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6 ways to survive & thrive in a group project

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Group projects: a slacker’s dream, or a perfectionist’s idea of cruel and unusual punishment? Like it or not, a group project may well be in your not-too-distant future. Smart planning from the get-go helps us make the best of our differences and end up with a project we can all feel good about. “Students benefit greatly from learning how to work effectively in a group before getting out into the world,” says Dr. Vanessa Shannon, mental conditioning coach at IMG Academy, a training institute in Florida. Click on each arrow for the steps to success.

Hands shaking

1. Get to know each other

Unfamiliar group mates? Here’s how to get acquainted.

If you can’t embrace the people, at least embrace the experience. When instructors and professors assign group projects, everyone’s first instinct is to choose a familiar person to work with. Sometimes, though, you’ll be paired with people you’ve barely spoken to.

It’s important to get a feel for everyone’s personality and interests and their goals and ideas for the project. This can help you identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses and will also help prevent conflicts later.

Getting started in a group  Try these tips from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University:

  • Introduce yourselves and talk a little about your background, particularly as it relates to your project.
  • Let everyone express their goals, ideas, and concerns about the project and the logistics of how your group will function.
  • Assign specific tasks to each member based on their skills and interests (see Assign roles).
  • Create a timeline. Assign a completion date to each task. Publish the list of tasks and due dates (for example, use a shared Google Doc).
  • Designate one person to track progress and deadlines. (This does not mean that person takes on an unfair share of the work.)
  • As you define each person’s responsibilities, also discuss the consequences for not completing them. (These may range from buying everyone coffee at the next meeting, to involving your professor.)
  • Create a group contract outlining everyone’s responsibilities and how to address problems that might arise.

“You must create an open forum for communication to increase the overall pool of thought,” says Robert Palmer, senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia. “I notice in groups that certain members have strong opinions and attempt to force them onto their colleagues, who then get defensive, and other great ideas are not heard. Every environment has diversity in terms of working styles and personalities; you need to be sensitive to these.”

Students’ stories

“In general, people generate more ideas together. If they are careful to avoid groupthink [a group dynamic that suppresses individual opinion] they can find better solutions to problems.”
—Albert H., fourth-year graduate student, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland

“Putting different brains together can make a great product. Asking many questions and giving personal insights can open others’ minds and can be a great learning experience for everyone involved.”
—Andrea M., fifth-year graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino

“While conducting research every student had different grasps on different aspects of the subject at hand. This shared knowledge contributed much better to our project as a whole.”
—Eliovardo G., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino

“At first it can be hard to find everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, especially if you do not know the other people, but once you find your groove it can be so rewarding and a lot less stressful!”
—Suzanne B., third-year undergraduate, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

Pie pieces

2. Assign roles

Learn how to let your (and their) strengths shine.

Guiding each other toward our natural strengths enhances the project’s end result and gives everyone a chance to shine. If one of your teammates has memorized Macbeth’s soliloquies, by all means give her the opportunity to wow you with her paraphrasing of the Bard. Or if you’ve noticed your partner’s intricate doodles on his arm, encourage him to be the team graphic designer. 

Allowing people to choose roles that interest and come naturally to them can help the group succeed, according to Dr. Meredith Belbin, originator of Belbin’s team role theory, a system for identifying people’s strengths and weaknesses in the workplace.

Common group roles include:

  • Coordinator: organizes the team and focuses on the main objective
  • Team leader: makes sure people are contributing to their best ability
  • Innovator: provides creative input
  • Monitor-evaluator: deals out constructive criticism in a neutral manner
  • Team worker: enhances harmony and unity

+ Where do you fit in? Learn more about Belbin’s team

Students’ stories

“There are different types of personalities, such as the quiet person, the naturally loud, the born leader, etc. You each take a certain responsibility that seems more achievable for each individual. It’s all about coordination and sharing the work.”
—Othello X., second-year student, Century College, Minnesota

“In every group project someone will become the leader. This is a hard role to fill as it often means trying to mediate between disputing members, as well as scheduling times to meet and assigning tasks that best suit the abilities of each group member. It is hard and it means more work, but it tends to make the entire project go more smoothly.”
—Ashley J., fourth-year undergraduate, Corban University, Oregon

“It’s great working in a group because each member has different strengths and putting them all together creates an amazing project. We worked together and complemented each other and helped each others’ ideas become part of the project.”
—Pardeep S.*, second-year undergraduate, Drexel University, Pennsylvania
(*name changed)

“There is a great group task-management theory called Skill Mapping. It takes the idea that we all have individual strengths and ‘maps’ them to the constraints and requirements of the project. It’s something I learned through AmeriCorps and group projects afterwards have been wonderful.”
—Sarah Nicole H., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Mexico

Speech bubbles

3. Check in with each other

Pausing and checking in gives you clarity and reassurance. Here’s what to look out for.

Be in touch like you mean it:

  • Exchange contact information right off the bat.
  • Set up times to communicate outside of class so you can work through problems, collaborate, and inspire each other.
  • Make sure you have multiple ways to get a hold of one other—phone, email, and social media. 
  • Schedule check-in times: Assessing your group’s progress will lead to a better understanding of your ongoing needs for the project.
  • Give each other constructive feedback (see Give and receive constructive criticism).
  • Assess whether the needs of the group are being met.
  • Assess where the potential gaps are.
  • Assess what’s left to be done.
  • Consider using an app that helps you connect (e.g., Whatsapp, GroupMe).

