Group work: Make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger

We’ve all read ‘Group Work’ in the course guide and made this sound.

When the group work bogeyperson rears its revolting head, try not to collapse into a heap of twitching protoplasm. Group work may be difficult, engendering horror stories terrifying enough to be told around a campfire, but it’s not just prescribed because the university hates you. As our own Barrie Shannon, PhD candidate, lecturer and tutor, explains, “it is vitally important that students build their collaborative skills – there aren’t many careers that consist solely of autonomous, solitary work. Students need to be able to collaborate, negotiate and build rapport with others.”

So, how do you tame this group work behemoth with minimal physical and mental scarring?

  1. DO play to your strengths

While Sociology and Anthropology lecturer, Stephen Smith, is keen to reinforce the ‘group’ aspect of group work, “people need to be very conscious of the fact that a group assignment is just that—a group assignment—not an assignment that is made up of ‘bits’ done by individuals”, he also encourages groups to work to the individual strengths of the team. I happen to love referencing, bibliographies and painstakingly carving out that perfect paragraph; on the flip-side, the mere whiff of statistics, math or any kind of design work will cause me to break out in hives. Have a discussion with your group and farm out the roles and responsibilities wisely. Stephen suggests that “members should very early in the piece, establish what they are best suited for and make that very well known to the others in the group. That doesn’t mean, of course, that a single person should be solely responsible for that task or role. Again, it’s a team effort.”

  1. DO set goals and expectations

Make sure each member knows exactly what is expected of them and that you’re all on the same page. Dissect the assignment and set small, reasonable goals for each group member. Give each goal a deadline. By spreading the tasks evenly and chipping away at them you’ll be moving forward as a team, no one will feel they are doing the bulk of the work and the last few weeks won’t be an awful scramble – there’s also less likelihood you’ll want to strangle each other, or be shooting filthy looks across lecture theatres for the next few years.

  1. DO communicate

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Be clear. Be informative. As Stephen reminds us, it’s very easy to assume “that everyone understands what you’re saying or doing or writing—or that everyone is on the same ‘page’ as you about an aspect of the assignment.” If you find something cool, share it; you may help get another member more involved. If something you research contradicts your hypothesis, share it; you may have a wider vein of research to tap. If you’re confused, lost or uncomfortable, “voice your concerns,” advises Stephen, “otherwise, how will others in your group know that you aren’t comfortable, or that you don’t fully understand something?”

  1. DON’T ignore the possibility of friction

The student spectrum encompasses everyone from bloody-minded HD fiends, to students following the ‘Ps mean Degrees’ mantra. Any combination of students is going to need “a lot of discussion, ‘encouragement’ and extra effort on the part of all members of the group to decide upon a ‘benchmark’ to be attained” suggests Stephen. Not every student has the same performance expectations, and that’s fine. Managing differing expectations and compromising is a key skill we’re all going to need forever and ever, amen. If friction occurs don’t sit silently and hope it will go away. It won’t. It will fester and boil and explode in an outpouring of anger, frustration and passive aggressive Facebook posts.  Admitting there is friction, and negotiating it, will let the pressure out. Trust me, if you’re having a personality clash the rest of the group will feel it, and they are suffering from the tension too. Barrie advises to “keep your cool and deal with conflict professionally and calmly. Ask for help from your tutor before you go into crisis mode.”

  1. DON’T be a control freak

No one likes a despot. You might have the research proposal nesting in your noggin, but taking over a group and treating them like staff, or lesser beings, is bad news. “Let everybody contribute, and listen to other people’s ideas,” advises Barrie. Group assignments are not about individual visions, but collaboration. Don’t micromanage, don’t dictate and, above all, don’t be a martyr; as Barrie explains, “the only thing as bad as somebody who does nothing and takes the credit is somebody who deliberately does everything and then moans about having no help.” It’s wise not to build your pedestal too high, just in case you trip. Development Studies student, Penny*, describes a group member who acted as the “fount of all knowledge” only to submit the group assignment while it was still in edit tracking mode.

The other side of the coin is the slacker. Uni can suck, the pressure can be immense and there never seems to be enough time to complete everything. Guess what? That applies to us all. Do what you say you are going to do. Don’t let your team down. Don’t be that person who doesn’t turn up to the presentation or coasts on the back of others. If you’re struggling, ask for help. Communicate rather than hide.

  1. DON’T be a jerk

Be nice. Stay positive and be understanding. Stephen again stresses the importance of the ‘group’ mentality: “Be helpful, guide and be guided when needed.” Don’t dominate or form ‘factions’ and don’t victimise people. We all have different degrees of ability and face a wide spectrum of challenges. Many students struggle with reading, writing and communicating, juggle their study with family or work commitments, experience life through different cultural lenses, different physical capabilities, or struggle with mental health problems and various other neurological differences. Barrie highlights the importance of accommodation and understanding, “try not to marginalise or alienate group members who are struggling. Everyone’s contribution is valuable.”

If you work as a unit, rather than a collection of individual parts, group work doesn’t have to be the kind of thing you might flesh out with an anxious and skeletal John Carpenter score – it can be enjoyable and rewarding. “It was actually great” exclaims Jo, a Community Welfare and Human Services major, when asked about her last group assignment. “I made some really cool friends. My advice would be to have fun with it and don’t stress too much.” As Stephen points out, it’s also an opportunity to “learn a lot about yourself and gain interesting insights about others—the different ways people think and do and go about achieving the same things as you do, but in their own ways.”

For all its potential pitfalls, group work is a great way to meet your fellow classmates, make friends and, by working with minds other than your own, learn and experience things you might not have otherwise encountered. Stephen reminds us that group work isn’t about “a group of individual egos fighting for the position of ‘top dog’—it’s people working together as harmoniously and respectfully as possible to achieve the aims and outcomes of the task at hand.”


*Name changed for privacy.

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