Group work can involve many rewards as well as challenges. Group work is assigned when a task or project is larger in scope than any one person can reasonably complete on their own. Working in groups allows you to practice collaborating, negotiating, and compromising to achieve a common goal. It also gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses. These are also particularly useful skills for your professional career, and university group work provides an opportunity for you to test out and become familiar with how you will collaborate in teams in future.
The challenges come when that collaboration goes wrong. Sometimes, team members have different expectations about the task, or have different levels of commitment to achieving the team's shared goal. These problems can show themselves through lack of communication or follow through on assigned tasks. Therefore, the key to effective group work is good communication and effective planning.
To start the project well, discuss your expectations early on. In your first team meeting, get to know each other and your expectations about your commitment to the task. If disagreements arise, approach them constructively and aim to find solutions that will help everyone. Ideally, everyone should commit to contributing the same amount of effort to the project. Consider:
- How committed are you to this project? If one team member wants to get a high mark, and another just wants to pass, then challenges are likely to arise. Can you negotiate a middle ground? You may also discuss further options with your tutor or lecturer.
- How much time are you each able to commit to the project?
- What roles does the project require? Do you need, for example, a leader, organiser, devil's advocate (someone who deliberately raises objections about the ideas to test their strength), fact checker, mediator, etc.?
- Who is best suited for which roles? Do some people have unique skills that mean they'll be better suited to particular roles?
- Is everyone getting an equal share of the workload? Everyone should have a role that includes research and analysis, to learn the course material.
- What are the exact expectations for each role? For example, for a leader, what are the expectations around their leadership method? For a devil's advocate, how and when will they raise objections?
- How and how often do you want to communicate with each other? What are the expectations about response time to messages? When is best to hold group meetings?
It can be useful to draw up a document or charter that records everyone's agreed expectations. This way, you and your team members can review and revise these expectations if they change, or if people's capacity to commit to the project changes.
Understand the task
After discussing your expectations of how the team will function, discuss the task.
- What is the main purpose and question?
- What do you anticipate your answer to the question might look like? This will help everyone to do research that is focused on the same goal.
- What type of analysis and research are needed?
- What else is expected?
- Are there any questions that need to be clarified with your tutor or lecturer?
Plan your approach
- As a group, identify and agree on your aniticpated key message. Once you anticipate the key message, it is much easier to assign different parts for group members to write up.
- Break down the task into individual tasks with deadlines, e.g. for carrying out the analysis, achieving the first rough draft, completing major revisions, proofreading, submission. Keep in mind that you'll have to spend time revising the document to make it coherent - both in its key message and style.
- Assign tasks to specific team members.
- When creating deadlines, leave plenty of buffer time for things to go wrong, so that as a team you can sort out solutions without having to panic or rush.
- Plan how you will stay in contact - don't farm out tasks and then ignore each other until they're meant to be done. You might find you have to adapt your key message, which will necessitate changes from everyone.
- Plan regular team meetings and deadlines to reply to communications. Remember, it's better to meet more often than not, and groupwork can fall apart quickly without good communication.
- After doing the analysis, before writing up the report, review your key message. Is it the same as you anticipated? Does it need modification? Identifying your key message as a team is key to writing a coherent, consistent report.
- Unequal participation often arises from poor communication. People can feel left out or confused about their role, and may not know how to admit it. They may also feel that their contribution is not valued, and so withdraw.
- Practice active and inclusive communication to get all members involved. Listen to everyone respectfully, and acknowledge each other's perspective.
- Approach challenges constructively and as a team. If challenges arise, as a team brainstorm potential solutions that will be helpful for everyone. Remember that team members should support each other to complete the project effectively.
- When decisions are collectively made, ensure that everyone clearly understands what is agreed to.
- Agendas, minutes and a project planning document can be helpful tools to keep track of the project and everyone's individual tasks.
- There are many tools (e.g. Slack, Google docs, Google calendar, Trello, WhatsApp) available to coordinate the project. As a team, agree on which tool/s you will use.
Projects are challenging because they change over time, often due to changes in people's availability and commitment levels, as well as the task's ideas or key message. It's important to regularly check in with each other to address challenges as they arise.
- In your regular meetings, continue to discuss your commitment levels and understanding of the task.
- Review your goals and deadlines as a team, to find solutions that work for everyone.
- If at any point in the project you are unhappy with your role, discuss it as a team. The team roles don't have to be fixed for the entire project, you may find some changes beneficial.
If things go wrong
In the event that things do go wrong, consider adopting the following measures to help you manage the situation effectively.
- Keep thorough records of the project. Records of your agendas, minutes, project planning documents and written agreements can be helpful if you need to demonstrate to your lecturer how your project has progressed.
- Keep a personal journal to identify when challenges arise, reflect on possible solutions, and provide a record of how you addressed them. It can also provide evidence of your contributions to the project. Recording your experiences, thoughts and feelings is especially useful if you have to write a reflection on how well the group achieved its goals and communicated with each other, and provide evidence of your contributions to the project.
- Don't let grievances fester - address conflict early.
- If in doubt, ask your tutor or lecturer for guidance.