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Divide and Conquer

The Divide and Conquer approach is probably the most common default method that students (and not just students) take when assigned group work.

While it has some strengths, it is not usually the best method for most of the purposes learning-activity group work is assigned.

What is Divide and Conquer?

Divide and Conquer is a common name given to the approach to group work in which the group - or a dominant member or members of the group - chop the assignment up into "equal" sized pieces, each of the group members does 'their' piece, then someone (or someones) put the pieces together, and submit it as a single 'whole' assignment.

Problems with Divide and Conquer?

  • "equal" can mean an Orwellian "some are more equal than others" - a very common cause of group work complaints that haunt the lecturer or tutor to whom the 'unequal' parties complain
  • even when "equal" is reasonably fairly divided, it is rare that any one member of the group - apart from the final assembler - knows anything more of the group assignment than "their bit". This usually (though not always) defeats the purpose of the assignment, as it is commonly desired for all students to learn all parts of the combined knowledge. Regrettably, in Divide-and-Conquer, most students learn one fourth or fifth or sixth (or whatever) of the combined knowledge required to produce the full assignment
  • a consequence of this is that many of the students will not even realise they have not learned core knowledge until they sit the exam - and don't know any of the answers to any of the questions that focus on the "other bits" of their group assignment
  • the person or persons undertaking the assembly of the collated 'pieces' usually either has to do considerably more than their share of the project (their "piece" plus assembly) or considerably less (they do none of the research and just patch together what everyone else did)
  • another fairly common complaint from unhappy group members is that the assembling party or parties changed the other group members' contributions. Untangling this is an interesting exercise as the complaint can be an unreasonable failure to recognise the need to edit for coherence and uniformity, or a completely legitimate complaint against unauthorised rewrites in a ruthless overhaul which may or may not have been justified or may be symptomatic of leadership ego issues
  • different students with different approaches to desired grades can have very different qualities of input for each of their 'pieces' of the project - with very variable outcomes. This is frequently the root cause of some of the other problems (especially 'editing' or 'overhaul' complaints about assembly) listed here
  • What is going to happen when you have one student who needs an HD for a scholarship and another student who works 30 hours a week and is happy to scrape a bare pass are put in the same group? This question applies to all forms of group or team, but in a divide and conquer group will usually not appear until the last minute, when it's too late for most of the ways in which the problem can be resolved to be applied.

Pluses for Divide and Conquer?

  • it can be the fastest way to get the job done (if the "job" is completing the project, rather than learning the material or process
  • it can prevent a lot of the group problems about timing and scheduling that can arise in more collaborative methods of group work - everyone goes away and does their own bit in their own time, which can be much more manageable and less stressful
  • it allows students to play to their strengths - which mimics how group projects are often assigned and/or approached in the workplace. In cross-functional groups, an IT person will do the software, an HR person will work on the policies, a Marketing person will develop the marketing strategy... so, in essence, this approach does mimic what the student will frequently encounter after graduation

When is a good time to use Divide and Conquer?

Basically - any time that the finished product is the primary concern and major objective of the activity, and student learning doesn't need to encompass all aspects of the project. Cross-functional groups can use this method very powerfully. It can also be useful when speed is of the essence.

When is NOT a good time to use Divide and Conquer?

Do not use on any occasion when all students need to learn all the composite material that comprises the project product.
Do not use when the learning is embedded in the process rather than the product.

Deciding whether or not to use Divide and Conquer

The basic rule of thumb is the usual one - what do I want my students to learn from engaging in this activity? What skills and knowledge should they still have next year as a result of participating in this project now? If you know the answer to that, you will know whether Divide and Conquer will work to accomplish that or not.


Last updated 08 August 2013.

Pedagogical Possibilities for the Professions

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