Motivation, learning and group work – the effect of friendship on collaboration

Erica Sainsbury, Richard Walker


Group work is an established practice in all levels of education, and skills in collaboration are valued graduate attributes of the University of Sydney (The University of Sydney, 2004). Sociocultural theory, which posits that individual learning and motivation emerge from participation in social activity, suggests that collaboration can be effective in promoting the emergence of both learning and motivation. A number of strategies for allocating students to groups are commonly used, including self-selection, random assignment or deliberate allocation, depending on the purpose and format of the work to be undertaken. Barron (2003) has suggested that friendship is a critical mediator of productive collaboration in that friends engage in more extensive talk which elaborate and extend expressed ideas. Further, friendship is also posited to mediate more effective collaboration through familiarity with ways of thinking and personal histories, and through increased motivation to work harder.

As part of a wider study of science learning among first year Pharmacy students, we investigated the interactions within two self-selected groups, one consisting of five individuals who claimed to be close friends and one consisting of six individuals who were mostly acquaintances. These groups were videotaped while undertaking classroom workshop activities designed to promote discussion and collaborative problem-solving, and each individual was interviewed on several occasions to elicit their perspectives on their group's functioning, together with their own motivations and extent of their learning. Using Rogoff's (1998) planes of analysis approach, which allows interdependent analysis of the interpersonal and intrapersonal dimensions of motivation, we evaluated the ways in which perceptions of friendship shaped and were shaped by the motivations of individuals, the nature of the collaboration apparent within the two groups, and the quality and persistence of individual conceptual development and learning.

In contrast to Barron (2003), we found a more complex relationship between friendship and productivity of collaboration, and that individual motivations were critical in mediating this complexity. Members of the "friends" group demonstrated significantly greater competitive behaviours towards each other than members of the "acquaintances" group, with the result that their friendships began to deteriorate over the study period. Individuals within the "friends" group were primarily motivated by the need for personal achievement, particularly in examinations, which was manifest in a range of behaviours towards each other and in relation to the activities in which they participated. Member of the "acquaintances" group, on the other hand, were motivated to a significantly greater extent by a focus on learning the material and assisting the others in their group to learn. The latter group, although less academically well-performed, demonstrated significantly greater persistence of their learning than the former, although the former outperformed the latter in the end-of-semester examination. A greater reported level of friendship was thus associated with the phenomenon of familiarity-breeds-contempt, whereas acquaintanceship was associated with politeness and respect. Individual and collective motivation thus mediated qualitative differences in the productivity of collaboration and extent of learning. These findings have not been previously reported, and the study thus contributes to a deeper understanding of the interactions between individual and collective behaviours, motivations and outcomes.

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