Why group work?
You are probably watching this because you have to do a group assessment task, and are wondering - Wouldn’t it be so much easier if I did this on my own? Why group work?
Like it or not, working in groups is an integral part of your studies and uni assessments. If you don’t work well in groups, your grades might suffer. Beyond university, the ability to effectively interact and communicate with others to achieve a shared goal is a vital career and life skill. But no-one says group work is easy. It requires effort. However, most would agree that group work is essential.
But why? What’s in it for you?
Think about the benefits for you:
- Authentic preparation for the workplace
- Increased understanding of different perspectives
- Improved interpersonal communication skills such as
- giving feedback
- Demonstrable collaboration skills such as
- adapting to different roles
- coaching/supporting/assisting others
- people management
- time management
- A network of meaningful working relationships and a greater sense of belonging.
So, as you start your group work, think about these benefits, maybe discuss them with your group, and identify the ones you want to focus on as you complete the group task.
Working in a diverse group
Devon: I guess we could just start again. Um, right, my name is Devon. Devon Fury, in case you are interested. It’s a really cool last name. (laughs) And I’m studying in Bachelor in Business.
Joyce: My name is Joyce and I’m studying in Masters of Accounting.
Jyoti: My name is Jyoti. I’m doing Bachelor in Business, majoring in Finance and Accounting.
Juwin: I’m – My name is Juwin. I’m doing a Bachelor in Business. Ultimately a business student studying finance and accounting major.
WHAT’S YOUR GROUP WORK EXPERIENCE LIKE?
Devon: So I guess we can jump right in and start talking about group work. If we want to talk about group work experiences, I was actually in one with Jyoti last semester?
Jyoti: One or two? I don’t remember.
Devon: I lose track. I lose track. – Yeah, I think it was pretty positive overall. And honestly, what made it good was Jyoti was really keen on to divide the work from the beginning.
Devon: -- She pretty much charged straight in. Like we had just introduced ourselves and we stepped outside the classroom and I remember Jyoti was very keen. Like, “Okay, how do we want to do this? How do we want to break it up?” And it got everybody thinking about the structure of it, made sure that everyone was looking at what was actually in the project from like day one.
HOW HAVE YOU BENEFITTED FROM GROUP WORK?
Jyoti: Well, for me personally, I think group work has been rewarding as an international student because most of my friends are through group work -- (laughs) – unfortunately. So yeah, as an international student, when I came here, I didn’t know anyone. And even in class, it’s really hard to make good friends because you go to lectures and it’s like big class, you don’t get to interact with anyone. And even in tutorials, you seen them like once a week and you have another subject and you see them once a week and it’s really hard to connect. But like through group work, you can connect with people, you are in touch with them, and sometimes you might be in same class next semester. So that’s how, you know, make friends. And also it helped a lot in communication skills like, I personally try a lot to improve my communication skills but I give big thank you to the group work provided by the university because it really helped me to communicate better than before.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DIVERSITY IN GROUP WORK?
Joyce: I think under diverse, like say, the diverse depend on the diverse age, diverse background, culture and anything else, but let me say, in the uni, most diverse groups are depending on the diverse culture. Because we can learn from each other, from the different perspective and I think the more people involved in, the more value we can add in the team.
Juwin: I would say that, my own personal benefit from having a greater diversity in a group is that, you can have a sharing of ideas that you wouldn’t have had on your own.
Devon: The benefit I have observed from diversity is just having different perspectives to draw on.
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO OTHER STUDENTS?
Joyce: Don’t be shy?
Devon: That’s a great advice. Don’t be shy.
Joyce: Don’t be shy and, yeah I think that’s important.
Devon: I totally agree.
Jyoti: In my opinion, I think it’s really important to start early. Earlier the better. It’s going to make life of everyone very easy. And secondly not to be shy to choose parts. Like you can choose whatever part you feel comfortable so that’s going to make everybody’s life easier again.
Devon: But yeah, keep – just keep an open mind. Be friendly, talk to people, it’s going to be fine. We’re pretty much all on the same boat. That guy who seems to know lots of stuff, probably doesn’t know as much as he seems like to you because you are not inside his head. The person who seems like they are not following at all, probably knows a lot of stuff and is just shy or insecure, so –
Devon: -- fine.
Juwin: Yeah, it’s hard like that.
