NOTICE: When it comes to academic teamwork, collaborate with caution
“We have a unique collaborative culture,” every college of all time said.
The promotion of a cooperative university environment is not only ubiquitous, but also seen as an unequivocal good. Harvey Mudd College is the epitome of this philosophy: From the way homework is assigned to the design of the Honor Code, it is evident that the school strongly encourages students to study together.
Yet although this culture is described as extremely positive, individuals should embrace it with caution. Among other potential concerns, asymmetric pace and pressure to collaborate are two possible side effects of a collaborative student culture – which students should keep in mind when managing their workload.
Disclaimer: I am still primarily in favor of the culture promoted by HMC. Professors actively encourage students to work together, even going so far as to make certain issues explicitly collaborative. The Honor Code instructs students to indicate with whom they completed their homework on their submissions, implying that cooperation is the norm.
And it works: Mudders can be seen sprawled out in the suites’ living rooms or scribbling on Shanahan whiteboards after class, discussing issues and battling with each other for new concepts. With many of them coming from hyper-competitive high schools, the drastic shift to a mutually supportive environment is clearly beneficial.
At first glance, everything looks fine. Yet even this culture has drawbacks at its extremes. For example, each student arrives at college with different levels of understanding in each subject, but they end up in the same classes with the same work upon arrival. As a result, working with friends who may be more advanced has an intuitive drawback – the asymmetrical pacing may cause some study group members to fall behind.
Even if those who fall behind always write the correct answer, they may simply end up with a false illusion that they understand the concept. These knowledge gaps only appear when students are forced to complete individual assignments or exams, when they realize that solving a problem from start to finish is much more difficult without outside support.
Clearly, collaboration should make the learning process more efficient, not inadvertently undermine it. It’s natural to want to work with friends, but unfortunately those you get along with might not be the best people to study with. Instead, students should assess the relative abilities of their groups of friends, intentionally looking for those with whom they can work best. Or, they should test their knowledge individually after studying with others, making sure that the material has been retained and not just received and written down on paper. Knowing each other academically is an integral part of optimizing the learning process, especially when it comes to working together.
Regardless of academic symmetries, it can sometimes be better to work alone. It seems like a trivial decision to make, but when the academic culture is as collaborative as at HMC, students almost feel compelled to complete every task with the help of others. In other words, only the perceived norm of working together can drive students to do so, as they don’t want to feel excluded or isolated.
Of course, that’s usually an advantage. However, when students’ social batteries are low, when they need more time to digest the material on their own, or just want to eliminate distractions, it can be difficult to resist the pressure and FOMO that comes with doing it. staying at home.
As students, social norms and pressure take their toll – but students who might need some time alone should recognize that their mental and physical health comes first. Ultimately, the collaborative culture has been cultivated to help, not to hurt; Students should find appropriate times to take advantage of it rather than embrace it unconditionally.
Despite its drawbacks, HMC’s collaborative environment is generally a boon for its students. At the same time, it’s important to recognize your shortcomings when studying with more advanced peers or when it may be best to tackle homework on your own. Ultimately, while it may be common practice to work together, by no means should it be law without exceptions.
Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. She is not sure if she will cross Mudd without the help of her friends.