Say “group work” to a classroom of students, and you will be met with groans and eye rolls. Indeed, group assignments aren’t popular. Dutiful students usually stress out about having their grades dependent on someone else’s work. They are anxious and hurry to take up all the responsibility for their peers, winding up overwhelmed and resentful (I would know.) Meanwhile, their less eager teammates bail on their share of work and end up learning nothing from the assignment. This is unfair to all the parties – in its own way.
Group work became even more challenging with distant learning. Group members “ghosting” their mates, experiencing poor bandwidth connection, dealing with sickness and even death in the family, suffering from a less-than-optimal studying environment. Introducing co-dependence into the mix seems not only unfair but cruel.
Yet despite the complexity, group work and collaboration are crucial components of learning. How else will you prepare yourself for the realities of the modern workplace, where collaboration is inevitable? Skills of teamwork and collaboration top the lists of candidate requirements, even for the entry-level positions, where they are willing to train you for the job – and no wonder! According to John J. Murphy, business owner, author, and management consultant, teamwork is essential to success. “Each individual has unique gifts, and talents, and skills. When we bring them to the table and share them for a common purpose, it can give companies a real competitive advantage,” he said.
That’s why, instead of bemoaning the next group assignment, you should jump on it! It’s your chance to build a skill set that your success in the workplace depends upon, regardless of the career path you’ll end up choosing. However, make sure you are doing it right! I have gathered some recommendations in this post that will make your collaboration with classmates productive and rewarding.
Make sure this type of collaboration is allowed
In the academic setting, collaboration means working together or assisting one another to complete the work for a grade. Students often collaborate outside instructor-assigned group projects. For example, when you organize a study group, compare homework answers, share class notes with a friend who was out sick, or ask a classmate to be your creative writing helper and review your paper – you collaborate.
Yet, collaboration isn’t always a good thing. If your instructor explicitly told you that a certain task must be completed independently, then having any kind of outside help is unauthorized and can lead to penalties. Make sure that working with other students doesn’t go against course policies or requirements for this particular assignment. If you still hesitate, ask your instructor if the collaboration you have in mind is within the rules.
Designate responsibilities from the get-go
Every participant must have an area of responsibility. Everyone should have a clear idea of what they must accomplish and when. Be specific. Instead of just saying, “Jenna, you’ll take care of research,” set clear goals. For example, “Jenna, please find at least four academic sources and prepare a 5-page digest for the group by next Tuesday.” What might seem self-evident can be open to interpretation. Your grade depends on this, so being overly thorough at the beginning is still better than trying to shift the blame at the end. This early stage is crucial for the success of the entire project. Here you can see the importance of communication and the ability to clearly articulate your expectations.
Come up with a detailed roadmap
The submission date shouldn’t be your only deadline. For your group project to succeed, you must map out essential milestones to make sure you stick to the schedule and stay on track. Plan regular group meetings or video calls and make sure everyone keeps the project on their agendas. Let everyone report their progress or any difficulties that might hamper it – this should be an ongoing process. This way, you will be aware of any problems and able to address them in case of any unforeseen developments.
Set the deadline several days before the submission date so that you will have time reserve in case of delays or emergencies. If one of the teammates falls ill or, for some other reason, won’t be able to perform their part, you will have the time to distribute their duties around the rest of you.
Use project management tools
Not only will mastery of these tools look good on your resume. It will improve your work, encourage dialogue, and allow for quick and flexible problem-solving. Think about the primary and backup channels of communication that will be convenient for all the participants. Compromise, if necessary, but create the infrastructure everyone agrees on, so nothing slips through the cracks. “I’ve sent you the mockup a week ago, Brian! Why don’t you check your email?” Sounds familiar? Well, there will be no place for this sort of thing in a professional environment – and neither should it happen in a group collaboration on your college assignment.
Choose a backup solution
Depending on the nature of your work, this can be a Google Doc where everyone adds their share of information or a cloud-stored voluminous graphics project where everyone checks in regularly for updates. No matter what you choose, make sure you have all parts of your project in one place. This way, you are insured against losing a big chunk of your data in case of connectivity issues, laptop failures, and family emergencies any of the collaborating peers might have. At least everything they have contributed so far will be safe and accessible to everyone else on the team.
Be prepared to learn from your peers
Sometimes group work is assigned because of purely technical constraints. For example, an apparatus in the lab needs three operators. However, more often than not, instructors make you work together to enrich your worldview with outside perspectives and teach you to adapt to different methods, styles, and schedules. Learn to appreciate your peers for their individuality, valuable experiences, and voice that allow them to make their unique contribution to the joint work.
Invite healthy debate
Intellectual humility is the key to this one. Be prepared to explore unexpected points of view. Acknowledge if you are unsure of anything. Ask your teammates to clarify if you think you might have misunderstood them. Learn to listen and communicate your ideas clearly. It’s too easy to misinterpret each other’s tone in digital discussion. The sentence that was meant as humorous and mildly sarcastic might come across as hostile and acidic. Be aware of that and hone respectful communication. This is the cornerstone of professional conduct both in academia and in the workplace.
Let the leadership shift
As your project progresses through various stages, leadership might change naturally, as everyone has expertise and authority in different areas. For example, someone strong at planning and organizing will take the lead at the beginning. However, later on, the reins might go to someone good at editing and piecing together disjointed data as your group starts assembling your final product.
However, note that shifting leadership doesn’t mean chaos and shifting accountability. The key to harmony is that everyone keeps their sphere of responsibility from start to finish. It’s just that this sphere might be central or peripheral at various stages of the project.
Budget time for a review
Before you submit your project, review it. If possible, get someone competent to give it a fresh look. When several people work on the project, the chances are high that the result will be somewhat disconnected and uneven. Don’t leave the final alignment to the last minute. This way, if anything will need adjustments, you will have time to fix errors and polish the rough edges.
I’ve come up with these tips having pandemic restrictions in mind. Although all the guidelines work for offline group work just as well, I felt the need to focus on online collaboration in particular. Academics and co-authors Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, in their piece for Inside Higher Ed, argue that now is exactly the time to learn working together in the digital environment. It’s the future, and only you can prepare yourself for it.