Devon: We are brothers in academics! Fight! Kill the assignments! (laughs)
Juwin: (laughs) Yeah of course. Yeah, it’s always good to take a step back. You can’t always go with your first assumption. What we can take away from what has been said. Can’t always know who you are looking at is exactly everything that they are. Just looking to make sure that you have that dialogue and you know what they are going to – what we can expect from them in the future by knowing their strengths, their weaknesses, of course, all those things for sure.
Making group work work
Making Group Work Work
Group work can be hard work, but it can also be an extremely positive and rewarding experience. If it’s something that you have to do during the course of your studies, why not make the best out of it? Otherwise, you are just going to be miserable in every group work task.
Making group work work in your favour is not rocket science. In fact, a lot of it is common sense.
- Establish a common goal. It’s vital that all the group members agree on the quality of the output in terms of grade they wish to achieve for the group task as that’s going to determine the amount of effort and commitment they are prepared to invest in the task.
- Set the ground rules. At the start, discuss and agree on the dos and don’ts. Don’t make any assumptions. For instance: How often and when should the group meet? Should they be face-to-face or online meetings? What’s the protocol when someone is late or misses a group meeting?
- Assign roles and tasks to group members. It’s probably easier and more productive to discuss this explicitly, instead of waiting for it to happen naturally. This ensures that each group member is fully aware of what their roles and responsibilities are, and that the workload is distributed among the group members.
- Set a timeline and deadlines. Discuss and agree on a timeline for the group task, from the time you start, to the time when you submit it. Include in the timeline who’s doing what, and when these individual tasks have to be completed.
- Be responsible and accountable. Every group member plays a part in contributing to the success of the group. What you do, or do not do, and how well it’s been done, will have an impact on the others. Be responsible for your role and responsibilities. And every group member should be held accountable for their contributions.
- Think about how you are working with the other group members. Make sure your behaviour is positive, supportive and cooperative. Be flexible and adaptable to get the task done collaboratively with the other members of your group.
- Communicate with respect. Appreciate the diversity in the group, and the differences among the group members. See that as a benefit, and not a deficit. In fact, this is a good opportunity to learn from others from diverse cultures, network and build relationships. One of your group members might well be the CEO of a company you would be dealing with 10 years down the road, or your boss! You can disagree with someone respectfully, without having to hurt their feelings. When giving someone feedback or comments, focus on the task or issue at hand, and not the person.
You can, and you should, make each group work experience a happy and productive learning experience. You play an important part to make that happen.
Freeloaders and suckers
A freeloader is someone who takes advantage of the other group members by taking a back seat and not contributing much, if at all. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a sucker who ends up doing everything for those who are not pulling their weight.
Freeloaders and suckers are one of the main reasons why so many students hate group work. It’s unfair to everyone involved, and causes a lot of resentment and unhappiness in the group. It also leads to poor outcomes for the group because only some of the members feel committed and involved. But there are ways to stop freeloaders and suckers!
Imagine group work heaven, where everyone:
- has similar expectations about the outcomes of the group work
- works towards a common goal,
- and knows exactly what their responsibilities and accountabilities are.
It is so important for the group as a whole to agree on and establish common expectations and goals. For instance, if Tom just wants a Pass whereas Lin wants to get a Distinction, then Tom probably won’t put in as much effort as Lin. But if all the group members agree on the grade they want to achieve, they are more likely to work together to reach that common goal.
Likewise, to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of responsibilities and accountabilities, the group needs to establish the dos and don’ts - a set of rules that all group members have agreed to abide by at the beginning. For instance, Tom comes and goes as he likes during group meetings; sometimes, he fails to show up without informing anyone. Consequently, he doesn’t know what’s going on most of the time, and doesn’t complete his assigned tasks on time. This situation could have been avoided if the group had agreed on acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour, and the repercussions of unacceptable behaviour.
So, avoid the freeloaders and suckers problem from the start by sitting down as a group and discussing these issues. To help you establish the group goals, expectations, boundaries and plan, we have included a team charter template, a project plan template, and some other online resources.
The life of a student is busy and full of competing demands. When it's your own uni work, you can juggle your priorities and if you misallocate your time, you’re the only one who takes the consequences. However, in a group task, if students don’t manage their time well, everyone in the group suffers, including you!
If you don’t meet a group deadline, the next step can't be done. If you don't turn up to meetings, planning becomes chaotic. If you don’t do what you say, you damage your reputation and cost the group marks.
