A guide to group work
In nearly every discipline in the college or university, you will encounter group assignments. Generally this is a compulsory part of your course. Students who are not used to this approach sometimes feel anxious about managing the group work process, and indeed, it is often difficult to keep a team together. Some of the problems that students encounter are discussed here, as well as strategies you can use to make sure that your group runs smoothly and achieves a successful outcome.
Remember that successful groupwork requires the following attributes:
- sensitivity to other cultures and values
Group assignments are set to prepare you for your professional future, to give you a chance to tackle significant projects, and to enable you to demonstrate teamwork skills in your CV.
For a group assignment to work well, you will need to:
- get to know each other
- know how to get in contact with each other
- make sure that everyone in the team knows what is going on
- establish clear goals from the outset
- work out your time frame
- plan and attend regular group meetings
- keep notes of what has been decided
- allocate tasks fairly
- deal positively and quickly with ‘bludgers’ (those who do not pull their weight in the group)
Common problems that occur in group assignments:
- Misunderstandings about responsibilities
- (Perceived) lack of commitment in some group members
- Personality clashes
- One person doing all the work
To avoid these problems occurring, you need to adopt assertive (not aggressive) behaviour. Learn the difference between assertion and aggression.
Why do lecturers set group assignments?
1. To prepare you for your professional future.
The main reason that lecturers set group assignments is to prepare you for professional situations. In the real world you will find that you will almost certainly have to work in groups usually not groups of your own choosing. You have to be able to pull together and reach a successful goal.
2. To give you a chance to tackle significant projects
You can achieve much more if you have a group of people working together, contributing their different talents and perspectives and, above all, their time. In group assignments you can tackle much more significant projects, and often these are projects of professional importance.
3. To enable you to demonstrate teamwork skills in your CV.
A record of good performance in a group assignment is an excellent contribution to your curriculum vitae. Employers are particularly interested in teamwork skills and what better way to impress them than to show them a really professional piece of work you have produced in a group assignment.
You could use the following steps as a checklist when you set up your group.
1. Get to know each other
The serious business of work will go more smoothly if you know each other. So the first thing to do is introductions. Later, you might like to share some social activity even if it’s just a coffee at the Iguana. (Make sure that the social activity does not exclude anyone some students may not be comfortable with a group excursion to the Gypsy Bar!)
2. Check that you know how to contact each other
Make sure every member of the group feels equally valued. You might need to make a special effort to include everyone. Dont let anyone feel like an outsider: one male student in a group of women may feel an outsider, as may one Australian student in a group of international students.
3. Establish clear objectives
Spend time together analysing the task, and make sure that you all have a common understanding of what is required. You might like to discuss your overall goals too are you aiming for the best possible product, or will you be satisfied with a Pass? If there are some group members who are more committed to achieving high grades, they may have to be prepared to do a greater share of the work. It’s better to know that up-front than to whinge about it later.
4. Identify your time frame
Work out what tasks have to be done and when. You might like to plot this on a Gantt chart, like the one that follows:
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4||Week 5|
*Design survey tool
*Denotes task for meeting
5. Agree on meeting dates, times and venues
Make sure you schedule your group meetings well ahead. There should be an agreed commitment to attend group meetings, so schedule the meetings when everyone can come.
The venue also influences how successfully you can work. It should be a place where you can talk without interruption, with proper work spaces. It’s often a good idea to use the study group rooms in the Library (book in advance).
6. Keep notes during your meetings, and circulate them
This is a good idea, because later you can say, Hey, you promised to do that job; it is in the meeting notes! Also, it avoids any misunderstandings about what was agreed, and it avoids people going over the same ground again and again.
7. Identify specific tasks, and allocate them
This is important to make sure that the work is divided fairly and effectively. Who has what skills or resources? do you have a good graphic designer who will organise the layout? or someone who is a good proofreader? someone who is good at theory?
You may also like to choose a chairperson and a secretary but do so cautiously! A chairperson should be someone who is strongly committed to the task and has the determination (and diplomacy) to keep things running smoothly. So dont just choose the noisiest or most self-confident person.
8. Achieve your agreed outcomes
Remember that not everyone will have the same level of commitment or the same values and attitudes. You should be able to expect commitment from your team members but, just as in the real world, you may find yourself working with some bludgers. Try to deal with this as positively as you can getting angry or offended is not going to help much,and your lecturer (just like your future boss) is not likely to be too sympathetic if you complain about your group members.
