It’s the first week of classes, and your professor begins to delve into the course outline and breakdown of grade allocation for the forthcoming weeks. No midterm or final? Sweet. One term paper? Alright – so far, so good. Just when you’re about to wipe your brow in relief of the lack of a presumably heavy course load, your professor makes one last remark: “40% of your final mark will comprise a group project.” Your heart sinks, the room is filled with deep sighs, moans and groans, eyes begin to roll… you know the feeling.
I have yet to meet a fellow student who can look me straight in the eye and tell me that they genuinely enjoy working on group projects. If all goes well, everything could end on a positive note, but more often than not, it’s throughout the actual process itself which inter-personal and inter-group conflicts start to emerge.
Based on my extensive experience with working on school group projects, I will be sharing some thoughts and tips on how to survive and succeed in the single academic endeavour that students seem to love to hate.
Many times, your instructor probably has your groups predetermined. But, if you’re lucky, your prof may do you a solid and organize somewhat of a ‘speed-dating’ or ’round robin’ session to allow you to get acquainted with your prospective group members. Don’t think of it as an awkward minute-long conversation, even though it totally is; treat it like a full-out interview. Seize the opportunity to gauge your peers’ strengths and weaknesses, and base your decision on whether or not you think they will contribute well to the overall group dynamic. Note: depending on the gravity of your project, not all of these tips may apply.
Group Formation: Be Aggressive. Be, be, aggressive.
This typically pans out in one of three ways:
(1) you immediately flock to your closest acquaintances
(2) after a few moments of exchanging awkward glances with the almost-formed group on the other side of the room, you finally decide to walk over and beg them to have you, or
(3) you remain immobile throughout this short-lived (though seemingly never-ending), excruciating period and experience how it feels like to get picked last in gym class — aka you end up haphazardly being thrust into the last group standing, by default.
Many say that forming the perfect group, that is if you’re given the opportunity to select your teammates, can make or break the final product. To avoid the latter, you’ve got to be aggressive and strategic when deciding on who your team should comprise of. By strategic, I mean keep an eye out for the following qualities and characteristics:
Standards and Expectations?
Everyone has their own personal set of standards and expectations going into a class. An ‘A’ grade as defined by one person can be totally different from the next. It’s sometimes helpful to find out what your group members want to achieve in the class in order to gauge the amount of time and effort they will be willing and prepared to invest in the project. If you play your cards right, you may be lucky enough to find other like-minded individuals who are just as driven and ambitious as you are – that’s a pretty powerful combination there, if you ask me.
Strengths and Weaknesses?
It is perfectly natural to want to gravitate towards diligent, hardworking, and bright students who often participate actively in class discussions (at least, these are the kinds of people I try to keep an eye out for). We all get too caught up in being automatically drawn to all of their strengths, good qualities, and overall seemingly strong work ethic, that we sometimes fail to acknowledge their areas of improvement. The next time you get a chance to handpick your group mates, find out what they consider their weaknesses to give you an idea of how they would fit in the group dynamic. For instance, you wouldn’t want to be surrounded by a group of power trippers, or procrastinators. Try to strike a balance.
No, this isn’t an excuse to solely find out where your peers live – that’s just creepy. While there exists a bounty of online collaborative tools to help facilitate and organize group meetings and project management, meeting in-person, more often than not, renders far more productivity (given that you carefully craft an agenda and come prepared, that is). One of the most prevalent limitations to executing a quality project pertains to spatial or temporal constraints. When technology isn’t on your side and the time comes to have to meet up with your group, it is sometimes difficult to make these arrangements if you all live on opposite ends of the city. As such, the locations of your group members is something to take into consideration.
Continuing from the previous item to carefully consider, being mindful of your group members’ schedules and their other commitments is extremely important for you to be wary of. You may not be taking that full of a course load, but for all you know, your other group members may have quite the full plate. That is not to say give the busiest person the least to do, but do be understanding and sensitive to their other commitments and planning accordingly is doubly crucial.
Group Project Myth: “A bigger group is always better!”
Rid the mentality of ‘the larger the group, the less work per person/smaller division of labour’. I’m not saying it’s impossible to execute and deliver a successful project with a large group – it’s just a bit more difficult. One of my biggest pet peeves, as I’m sure many other students face, is whenever a group member fails to pull his or her load. Conversely, it is just as problematic when someone tries to shoulder the entire project. There is no ‘i’ in team – and for you smart alecs out there, I am fully aware that there indeed is a ‘me’, but you get my point.
Establishing an effective mode of communication, sorting out schedules, agreeing on places and times to meet regularly (both online and offline) early on are all crucial. Keep in mind that although there are several online tools which can facilitate group collaboration and team management, sometimes, meeting in-person can be the best alternative.
Group Evaluation: The Truth Comes Out (but stay classy)
There is bound to be either that one lazy person who does squat, or that one power tripper who attempts to shoulder the entire project, and at this point, you’re probably itching to be a tattle tale and call them out on it. While this would be the opportune time to profess the poor work ethics of some of your peers, this is also a great time to offer some constructive feedback. If your evaluation of your team members will be for their eyes to see, rather than merely listing every single one of their shortcomings, take a moment and think about how they could have contributed to the project better. Help equip them with tips and suggestions that could contribute to their personal and professional growth.
Keep In Touch: Networking Opportunities Lie Ahead!
Don’t be so keen to run away from your group after the project is over! Unless you’re in your final semester, there’s a slight chance that you might run in them in the halls next term. In case you do (especially if you all happen to be from the same faculty or department), try to leave a good lasting impression. You don’t want to be that person who, in the back of former group members minds are that person who wants to be avoided the next time around.
If you happen to be nearing the end of your post-secondary career, reconnecting via Facebook or LinkedIn is a mighty good idea to keep that professional relationship alive. There’s a reason there are “Classes/Courses Taken With ___” sections on those social networking sites. Take advantage of them.
Amidst all the highly stressful and sometimes frustrating times brought about by group projects, I have had the chance to work closely and get acquainted with some of the most brilliant people I have ever known. If you’re lucky, you may not only come out of the class with just a decent grade – you might leave with some good friends, too.