Ask the professor: “What’s the best way to work with nontraditional students in group projects?”

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—Daniel A., Portland State University, Oregon

Let me start with a confession: I was not the world’s best group project member. In fact, I was pretty bad. Why? Because I was focused on the “project” and not the “group,” which means I bulldozed over the humans I had to work with to get that A. Little did I know that I had missed the opportunity to develop important people skills that I am still working on.

Hopefully, some of your group members will be more experienced with, and enthusiastic about, group work than I was. You might be worried if you’re working with a mix of older, younger, more experienced, and less experienced students, but there’s no reason to be. In fact, there are some real benefits to having a mix of ages and experience levels in a group environment. Here are some:

  • Students returning to college after time away typically spent time in the job market, and that means they’ve had more time to refine their collaborative skills. Use this to your advantage by asking for their real-world tips on group work. Their experiences can help shape your approach.
  • Older students typically know their strengths and weaknesses because they’ve had more time to figure them out. They will likely know where they’ll be most helpful. Just ask.
  • Many nontraditional students are juggling full-time work, careers, families, and care-giving with their student life. While that may make them busier, it also makes them more likely to seriously focus on their tasks and want to get the most from the experience.

Calendar vectorYou might run into a few problems here and there with scheduling, especially if some of your group mates have more responsibilities than others. Here are a few ideas for working through schedule conflicts:

Use your first meeting to establish how many times you’ll need to meet and how long those meetings will be. Then get them on everyone’s calendar.

Be clear about what work can be done remotely. You don’t need to go over every single detail of people’s tasks in person. In fact, a lot of the work can likely be completed independently so you can use the meeting time to review and get on the same page. Clarify what work each of you can do remotely and how you’ll check in when you’re not face-to-face.

Set communication expectations. Exchange contact info, make a group text or chat, or start an email chain to send updates and check in. This can reduce the time needed to meet in person and can make your meetings more efficient.

Laptop vectorUse collaborative technology in place of meeting times if scheduling gets hectic. A shared Google Doc or presentation gives everyone the chance to see progress and provide feedback, no matter where they are or what time of day it is.

Once you’ve figured out how to make it work for everyone, figure out how the project is going to work overall. Here are a few more tips:

  • Determine individuals’ preferences. Your first meeting should establish who prefers to do what task. Your group members know their strengths and weaknesses, and they should use that knowledge to choose tasks that play to their strengths. Here’s where that experience comes in handy.
  • Assign tasks and deadlines…but be flexible. Life will get in the way and humans will do human things—such as not deliver on their task—so be prepared that even if you have a clear plan in place for completing the project, there will need to be adjustments. It’s part of the process!
  • Be honest. Ask for group members’ honesty as they work on their tasks. A member can’t deliver what was promised? That member needs to let the group know immediately. Make an agreement that honesty will be encouraged and supported.
  • Get it done without malice. Many times, I have been the one who came in at the end and took care of the incomplete tasks, and many times, I had a bad attitude about it. I encourage you to keep focused on the completion of the project and do what is needed without getting angry at group members who didn’t do what they promised. This is a good lesson in meeting “real world” deadlines and working with people effectively.