquitous learning tool in schools and universities, group assignments can be fraught with conflict and difficulty. And recent research has found that they often fail to teach the important leadership skills that they were designed to impart.

For many students, group assignments can be a stressful experience. Students often feel like they contribute more than others in the group, or that the assignment takes far longer to complete than if they just did the work on their own.

On top of that, there are concerns about ‘free riders’ – group members who seem to get away with doing very little work at all.

An analysis of learning methods in the Master of Professional Accounting at the University of Tasmania has shown that even direct intervention by the lecturer in providing ways to keep each other accountable failed to solve the frustrations of group work.

In fact, highlighting accountability only increased conflict within the groups.

Dr Heinrich Oosthuizen,  a lecturer in Cost and Management Accounting at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, teaches more than 300 students, many of whom are international students.

Accounting students have to show leadership in a culturally diverse setting to solve a contemporary business problem.

Dr Heinrich Oosthuizen.

 “At an undergraduate level, you just have to learn about leadership principles, but at a master’s level, we have to assess these leadership abilities.”

To see how leadership principles could be best taught and assessed, Dr Oosthuizen decided to compare two methods.

In the first, students researched leadership concepts, and then had to put them into practice through a collaborative approach.

In the other, he guided the students in conducting business meetings, allowing them to self-select various leadership positions. For example, one would focus on the PowerPoint presentation, and another would take on an administrative role.

His aim was threefold: to reduce what he calls the ‘free-riding effect’ of slackers; to give everyone an opportunity to exercise leadership; and to reduce the effect of some people spending a disproportionate amount of time on a group activity.

“My assumption was that the business meeting approach would establish accountability, and solve those problems,” said Dr Oosthuizen.

But as considered as this approach was, the quasi-experiment showed that the business meeting model failed on almost all accounts, and the increased accountability only led to increased conflict.

“That was an unforeseen result. I really thought it would help,” Dr Oosthuizen said.

In the end, 30 per cent of the students claimed they didn’t have any leadership role in the activity.

“And yet, I was at pains to make sure everyone had a leadership role, so the students' understanding of leadership is clearly different,” he said.

We found clear evidence that students with prior work experience were more confident in taking leadership roles than those with little or no work experience.

“It seems we need to teach students more coping mechanisms to deal with the conflict that comes from group work, and provide more training in terms of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.”

Dr Oosthuizen said that group work remains a requirement of the master’s degree at the University, but he is going to continue to investigate better ways to approach it.

“There will be a certain amount of teamwork going forward, but how I structure and assess those activities might change,” he said.

Dr Oosthuizen adds that some accounting educators require students to draw up a contract before group work, and then ask the participants to reflect on the contract after the project. It’s up to researchers like him to figure out if that could be the key to group work success.

 Find out about studying Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania here.

About Dr Heinrich Oosthuizen

Dr Oosthuizen has lectured extensively in the accounting discipline at various universities. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1991 and a Professional Valuer in 2005. The topic of his PhD was 'Accountability of Australian Local Government Authorities for National Waste Data from Outsourced Services.'

View Dr Heinrich Oosthuizen's full researcher profile