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Trouble with The Curve

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By G. M. Cox
May 11, 2018

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a peer reviewer of an online MPA course. Working closely with curriculum innovation to accomplish this review, I found the “holy grail,” it seems, of online (and other methodology) education, is collaborative learning. I must say, I was taken aback, slightly, as I pondered the pedagogical pecking order and not too subtle hint that professors should be building into their curriculum opportunities for group or team learning.

This got me to wondering about this presumption and the reality that the feedback I have received on the many years of adjunct faculty work and in the last three years, full-time professing, is that many students express less than glowing comments on this modality of education. Particularly, what I have heard is that 1) some students do not pull their weight, 2) some students do only the minimum amount of work that others get graded on, 3) group projects are great in some applications, but not all, and 4) group projects do not mean that the group learns equally. In fact, one might suggest that group learning could be an impediment to learning – group experiences, if off the mark or wrong, suggests that the group has or could have learned wrongly.

Many have the opinion (such as Twenge, J. In his 2014 piece “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before” and author Cox, G. in 2011’s “Crisis in Police Recruitment: Public Service Motivation and Changes in Generational Preferences”) that Gen Y the youngest cohort attending college (17 to 34 years old and older if attending graduate programs) cut their learning teeth on group projects, collaborative problem solving and group learning. Others might suggest the real problem with Gen Y is not their ability to work in teams or participate in-group projects. Utilizing a baseball metaphor, requiring them to participate in collaborative learning is like throwing fast balls to major league baseball players, such as Babe Ruth – this plays to their (his) strengths and they (he) can hit home runs easily. Give them a curve ball, requiring them to work on their own, will result in very different outcomes and learning experiences.

Gen Y has a weakness with working independently — hitting the curve ball. If it is correct that part of the objectives of any degree program, such as an MPA degree, is to instill certain skills sets to our students that will assist them in their careers, then approaching our pedagogy from a lens defined by the idea that group or collaborative learning to this cohort will accomplish this objective, then we might need a seachange in our thinking. Rather, what might be suggested by current adult learning theory and anecdotal evidence is that having them work on their own is an effective learning environment for skill set development that will actually assist them in achieving success in their careers.

Additionally, some evidence is present which suggests that Gen Y has issues with knowing exactly collaborative learning is. Trouble with the curve might include the idea of veracity and honesty in scholarship. Meaning, some Gen Ys might have a very different perspective on plagiarism and taking credit for accomplishments they did not earn.  Changing this paradigm slightly, public administrators are hugely sensitive to veracity issues – particularly in today’s public sector climate – and want to see a product, our graduates, come into the work place with a willingness and ability to not only work alone on projects, but also work with others when the project calls for a team effort. Hopefully, through public administration education, our end products, graduate students in public administration, the field will be made better by the various mixes of generations, and their attached strengths, but with a certain amount of appreciation for skills that have worked for many years.

Pedagogically, independent study is as important as collaborative learning modalities. However, suggesting that team learning has some superior place in education is probably misplaced and certainly over rated. Our students bring with them certain strengths and a number of weaknesses. Education, in general, and in PA graduate work specifically, must be cognizant of the skills set development responsibilities and expectations being placed on us to deliver a marketable product capable of operating in any number of settings that our graduates might find themselves in the public sector, and other areas.

Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a peer reviewer of an online MPA course. Working closely with curriculum innovation to accomplish this review, I found the “holy grail,” it seems, of online (and other methodology) education, is collaborative learning. I must say, I was taken aback, slightly, as I pondered the pedagogical pecking order and not too subtle hint that professors should be building into their curriculum opportunities for group or team learning.

This got me to wondering about this presumption and the reality that the feedback I have received on the many years of adjunct faculty work and in the last three years, full-time professing, is that many students express less than glowing comments on this modality of education. Particularly, what I have heard is that 1) some students do not pull their weight, 2) some students do only the minimum amount of work that others get graded on, 3) group projects are great in some applications, but not all, and 4) group projects do not mean that the group learns equally. In fact, one might suggest that group learning could be an impediment to learning – group experiences, if off the mark or wrong, suggests that the group has or could have learned wrongly.

Many have the opinion (such as Twenge, J. In his 2014 piece “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before” and author Cox, G. in 2011’s “Crisis in Police Recruitment: Public Service Motivation and Changes in Generational Preferences”) that Gen Y the youngest cohort attending college (17 to 34 years old and older if attending graduate programs) cut their learning teeth on group projects, collaborative problem solving and group learning. Others might suggest the real problem with Gen Y is not their ability to work in teams or participate in-group projects. Utilizing a baseball metaphor, requiring them to participate in collaborative learning is like throwing fast balls to major league baseball players, such as Babe Ruth — this plays to their (his) strengths and they (he) can hit home runs easily. Give them a curve ball, requiring them to work on their own, will result in very different outcomes and learning experiences.

Gen Y has a weakness with working independently — hitting the curve ball. If it is correct that part of the objectives of any degree program, such as an MPA degree, is to instill certain skills sets to our students that will assist them in their careers, then approaching our pedagogy from a lens defined by the idea that group or collaborative learning to this cohort will accomplish this objective, then we might need a seachange in our thinking. Rather, what might be suggested by current adult learning theory and anecdotal evidence is that having them work on their own is an effective learning environment for skill set development that will actually assist them in achieving success in their careers.

Additionally, some evidence is present which suggests that Gen Y has issues with knowing exactly collaborative learning is. Trouble with the curve might include the idea of veracity and honesty in scholarship. Meaning, some Gen Ys might have a very different perspective on plagiarism and taking credit for accomplishments they did not earn. Changing this paradigm slightly, public administrators are hugely sensitive to veracity issues—particularly in today’s public sector climate—and want to see a product, our graduates, come into the work place with a willingness and ability to not only work alone on projects, but also work with others when the project calls for a team effort. Hopefully, through public administration education, our end products, graduate students in public administration, the field will be made better by the various mixes of generations, and their attached strengths, but with a certain amount of appreciation for skills that have worked for many years.

Pedagogically, independent study is as important as collaborative learning modalities. However, suggesting that team learning has some superior place in education is probably misplaced and certainly over rated. Our students bring with them certain strengths and several weaknesses. Education, in general, and in PA graduate work specifically, must be cognizant of the skills set development responsibilities and expectations being placed on us to deliver a marketable product capable of operating in any number of settings that our graduates might find themselves in the public sector, and other areas.


Author: Dr. G. M. Cox, Assistant Professor and Director, BA/MSPA Program, Tarleton State University, earned his doctorate in Public and Urban Administration (2011) from the University of Texas – Arlington. Graduate of the 165th Session (1991), FBI National Academy, Past-President of the Texas Police Chiefs’ Association (2005-2006), and incoming president of the Police Futurist Society, International. He currently serves as Secretary, ASPA-SPAE.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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