Many higher education establishments have experienced large increases in student numbers and this can support the rationale for introducing more group work. First, it might be regarded as a palliative for the resource problems that massification tends to create. Second, it may be championed as a practicable way of providing good learning experiences for students.
Increases in student numbers typically reduce the average lecturer time available for each student and certain forms of group work can be offered as a partial solution. Class contact time can be reduced if students are asked to work in groups outside of the direct supervision of lecturing staff. Individual projects can be replaced by group projects. However, group work can take many hours of administration to make sure that the process runs smoothly.
Massification also puts pressure on the quality of teaching. How do lecturers engage the feelings and emotions of a large body of students, whom they neither meet individually nor know by name? If the cited benefits of group work can be realised, the productivity of teaching might be raised through improvements in quality as well as through reductions in resources per head. For example, following Kolb's (1984) model of experiential learning, students might be more effectively engaged in their learning, develop their initiative and motivation, and show increased commitment in their learning.
It is now usual for undergraduate awards to be required to include in their aims a commitment to developing students' skills. Statements are easily written into award documents, but less easily located in the experiences that are provided for students or the outcomes that are assessed. Group work projects provide practicable opportunities for the application of transferable skills (such as teamwork, leadership, communication and project management) and these opportunities are easy to write into module specifications. Identifying students' progress in these skills is more of a challenge and one that lies beyond the scope of this chapter.
For students studying within a mass education environment there can be social and personal benefits of being allocated into relatively small, clearly identified, task-oriented groups. There is a longstanding body of research suggesting that membership of groups can make a major contribution to an individual's sense of identity and self-evaluation (see, for example, Festinger, 1954).