Student - 3 november 2011

Do you begrijpen?

Group work is not easy. The division of tasks, the planning, the decisionmaking: it all has to be done in consultation. And it doesn't get any easier when you have to work with people of other nationalities, whichever they may be. Language barriers and cultural differences are among the biggest sources of irritation in group work, say students.

A full 30 percent of the students at Wageningen UR are international. So when you work in a group, there is a big chance that it will include people of several different nationalities. And that can be difficult, as PhD student Vitaliy Popov knows. ‘Working in groups inevitably entails the usual problems to do with organization and communication. But groups that contain a mix of Dutch and international students also come up against problems related to cultural differences. The group members have all sorts of different backgrounds, ways of working and social conventions. This can make for friction between students.'
Popov, from Russia, works in the Education and Competence Studies Group, where he researched the problems students run into in multicultural group work. He issued a questionnaire to about 150 Master's students at the end of the Academic Consultancy Training (ACT) course, asking them about their frustrations. About half the respondents were international students.
Individualistic
The biggest frustration expressed by Dutch students has nothing to do with cultural differences. It is freeriding, the familiar phenomenon of certain group members ducking out of their tasks while sharing the credit for the end result. But cultural irritations come in a close second and include inadequate command of the English language and poor communication skills. These two are closely related, believes Popov, and they are a source of irritation for Dutch students in particular. Popov is not sure whether the language level of some of the students is really as low as believed, as there could be cultural issues at stake too. ‘Not all foreign students are able to do themselves justice in group work, when it comes to language. They are shy and scared of expressing themselves in a foreign language. Other students are very quick to conclude that they don't have anything to say or their knowledge of the English language is inadequate.'
Foreign students have a very different take on group, Popov discovered. The questionnaire revealed that students from Asia, Africa and South America acknowledge that freeriding is a big problem but do not see it as the most annoying feature of group work. To them the most important thing is to maintain harmony in the group. ‘These students put the interests of the group above the interests of the individual. They will not, for example, explicitly voice their disagreement with a decision. They consider it impolite to argue in public so they keep their mouths shut. Even when an assignment goes totally wrong, the group members stay loyal to each other.' What really annoys this group of students, says Popov, is Dutch students who behave assertively and individualistically. ‘They think it's important to keep relations good and that sometimes clashes with the attitudes of the Dutch students. They come right out with anything they are not happy with.'
According to Popov, this is because Dutch students are much more individualistic. ‘Students from western cultures are very strongly focused on achieving personal goals. They prefer to work alone, because then they can do as they think best. In group work they are dependent on the others. They don't collaborate with others because they get on well with them but in order to fulfil a task and because it will give them experience they could not get any other way.'
Skills course
Wageningen University is an international university with a full 30 percent of its students coming from abroad, from more than 100 different countries. After graduating, many students go and work abroad or for international companies. So an ability to work together with people from different cultural backgrounds is very valuable, says Popov, who talks of ‘the magic' of group work.
‘On the one hand it creates problems, but on the other hand students can learn an awful lot from each other. In a heterogeneous group you get so many different perspective and angles on things. You get an opportunity to share knowledge that you would never have had otherwise.'
For this reason the university is investing in improving the intercultural communicative skills of its students. All students of ACT have to take a skills course first. The course is spread over three afternoons during which they learn presentation, argumentation and communication skills. Besides this compulsory course, a point is made of having professionals such as teachers present to coach the students in the group process. They explain how to work in international teams and can intervene when things go wrong.
A course like this is a good start, says Popov, but it is not enough. ‘You can't learn how to communicate well in three afternoons. We could do with giving this more attention.' Coaching by professionals is sorely needed, he realizes after attending an ACT session. Language problems were clearly in evidence, he says. ‘Students had to ask each other repeatedly whether they had really understood the point .'

Vitaliy Popov did his research on the Academic Consultancy Training (ATC) course, which is unique in Wageningen. The course is open to students from a range of Master's programmes. So a Dutch MSc student of Life Sciences may find herself working with an Asian student of Social Sciences. The students collaborate in groups of five to seven on short-term projects for a real client, perhaps the town council or the university. The students play their own roles in the team, as appropriate to their specialisms.

Comments by students in Vitaliy's survey:
‘I would prefer a Dutch group, because many international students have difficulty expressing themselves, or don't know what they are supposed to be doing. They are not used to group work.'
‘The difficult thing about communicating with Asian students is that they say so little. That is a problem if you are working in a group.'
‘Some people are so quiet during group work, but you need to hear their voices too. We should be coached in this as students.'
‘It is not nice to work only with Dutch students. They often talk about the project in Dutch, so international students don't understand a word.'

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