In academia we value the ability to assess an individual student’s development and ultimate understanding of concepts. We need to know that each ’A’ earned means that a student is independently capable of applying knowledge and skills toward an end. But we can’t ignore the value of a team effort when it comes to achieving “the common good.”
A recent study from Indiana University compared two groups, innovators and imitators, in order to find which were more successful at developing solutions to complex tasks where personal choices and strategies led to success or failure. The innovators developed independent strategies and made game choices by observing their own results. Imitators looked at their competition and copied the most successful strategies of others. Imitators even imitated their imitators’ imitations of themselves, seeing improvements that they never would have considered otherwise. The results of the study showed that overall success of imitators was much higher than that of innovators, and games with more imitators collectively scored higher than those with more innovators. When the game is made visible to its players, success is recognized, synthesized, and most importantly, improved upon with micro-innovations that lead to more micro-innovations, and the “common good” is made better.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop testing students or stop expecting them to do their own homework. Or that we should train them for industrial espionage. (A healthy dose of guidance on the line between inspiration and plagiarism would be a good idea.) But we should balance individual activities and assessments with shared opportunities for students to view each other’s successes and failures in order for them to take the best parts and tailor them to their own needs, multiplying the impact of what your course teaches them.
For an interesting (and some would say extreme) example of this approach to course work, read this story from a UCLA Behavioral Ecology professor who turned his comprehensive course final into a bizarre social exam game experiment: Why I Let My Students Cheat On Their Exam.