Once you have completed the task, it is a good idea to debrief share with each other what went well and what didnt. It’s good to end on a positive note. Even if you just spend five minutes after class one day, its worth doing this.
Some problems you may encounter
Due to the nature of working in teams, groups can sometimes find that they are not working effectively and thus this negatively impacts on their progress, and their ability to be successful. Some common problems identified by individuals working in teams are:
1. Tasks not being completed by deadline
To ensure your task is completed on time it may be beneficial to:
- Discuss and establish timelines that ALL members can agree on.
- Ask each member to present a progress report each meeting on what they have completed since the last meeting.
- Offer to assist one another on completion of tasks if necessary.
2. Difficult to get started
To ensure that your group gets off to a good start it may be beneficial to:
- Take time for all members to introduce themselves, including name, background, specific strengths.
- Develop a shared understanding of the task by brainstorming.
- Ensure each member has an opportunity to speak and make suggestions.
- Develop an agenda and a timeline.
- Nominate someone to act as the manager or leader, either for that team meeting or for the term of the project.
- Exchange names and contact details, including email addresses and phone numbers.
- Decide on jobs or sub-tasks for each member.
3. Ideas are not thoroughly discussed as a team
To ensure that you have enough information to complete your task it could be beneficial for your group to:
- Engage in more brainstorming, particularly focusing on the ‘What if …?’ and ‘What else ..?’ type questions.
- Ask each member individually for ideas.
- If few ideas are generated, organise to complete some further research individually and then meet up as a team at a later date.
4. Members not contributing
To ensure that all members contribute to the group task it may be beneficial to:
- Establish why a member is quiet or not participating.
- Communicate that all opinions will be valued.
- Ensure that each member gets their turn to contribute, this may mean ‘going around the circle’.
5. Ineffective communication
To ensure effective communication between members it may be beneficial to:
- Identify specific issues which seem to affect communication.
- Consider how to address such issues. For example, if team members seem to be misunderstanding each other, it may be helpful to clarify what is being said.
6. Conflicts between team members
To ensure that disagreements between members are dealt with effectively it is important to:
- Respect the ideas of other group members
- Show that you have heard other member’s ideas and when disagreeing do so politely and respectfully
- Understand that working in a team requires some negotiation and therefore also compromise
- Take a break to diffuse the situation and recollect thoughts at a later meeting.
7. Domineering personalities
To ensure that people do not dominate group discussions it may be beneficial to:
- Create time limits on individual contributions or have a ‘talking stick’
- Ensure that each member has a chance to speak, without interruption
- Remind all members that it is important to hear all opinions in relation to the topic and respect those opinions.
8. Inability to focus on task
To ensure that your group does not get off task it may be beneficial to:
- Set particular tasks to be completed in each session
- Meet first and then go for lunch after you have completed some work to give yourselves a reward for staying on task
- Ensure that individuals prepare for meeting and talk through what they have completed since the last meeting.
To avoid these problems occurring, you need to adopt assertive (not aggressive) behaviour.
Assertive behaviour in group work
Assertive behaviour means looking for win-win outcomes in communication in which everyone ends up feeling good about things.
It does NOT mean getting everyone else to behave in the way you would like them to behave (this is aggressive behaviour), and it does NOT mean allowing other people to let you do all the work and have all the worry (this is passive behaviour).
Take a moment to consider the following chart, remembering that cultural ways of communicating will complicate this picture and demand extra consideration and flexibility.
|ASSERTIVE BEHAVIOUR||PASSIVE BEHAVIOUR||AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOUR|
NB. Aggressive behaviour can also be conveyed very politely
Monash University, http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/quickrefs/24-groupwork.xml
The University of Queensland. Problems associated with group work. http://www.uq.edu.au/student-services/Problems+associated+with+group+work
For some ideas on how to deal with group members who don’t do their faire share of the work, see the appendix on “Coping with Hitchhikers and Couch Potatoes on Teams” in: http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/Oakley-paper(JSCL).pdf
Interested in using a group Wiki to aid interaction outside of group meetings? These sites might help: http://www.webpaint.com; http://www.wikispaces.com; http://www.pbwiki.com; http://www.wikidot.com