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13 September 2016

Strategies for success: Group assignments

Group assignments. So infamous they're among the most common of study memes. They can be tricky, but the end result is worth more than one might think. Michelle de Aizpurua and Emma Price are here to unpack successful strategies for managing your group assignment, and how to handle those social loafers...

It is not uncommon to feel a bit negative towards group assignments. Many students say they want to work individually because their experiences in previous group assignments have been less than ideal. You may feel like you are left doing all the work, but the assignment grades don’t reflect this. Trying to organise timing, as well as conflicting ideas among different members, can be a struggle. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Group work can be a very positive experience in your studies; it just takes a few easy steps to manage it effectively.


Why is group work important?

You can’t avoid working in groups, because in workplaces it is a vital skill. Effective group work is an increasingly important skill required by employers. Students who have experience working in groups are better prepared for the collaborative nature of work in their future careers. In job interviews, you can draw on your university experiences to answer questions about working in teams and challenges you have overcome, so it makes sense to develop these skills while studying.


What strategies can you use for successful group work?

In psychology, the tendency to ‘slack off’ when working in a group is a well-known phenomena called ‘social loafing’. Thankfully, however, these clever scientists have also found ways to reduce social loafing tendencies. Rothwell (2000) details the “three C’s of motivation” for effective group work: collaboration, choice and content [1]. In addition to these strategies, we would also add two more areas of great importance; communication and coordination. Let’s look at each of these and how you can utilise them in your group assignments.


Collaboration
Everyone needs to get involved. The best way to achieve this is to set ground rules that dictate each person's role or tasks to complete, as well as the timeline for completion. You should also decide on when and how you will meet and communicate.


Choice
Make sure everyone agrees on these terms. Assigning someone a role without their agreement will simply cause frustration and complaints. If everyone is involved in the planning stage and has their thoughts considered, they are less likely to disengage from the group.


Content
Each person should feel their role is of value to the group. Team members should choose a role in which they are confident they have the necessary skills to excel. Before you can choose tasks, your group will need to analyse the assignment closely to decide what is required and how you will achieve this. Once you have a clear picture on the assignment, you can then determine a fair and equal way of dividing the workload.


Communication
Being polite and respectful is important. Listening to everyone’s thoughts on the assignment and keeping an open mind to suggestions is essential. Be aware of your non-verbal communication (body language) when meeting together and focus on giving each other constructive feedback rather than negative criticism or ‘nit-picking’. At the same time, always consider any constructive feedback or suggestions you receive from your fellow group members and don’t take it personally.


Coordination
Try to organise your meetings from the beginning of the assignment. This way you will all know what you are aiming for as a group with set milestones and tasks to be completed for each meeting. If availability is causing problems, you might want to discuss if online meetings will suit all of your group better, or a combination of online and face-to-face. Always record any decisions made, task allocations and assignment progress in every meeting.


(Dealing with) Conflict
Problems will often happen due to group dynamics or slow progress. If conflict does arise, clearly identify the problem as a group and avoid negative ‘finger-pointing’. Focus your discussion on constructive ideas (rather than on individuals) and consider practical solutions to address the problem. You may need to revise your plans or change your goals, but remember, this is all part of working in a team.


Group work can be challenging, but it is also rewarding. Through careful planning, active participation and good communication, your group work experience can be effective and positive.


Don’t forget the friendly Learning Skills Advisers at the Research and Learning Point drop-ins are available if you have any questions on effective group work, and remember to check for any upcoming workshops.





[1] J. D. Rothwell. (2000). In the Company of Others: An Introduction to Communication. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.



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