Keeping things in check as you go along can prevent potential last-minute blowouts. That zany ideas person might need a word with their practical hands-on teammate (“We probably shouldn’t make the lava real lava”).

Students’ stories

“We truly worked as team. We made sure to give each other our contact info and also made sure when would be the best time to meet up if we had to. We all had great communication. We also divided our assignments so everyone in the team had the same amount of work.”
—Rosemary H., graduated 2015, California State University, Chico

“Some students may not be as adept at/willing to communicate or understand each other—much less challenge someone’s ideas so that the group may hone the focus of the project. Yet in spite of this, students are willing to agree and strive to see what each other means. This may lead to a disjointed group presentation or something of that nature, but the group members usually walk away satisfied.”
—Matthew H., third-year undergraduate, University of South Alabama

“I am weak in asking someone to repeat or clarify what they just said. This can lead to misunderstandings. I found someone in my group who was stronger at asking for clarity and I gave extra attention to that trait.”
—Becky J., third-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Ticking clock

4. Create personal and team deadlines

These planning steps will set your group apart from the rest.

Nothing happens without structure: It’s crushing to have an hour until the assignment is due and more than five hours of work left to be done. Create personal due dates for yourself as well as deadlines for the group as a whole. Getting ahead allows for a final review, and lets you and your crew show up well rested to present your project to the class.

  1. Double the amount of time you think a task will take. Stuff happens. Chances are you’ll need the extra time.
  2. Create a Google Calendar that is accessible only to the team. Give everyone editing power so you can stay on top of tasks and deadlines and handle unforeseen setbacks and delays.

Students’ stories

“I had people in my group who were way more organized then me, and it helped, especially when it came to meeting deadlines.”
—Eric C., graduated 2015, Humboldt State University, California

“Students who work together on group projects tend to learn accountability, keeping in contact to decide specifics for how the project is to be completed and assigning final deadlines.”
—Erin D., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino

“Some group members had to be reminded more than once to turn in work in a timely manner.”
—Diann G., fourth-year undergraduate, Midwestern State University, Texas

“When working in a group, it doesn’t have to be everyone on the same page but having a good work ethic where everyone is participating and throwing in ideas and able to accomplish a goal.”
—Edward S., fifth-year undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania

Cycle graphic

5. Give and receive constructive criticism

This essential life skill keeps your projects moving in the right direction.

In a group project, your classmate’s best interests are also your best interests. Don’t be afraid to speak up—thoughtfully. This is a chance to practice doling out (and taking) constructive criticism.

How to give constructive criticism:
Give a compliment and then state a need. This helps your peer see what needs to be done without feeling estranged from the rest of the group, according to guidelines developed at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Make sure that the critique you are offering is about the work and is not a personal attack. Starting with the compliment validates your peer’s work and makes them more open to critique without sacrificing the quality of your project. #winwin

What this looks like:
Compliment: “Thank you again for taking on the graphic design portion of the project; your creativity really shows.”
Statement of need: “The assignment asks us to portray the character’s feelings as much as possible. Is it possible to display more emotion in the way the Greek figures are animated?”

Students’ stories

“We complimented each other’s work by saying, ‘Hey, good thought,’ or, ‘I think you should make some adjustments.’”
—Da’Meon W., fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino

“We all came together as a group. Our strength was turning down an idea in a positive way and explaining why we did so.”
—Jackson R., third-year undergraduate, Western Illinois University

“Students today are very professional. I am always impressed. I feel privileged sharing ideas and experiences every time I have opportunities to work together.”
—Juan B., graduated 2015, California State University, San Bernardino

“The biggest strength of all members is open-mindedness. If we all have an open mind, we will hear each other and work cohesively. By being open-minded, there’s also a much better chance that you can easily solve problems if they arise.”
—Grace N., third-year undergraduate., Humboldt State University, California


6. OK, it’s not me, it’s you

Not every relationship was meant to be. But it was nice meeting you.

What if there’s that one person who’s just not meshing with the group? Perhaps their ideas for the project differ from the direction the group took, or maybe they just aren’t doing their share. For whatever reason (his hamster died, she’s not motivated, they’ve been out sick), you’re dealing with someone who is just not into it.

If it’s not a matter of perspective but of unfinished work, then you may need to talk with your peer. Don’t delay this conversation. Sometimes people aren’t aware that they’re not contributing an equal share. Talk with your group mate one-on-one (an intervention with the whole group might put them on the defensive) and see what’s going on. If they still aren’t pulling their weight, then you may need to revisit those consequences for uncompleted tasks.

Students’ stories

“Most groups consist of one or two doing the work and the rest getting the credit. This semester, the professors allowed us to cull [group members] if they were not productive.”
—Joshua H., third-year undergraduate, University of Arkansas–Fort Smith

“Usually there is always someone who leaves the rest of the work to others. This is why member surveys are great for group projects. It gives the incentive to work harder so that your teammates will rank you as you deserve.”
—Kristina W., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Marcos

“I had a group member who was very rude whenever interfacing over Google Docs or texting. She took an angry tone and cut corners. Mainly she just wasn’t a team player. You have to be willing to put aside that your ideas are the best and be open to the collaborative functionality of the group.”
—Melina L., graduating 2015, California State University, San Marcos