This post originally appeared as written on learningscientists.org
Things are going well for you as a college student. You like your classes, you’ve made new friends and, because you’re reading this blog, you realize you’re well-prepared for the workload of college. That is, until you find out you must do group work in most of your classes! I can hear the collective sighs and see faces of concern when I announce to my classes that they’re doing group work.
Trusting group members with your learning can be difficult. Many students fear the possibility of social loafing, which is when one or two group members put in the most effort while others benefit and coast to success. Others prefer to work alone because they like to remain in control of the task. And still very practical issues like finding time outside of class to meet can prohibit successful group work. These barriers to group success are well known and often are experienced by college students.
Cognitive psychologists are aware of these and other barriers including collaborative inhibition. Collaborative inhibition occurs when a group recalls less information than its individual members would alone (Basden et al., 1997; Wright & Klumpp, 2004). This is counterintuitive as we might envision a study partner remembering something we did not. For example, if I asked you to remember the following words: plant, ham, pizza, scissors, robot, towel, surf, hamster, chip, and pliers in any order, based on what is known about working memory, most of us would remember between 4 and 6 of these words with ease. There are also several strategies a student could use to remember the words. Techniques like visualizing the words in a silly story or repeatedly recalling the list will aid in learning and lead to an even larger number of words recalled. So, if you and a partner are asked to remember the words, collectively, shouldn’t two heads be better than one?
Lab research has pinpointed the retrieval problems that occur during group remembering. Retrieval inhibition occurs when one group member recalls information out loud and disrupts other group members from responding. Consider the word list again: plant, ham, pizza, scissors, robot, towel, surf, hamster, chip, and pliers. You and a partner study the list independently. After a study period, you come together and are asked to recall by taking turns, your partner goes, you go, and so on. Your partner responds first saying “hamster.” You follow by saying “surf.” This seems easy and you feel like you are benefiting from putting two heads together. Yes!
Until what happens next. Your partner says “pizza” but hey YOU were also going to say “pizza.” Your palms sweat, you twitch a little as your retrieval process, or your natural flow to recall the words, is disrupted. You sit and wait for another word to come to mind but, with this distraction, you come up short.
What happened? Turn-taking changed the “production” of recall items from how you would’ve remembered on your own. The result is collaborative inhibition and has been shown to become an even larger problem with groups of more than two (see Rajaram, & Pereira-Pasarin, 2010 for a review of retrieval disruptions).
Okay, now you say you really don’t ever want to work in groups! But, let’s apply collaborative inhibition to a more realistic group study session. You are meeting with a group to study for a psychology test on basic brain anatomy. Most of the to-be-learned material is terms and definitions (e.g., parietal lobe, amygdala, glial cell). Your group meets at the library at 7 pm and you have read the necessary chapters, completed note cards on important terms, and have tested yourself several times on these terms. A quick assessment, however, reveals only half of the group has prepared. Those unprepared claim they were waiting for this study session to prepare. Experienced in the science of learning, you suggest that you quiz each other on basic terms. The group agrees, however, when questions are put to the group, the same person quickly blurts out answers before others have a chance to respond. This continues throughout the entire study session.
Fast forward to what happens on exam day. There are several complications that may occur because of group remembering. First there is you. You realize that someone else remembering and reporting the information in a group does not guarantee YOU know the information. You come home from the group study session and spend additional time testing on the material by looking up and elaborating upon unknown terms. Making this important realization, you ace the test!
A second group member comes home from the study session and decides he is now familiar with all the information. Sure, he didn’t come up with answers on his own, but he thinks he learned most of what he needs to know from the group. Sadly, he is disappointed on test day when taking the test, he realizes he cannot recall any of the correct brain-based words on the fill-in-the-black section of the exam and does poorly overall. A third group member remembers quite a bit from the group session, however, finds that some of the group’s answers from the session were not correct. She has a hunch about correct answers but keeps getting confused by what was said in the group. She wishes she would have prepared better on her own.
It is likely that you or someone you know has experienced these learning outcomes. The story of working with others may not be all bad though. For example, group testing in classroom settings has shown to reduce test anxiety among individuals, provide social cuing of information, and has led to groups remembering more overall. Additional research blending laboratory remembering with class remembering is needed to reveal a clearer picture of the long-term benefits of group vs. individual remembering (LoGuidice, Pachai & Kim, 2015). Until then, it is important to add collaborative inhibition to the list of potential pitfalls of learning in groups.
Basden, B. H., Basden, D. R., Bryner, S. and Thomas, R. L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 23, 1176–1189.
LoGuidice, A.B., Pachai, A.A., & Kim, J.A. (2015). Testing together: When do students learn
more through collaborative tests? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(4), 377-389.
Rajaram, S., & Pereira-Pasarin, L. P. (2010). Collaborative memory: Cognitive research andtheory. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(6), 649-663.
Wright, D.B., & Klumpp, A. (2004). Collaborative inhibition is due to the product, not the
process, of recalling in groups. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 11(6), 1080=1083.