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How to Survive Group Projects


There’s no doubt about it, most college students hate group projects. Homework is tedious, but not terrible; studying for a test sucks, but it’s doable. But when your professor gives you a group project that’s worth 50 percent of your grade, all you can do is groan. Coordinating with group members can be a pain, you inevitably end up doing all the work and your fellow classmates just annoy you. Group projects are the worst.

Most likely you’ll be assigned with a group project at least once during your college career. And while most students dread them, group projects don’t have to be the bane of your existence. Her Campus asked Dr. Amy Way, a Villanova University assistant communication professor who specializes in organizational communication (aka the communication within groups) for some tips for handling group projects. Keep these in mind and you’ll survive any group project!

Be open-minded

We get it: You don’t like group projects. But going in with a negative attitude about them can set you back before you even begin. If you’re open-minded when you approach a group project, you can set a more positive tone for the experience, which can create a more cohesive working environment.

“I think a lot of why students hate group work is because of what they think it will be like or what they think their group members will be like, before giving the process or people a chance,” Way says.  “It boils down to misperceptions that group members have of each other, which are then acted upon and turn into actual problems.”

If you go in assuming that one person will be the slacker of the group (based on previous interactions or first impressions), you probably won’t give her many tasks or responsibilities. That person might then realize you don’t trust her or her ideas, and she may not put as much effort into her parts. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It can be frustrating and hard to change a dynamic like this, but I think upfront and sometimes difficult conversations early are often the key to moving past bad group dynamics,” Way says. During your first group meeting, try to get to know one another instead of determining who will be the leader or the lazy member of the group.

By being open-minded and getting to know your group members, you can create a positive and relaxed environment. If you’re willing to get to know others, your group members will be more receptive to you and your ideas. Instead of dreading working together, you might actually enjoy it!

Get organized

From all your years of schooling, you know that organization is one of the main keys for success. While staying organized can help you succeed individually, it is also critical to ensure your group project stays on track.

Get organized by creating ground rules for your group communication as well. These can be as simple as “only one person has the floor at a time during discussions” or being respectful of everyone’s ideas. “If you set this precedent early, you’ll be on track for a good working relationship,” Way says.

You should also establish a regular meeting time that works for everyone and figure out a way to keep yourselves organized with deadlines. Reserve a classroom once you’re assigned the project so you don’t waste group time finding a place to work. Consider making a Google calendar that everyone can access so you’re all aware of the upcoming deadlines.

Another good tool to use is Google Drive. You can set up Word documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations that all group members can access and work on. It eliminates sending a thousand emails back and forth with edits, which may lead to mistakes and missing parts. All members can work individually on their parts while seeing what other group members have added. It allows everyone to keep your project cohesive as it progresses.

If you make organization a priority from the beginning, you can prevent the night-before-scramble that can happen during group projects. Scheduling and keeping all documents, sources and visual aids in one place can save your group a lot of frustration.

Set clear and measurable goals

The next step to having a successful group project is making sure everyone is on the same page from the beginning. This could mean discussing what you want to accomplish and when it should be completed by.

“Setting clear and measurable guidelines and expectations is key from the start,” Way says. “So don’t assume you’re all on the same page about what it means to do a task—set clear goals.”

Discuss things like how many sources your group needs and when you all should have them. Think about how many pages long you think your paper needs to be and set a time frame to have them written by. If you’re unsure of deadlines or requirements for a project, ask your professor, and he or she can guide you in the right direction.

By establishing expectations and goals for the group early on, everyone can get on the same page and stay on track. If everyone’s informed and knows what’s expected of them, it’s easier to communicate and get your project done efficiently.

Split up responsibilities and work together

Once you’ve gotten organized and set your measurable goals, it might be helpful to split up some of the responsibilities. The good thing about group projects is that you don’t have to do all the work yourself; you have others to help you!

You should discuss how your group wants to split up responsibilities once you’ve established your goals. Maybe one person prefers researching to writing, while another likes editing over making the visual aid. Just make sure that all the individual parts work together as a whole.

