Survive (and Thrive in) Group Work

For many students, group projects can be challenging. After all, the bulk of assignments students are tasked with involve independent work. When group work is assigned, ensuring that each member of the group contributes equally to a task—and is used to the best of their abilities—is a daunting proposition.

But group projects help students develop invaluable skills, including teamwork and time management. Additionally, they offer a glimpse into the professional world, where many assignments—especially in a corporate setting—will involve working with other employees on a project.

Here are seven tips to help you succeed on a group project.

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Get to Know Each Other

In a group project setting, you’ll often find yourself working with students you’ve never spent much time with before, especially if your instructor is the one who created the groups. Find out what subject areas your classmates are interested in. If you’re working on a poster board project and one student is an art major, this may be good information to know in advance so that you can make the best use of that person’s talents. If one student is a varsity athlete and travels many weekends, that also may be good to know in advance so that you can plan around their hectic schedule.

At your first meeting, go around in a circle and have everyone share their initial ideas. It’s much easier for everyone to get on the same page when you’re all clear about what you hope to get out of the project from the get-go. Similarly, don’t be afraid to discuss students’ concerns, particularly if they are worried about a specific aspect of the project. If you’re working on a public speaking project and one student expresses a fear of public speaking, give them a lesser speaking role and allow them to work on research or speech writing.

Decide How to Best Communicate

Anytime more than two people are involved, communication can get tricky. Determine the best communication method early into the group project process. Emails, GroupMe, Facebook and text message groups can all be effective methods of communication.

That being said, it’s also important to establish what form of communication works best for your group as a whole. Does everyone have a Facebook account? Does anyone never check their university email? Determine which specific communication method works best. For example, if your group plans to co-edit documents, slides or spreadsheets, you might wish to use Google Drive—but this method only works best if all members have Google accounts.

Clearly Define Responsibilities Among Group Members

A common complaint students have about group projects is that workloads end up being distributed unevenly. Some teachers have come up with a solution for this problem, allowing students to score how much work their teammates have done. But in other classes, team members can freeload off their peers without any repercussion grades-wise.

To prevent this situation, clearly define the roles of group members far in advance, doing your best to ensure that each member’s contribution is roughly equal in importance and time. If everyone knows exactly what they’re responsible for from the get-go, they won’t be able to cast work off on another member of the team. And if students assign themselves their roles, they’re more likely to be interested in their specific portion of the project.

Create a Timeline

Procrastination is the worst enemy of many a student. Having clearly defined roles for each member can help establish accountability and prevent a situation in which everything happens last minute. But creating a timeline with specific deadlines can really help prevent procrastination, especially when you’re working on a more long-term project.

Create a strict schedule for your team, taking into account other obligations of individual team members. Within your timeline, establish specific times for your group to meet (for semester- or year-long projects, this should be on at least a weekly basis). While digital communication is undoubtedly an effective method for logistical purposes, it’s much easier to flesh out ideas in person.

Deal with Conflicts as Soon as They Arise

In group projects, disagreements can naturally arise. Regardless of an argument’s root cause, it’s important to settle a disagreement early on, rather than letting tensions fester. Discuss how best to go about it, weighing the merits of each side so that no one feels that their opinion is being squashed.

That said, there’s no reason that conflict can’t be a healthy part of a group project experience. Different people have different ideas about how to do things best, and there isn’t always a “right” way or a “wrong” way. Talk as a group about the merits of competing ideas. Sometimes, two heads are better than one—and the best option is to combine various students’ thoughts into one, cohesive project.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask Your Instructor for Help

If one part of your project is posing great difficulty for you and your teammates, it’s likely that other students in the course are also struggling—and your teacher may be able to help. It can be intimidating to approach an instructor (especially in a large college lecture course), but seasoned instructors know which portions of their projects are most challenging.

Even if everything is going along smoothly, the instructor (or a teaching assistant) can still be a valuable resource. Don’t be afraid to check in, especially if you’re ahead of schedule, and ask if they can look over what you have so far. Many professors are willing to work with students in advance to ensure that assignments go smoothly—and oftentimes, professors will give their students the benefit of the doubt if those students appear to have put forth significant effort.

Have a Good Attitude

A positive attitude goes a long way toward a successful group project experience. If you enter into a project with the assumption that things aren’t going to go well, you’re going to be more likely to have a negative experience. If you have an open mind, you’re going to be more motivated to put your best effort into the project, which result in a higher grade.

Group projects can also be a way to make new friends in a course—so no worries if you’re thrust into a randomly assigned group. Remember: Even a tumultuous group project experience can result in a productive learning experience. And whatever little road blocks you face along the way may prove ultimately useful in the real world.

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