So, maybe you’re a better student than I am and you actually LIKE group work. However, in my experience, most motivated and successful students don’t like group work. It’s not because the work is hard, but the people who fit those descriptions tend to be the folks who end up doing the project or paper, and then putting the other group members’ names on it. But, as much as we all hate group work, instructors are still going to assign it (and those of us who teach are probably subjecting our our students to it). So here are a few ideas to make the experience tolerable, and maybe something you actually enjoy.

1) Choose a group leader or “coordinator.” Every business needs a Steve Jobs, every d-line needs a Brian Urlacher. A group leader is important, but their role will vary depending on the group dynamic. In more motivated groups, the coordinator may just end up scheduling meeting and setting up a Google doc. In other situations, the group leader may have to be the parent and track down the contributions of group members. Bottom line, someone has to be in charge.

2) Make a timeline and set deadlines. My pop always says “The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” Breaking down a project into smaller tasks, dividing them up among group members, and setting deadlines will not only make the project more palatable, it will make group members accountable to one another in steps, instead of finally realizing on the due date that one group member hasn’t done ANY of their portion.

3) Be prepared to compromise. Let’s take a page from our recent political situation and NOT ACT LIKE THEM. Nobody is going to do every project the same way or even use the same tools to get there. Those of us with more OCD tendencies have to just take a deep breath and realize that we can only do our best and sometime just let people (and their portion of the group grade) be.

4) Take time to take technological stock of the group members. Digital literacy is varied and some of us tend to take others’ knowledge for granted. What tools are we going to use to get the project done? How are we going to share our progress? Email? Google docs? A Posterous group blog? Google sites? The possibilities are literally endless. Just make sure that whatever you choose, your group feels comfortable using it.

5) Lastly, relax. The group project can be fun and memorable. You may even form a softball or Beirut team together. But probably not. And that’s okay too. You don’t have to be BFFs, just get your work done.

And, because we HAVE to have a video, a tip about group work from Yo Gabba Gabba (the show my kid watches ad nauseum):

[Image by Flickr user Chris L_AK and used under Creative Commons License]


4 Responses to Being a Better Collaborator – It’s Okay, You’ll Survive

  1. Lillian says:

    Jensie, I think this post is awesome. In middle- and high-school I particularly hated group work because all my group members knew that I would do whatever it took to get the project done (mainly because we didn’t get individual grades, it was a single group grade). I still dislike group work primarily for some of the reasons you outlined above – because many of my profs didn’t take advantage of doing just what you mentioned!

    Two additional things I’ve found helpful in group work are the following:
    1) Providing everyone with a grading rubric or *VERY CLEAR* directions (a checklist, even): Of course, I hate to focus on grades, but if you hand out a rubric and/or very detailed instructions ahead of time, you can give the students an idea of the effort necessary to get their desired grade. One of my favorite (and most successful) group projects was in a class where a teacher handed out a checklist of items that were required at the conclusion of the project. This checklist left little to the imagination and we had a great time being creative (plus, bickering and he-said-she-said was eradicated). Because of the clear-cut items we needed to provide to the teacher, we were able to draw on each student for participation in the most productive way possible. Providing students with a rubric/checklist/crystal-clear directions also gives them the opportunity to complete the tasks in whatever manner they choose (stimulating their creative sides, too).

    2) Group evaluations: Over the past 10 years + of doing group projects, I’ve found that if there are evaluations at the end of the project group members are kept a lot more honest. What I mean by this is that at the conclusion of the project, each student evaluates the other group members and grades based on participation to the project. This evaluation can be particularly useful when you have students who are obviously doing more work than the others (or when you are obviously doing more work than others in your group). They can also be helpful when assigning final grades to the projects/students because they can give you an idea into the group dynamics and can help you (as a teacher or a group participator) learn how to assign groups better and/or work more efficiently and effectively with other people.

    • jensie.simkins says:

      Those are great ideas, Lillian. I actually don’t teach, so the tips on assigning group work are very much appreciated. I know as a student, I would appreciate my instructor taking the time to do one or both of these things. Thanks again!

  2. I do a lot of group work in my program, because it reflects the field we are all working toward. (There are few solo game designers/devs). The nice thing about this is, you get to know your strengths in a group.

    Occasionally, you get the perfect group, in the sense that you know everyone’s strengths and work ethics. However, beware, even being in the ultimate group with, say, all over achievers is dangerous (and awesome). There’s the risk of going overboard, sometimes you wind up with too many leaders (in a four person group, you only need one and that compromise issue is absolutely essential) and it is nice to have a couple of normal humans in the group to pull you back to the reality that in order to complete a project one must eat, sleep, and destress now and then.

    Groups are about finding a balance, when possible, and despite the fact they stress me out more than most other things, they’ve provided me great opportunities to grow my skills and work with interesting people that more often than not complement me in the end.

  3. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    I just recently had an undergrad class where we had group projects each week. I was dreading it – and it turned out to be great, which was a nice surprise. One thing the prof did to help motivate people was requiring not only a group section but also individual sections for each project. You were graded for participation on both. It cut down on the slacking. I think we had a good group anyway, but being held accountable by the prof really helped.

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