“Sometimes it’s just more feasible and practical for the group to divide tasks and work on them individually,” Way says. “But when that’s what you decide, you should always schedule a time to work through putting pieces together and making it sound coherent.”

With all that said, it’s also important to work as group and not always separately. Sometimes the best ideas are those created collectively. “If possible, I think there’s also something good about literally sitting down and writing together,” Way says. “Having people bounce ideas and wording off each other can be creative. The process creates a sort of synthesis where the end product is so much better than all the pieces put together.” Be aware that this may take more time, but it also keeps everyone involved and engaged in the project.

If you’re trying to brainstorm an idea for your project, get together to bounce ideas off of each other. On the other hand, making final edits is more of an individual task. Each of you can look it over by yourselves so you can ensure you haven’t missed anything.

However your group decides to work through the project, make sure everyone keeps the group’s goals and deadlines in mind. Be flexible and diligent, and you’ll have no problem completing all the project requirements on time!

Encourage instead of criticize

While you went into your project with an open mind about your fellow group members, it’s clear that one person just isn’t pulling his or her weight. With your grade on the line, this person can really cause your group anxiety.

One way to handle this type of group member is by using positive reinforcement. It sounds backwards, but encouragement can go farther than criticism. “Group members should quickly identify what [they] are good at and make an effort to assign them those types of tasks,” Way suggests. “Then, tell them when they do a good job and how it’s been useful to the group.”

If this person really likes researching, tell her how helpful her source was in explaining a certain point. Ask her if she’s artistic or really good at PowerPoint, and if she is, suggest she does the visual aids. Then, offer helpful suggestions and acknowledge her progress.

If this specific group member feels important to the group, she’s more likely to contribute and complete her tasks thoroughly. Feeling depended on might motivate her to work harder.

In the case that one group member continues to not pull her weight, talk to your professor. “Be open with your instructor or supervisor from the start about your concerns,” Way says. “Include what steps you’re taking to work toward including that person.”

By voicing your concerns to your professor, you can also ensure the individual’s lack of participation doesn’t affect your group grade. While these students can be a real downer for your group, consider these ways to motivate them, and they might contribute more than you think!

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The key to any successful team is open communication. You’re probably been working with your group members for a couple of weeks, so it’s important to keep everyone on track by practicing effective communication.

Avianne Tan, a senior at New York University, is currently in an English seminar class that involves a ton of group projects. The one thing she’s found the most helpful is staying in contact with her group. “It’s a great idea to exchange numbers and emails, [friend each other] on Facebook or create a group chat on your phone, Facebook or another app,” Avianne says. “This way, no matter where you guys are, you can let each other know anything immediately. It’s all in one place so that everyone is on the same page.”

Getting together as a group and communicating is just as important as talking outside of group time. When talking as a group, be nonjudgmental and respect others’ ideas. “With each new phase of the project, there should always be space for brainstorming free from judgment or critique,” Way says.

Additionally, be aware of your role in the group and make sure everyone has the chance to participate. “If you’re ALWAYS the first person to speak up or take responsibility, try to sit back and listen to give others the space to speak up,” Way suggests. “If you’re the person who always sits back, try to step up and voice your opinions, ideas, concerns. Take initiative in the group.”

While it’s nice when all group members agree on everything all the time, don’t be afraid to (respectfully) voice your opinions when you disagree with someone. It might feel like you’re creating conflict, but sometimes bringing up alternative ideas can help make the group’s ideas stronger. “Begin by taking a good amount of time to play with a variety of ideas,” Way says. “Once you’ve decided on an idea, play devil’s advocate and consider why it might not be a good idea. Conflict is not always a bad thing—it may manifest into something positive for the group.”

By listening to everyone’s points of view, respectfully challenging ideas to make them better and keeping up a consistent line of communication, you and your fellow group members can come up with the best way to complete the project together.

Group projects might seem like a drag, but when approached with a positive attitude, they can be great experiences to get to know other students and create an awesome collaborative product. Keep HC’s tips in mind, and you’ll be able to survive any group project! 

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