Take active steps to manage yourself and the task, so that time is used effectively and the group succeeds.
Set up opportunities for clear and frequent communication - good communication helps everyone to be on the same page.
Clearly identify the tasks and when they need to be completed by. It’s a good idea to set out a project timeline with task completion dates. The project timeline should be agreed upon and accessible by everyone.
Start your individual tasks in a group project early so you have time if you underestimate how long it takes. Aim to finish 24 hours before it’s ‘due’ so you have time to deal with life’s unexpected challenges.
Enter tasks in your online and phone calendar - starting times and completion targets. People often only enter the due date, and get the reminder to start when it’s too late.
Reply to communication from the group promptly. Ideally, the same day, and certainly within 24 hours. Try to put things in one email/message, with numbered action items rather than sending multiple message or emails.
Commit to the time you are going to do a task. Don't think: “I’ll do it later”, or “I’ll do it sometime this week” or “I’ll do it tomorrow” or “I’ll do it tonight”. When we delay with vague timeframes, it’s likely to keep being delayed. We’re more likely to get it done if we have a specific time frame in mind: “I’ll do this tomorrow starting at 10am and aim to finish it by 11:30am”. Best of all is “I’ll get started now”!
Make a commitment to making group work work in your next group project. Take an active role in planning and communication, and always deliver on your commitments. However, if you have genuine reasons and difficulties preventing you from achieving the targets, don’t be afraid to reach out to your group members. That’s what group work is all about - working together to achieve a common goal!
Regardless of how well you get along with one another in a group, you can’t avoid having different opinions and disagreements. In fact, having diverse opinions and perspectives is a good thing because if we all agree and do everything the same, there is unlikely to be any innovation or development. However, if not handled effectively, such differences can lead to conflicts among group members.
Unresolved conflicts or conflicts that are not managed properly can lead to a lot of unhappiness within the group. In the worst case scenario, some group members might choose to quit the group, which is devastating for the group outcomes and the individuals within the group.
So, how can you anticipate and manage conflicts?
- Be aware that there will be differences and disagreements within a group, that conflicts may occur in group work, and that this is okay.
- Be cooperative, flexible and adaptable to different approaches and ways of doing things.
- Set the ground rules at the beginning, on what to do when there are differences and disagreements, and what to do to manage and resolve conflicts when they arise.
- A common cause of conflicts is poor communication. For instance, poorly expressed or inappropriate criticisms can be hurtful and lead to misunderstandings. If you feel frustrated or upset with an issue, the first step is to manage yourself. Take a breath (maybe more than one!) and calm yourself.
- Take care to really listen to others and respond to what they are saying. Try and identify a part that you agree with before criticising.
- Do not say or write anything in anger; you may regret it later. Try to consider the situation from the other person’s point of view. Perhaps, sleep on it. You may feel differently after.
- When there are differences and disagreements, it’s always preferable to talk face-to-face rather than communicate in writing as written communication can be more easily misconstrued.
- Be constructive and helpful when expressing your opinion or giving feedback. Focus on the issue, and not the person. When giving feedback, try to avoid personal judgements - you might say ‘that’s a stupid idea’ to a friend you know well but it's probably not a way to give feedback in a group, especially if people don't know each other well. You may want to use the sandwich technique: start with a positive, give your criticism, and follow it with another positive.
- Make it your aim to improve the situation, and not to put someone down.
- Deal with a conflict immediately before it snowballs and becomes bigger, and more difficult to address and resolve. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
- Also, be prepared to compromise. The goal is to get the task done. You don’t always have to ‘win’. Check in with yourself if something is really as important as it first feels.
- When dealing with a conflict, get the full story from both sides. Consider the (interpersonal) needs of individuals and well as the task. Weigh the pros and cons of each side so that everyone can then make an informed decision.
Often, acting proactively and making sure the group has clear outcomes identified with an associated timeline will help to reduce conflict. It is perfectly normal and healthy for a group to experience disagreements because inevitably, the group members have diverse ideas, perspectives and experiences. In fact, you want to avoid groupthink, which is when some members do not want to express alternative views or new ideas that others may disagree with. Remember, an effective group is not necessarily one that is free of conflicts; an effective group manages conflicts as they arise, turning them into positive outcomes in achieving the group goals.