OPINION: When it comes to academic teamwork, collaborate with caution

Students work on a presentation together.
Beware of the downsides of a dominant collaboration culture at HMC, argues Serena Mao (Courtesy: Greg Anderson)

“We have a unique culture of collaboration” — said every college ever. 

Promoting a cooperative academic environment is not just ubiquitous, but also viewed as an unequivocal good. Harvey Mudd College is the epitome of this philosophy: from the way homework is assigned to the Honor Code’s design, it’s obvious that the school strongly encourages students to study together. 

Yet, although this culture is portrayed as overwhelmingly positive, individuals should embrace it with caution. Among other potential concerns, asymmetrical pacing and pressure to collaborate are two possible side effects of a collaborative student culture — both of which students should keep in the back of their heads as they manage their workloads. 

Disclaimer: I’m still mostly in support of the culture that HMC promotes. Professors actively encourage students to work together, even making certain problems explicitly collaborative. The Honor Code tells students to indicate who they completed homework with on their submissions, implying that cooperation is the norm. 

And it works: Mudders can be seen sprawled in suite lounges or scribbling on Shanahan whiteboards after classes, discussing problem sets and struggling through new concepts with each other. With many of them coming from hyper-competitive high schools, the drastic shift to a mutually supportive environment is clearly beneficial. 

At face value, all seems well. Yet, even this culture has downsides at its extremes. For example, each student comes to college with different levels of understanding in each subject, but they end up in the same classes with the same work when they arrive. As a result, working together with friends that may be more advanced has an intuitive downside — the asymmetrical pace can cause some in the study group to fall behind. 

Even if those falling behind still write the correct answer down, they may just end up with a false illusion that they understand the concept. These knowledge gaps don’t show up until students are forced to complete individual work or exams, when they realize that solving a problem from start to finish is far more difficult without outside support. 

Obviously, collaboration should make the learning process more efficient, not inadvertently undermine it. It’s natural to want to work with friends, however, inconveniently, those who one gets along with might not be the best people to study with. Instead, students should gauge the relative abilities of their friend groups, intentionally looking for those they can work best with. Or, they should test their knowledge individually after studying with others, ensuring that the material was retained and not just received and written on paper. Knowing oneself academically is integral to optimizing the learning process — especially when it comes to working together. 

Regardless of any academic symmetries, sometimes it can be best to work alone. This seems like a trivial decision to make, but when the academic culture is as collaborative as it is at HMC, students almost feel pressure to complete every assignment with the help of others. In other words, just the perceived norm of working together may pressure students to do so, as they don’t want to feel left out or isolated. 

Of course, this is generally an upside. However, when students’ social batteries run low, when they need some extra time to digest the material on their own, or just want to eliminate distractions, it may be difficult to resist the pressure and FOMO that comes from staying home. 

As college students, social norms and pressure have non-negligible effects — but students who might need some alone time should recognize that their mental and physical health come above fitting in. Ultimately, the collaborative culture was cultivated to help, not hurt; Students should find the appropriate times to leverage it rather than embracing it unconditionally. 

Despite its downsides, HMC’s collaborative environment is overall a huge boon for its students. At the same time, it’s important to recognize its shortcomings when studying with more advanced peers or when it just might be better to tackle assignments alone. Ultimately, though it might be standard practice to work together, it by no means should be a law with no exceptions. 

Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. She’s not sure if she’d get through Mudd without the help of her friends.

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