Got a Group Project? Inside Scoop on Working in a Group

By Lauren Joffe for The Real College Guide

Working on a group project? Always a fascinating lesson in sociology. Here, how to deter others from screwing up when you need to make the grade!

If you prefer to work independently, you probably dread the occasional but inevitable … group project. But working in a group can be a great learning experience and not only when it comes to absorbing information: It’s also a lesson in how to function productively with others.

University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Zemsky, author of Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education and advocate of active learning, believes that working with others is an effective learning technique. “Really good active learning becomes a discovery process in which the student corrects his or her prior knowledge and then builds on that base,” says Zemsky.

In essence, the group effort is an experimental journey that’s likely to teach you way more than you’d learn by sitting through a lecture. To ensure that this superior learning experience is reflected on your transcripts, you’ve gotta make the best of the group you’ve been dealt. Here’s how:

Setting Group Ground Rules

Take the lead

To avoid disaster, someone’s gotta take hold of the reins. There’s bound to be a natural-born leader in the bunch, but if no one is stepping up — maybe that someone should be you. That doesn’t mean turning all control-freaky on your cohorts, but it helps for one student to take on a leadership role to enforce the rest of the ground rules.

Set drop-dead due dates

Suggest setting regular deadlines. “I’ve found that if my group doesn’t set weekly or daily tasks, the work just won’t get done,” says New York University junior Emily Hollander. “We’re all busy, and we all have lives outside of that one class, so feeling like you have to report back to a group of people helps to motivate.”

Divide labor equally

Disperse all the work so everyone is equally involved. No one wants to feel their input isn’t needed — or that they’re doing way more than their fair share. Zemsky says that when assigning group projects to students, “I expect them to share their work as well as work with each other.” One word: teamwork!

Check in

Find a time when everyone is available to discuss the week’s progress. Whether you catch up at the library or head to a coffee joint, getting together outside class helps everyone stay up to date and on the same page. As a facilitator, show your appreciation to those who pull their own weight.

Getting Down to Business

You’re not a robot, so getting distracted comes with the territory in a group setting. You might be tempted to goof off with this crew, especially when working with friends (or making new ones).

“If I work with friends on a group project, it’s pretty hard to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing, especially if I don’t get to see them the rest of the week,” admits NYU senior Laura Gage. “We have to make a conscious effort to work on the project instead of, well, our social lives.”

More tips to stay on track:

Show up early and begin on time

Group meeting is at 7 p.m. sharp? Yeah … it’s 7:20 and you’ve only addressed who hooked up at the Sig Ep party last weekend. So agree to arrive 10 or 15 minutes early to gab, but then check your gossip at the door. Once the clock strikes the designated time, wrap up the conversation and get to work. Promptly.

Make plans for after … before

Especially during early-evening meetings, it’s easy to let late-night planning get in the way of real work. So, before the group meeting, suggest grabbing dinner or coffee with your group mates (or other friends) afterward. That way, you can put the mid-meeting texting on hold, and you’ll have an incentive to focus on (and finish!) your work.

End on time

Just as you set a start time, also agree to stick to an end time. This keeps the project from taking up more of people’s time than they can afford, and it deters students from cutting out early (and leaving the bulk of the work with those who remain). Plus, you’ll concentrate a whole lot better when you’re not wondering, “When will this be over already?”

Losing the Lazy One

There’s always one. You know, the person who thinks he can slide by doing as little work as possible. This person is the procrastinator … the whiner … the pessimist … the slacker. Picking up the slack for someone else is so not what you signed up for.

“The lazy person in the group always makes it awkward,” says Sara Ryer, a junior at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I never know how to handle it. I either let the teacher know the group member is slacking off, which just looks bad for me somehow, or I end up doing all the extra work. It’s basically a lose-lose situation.”

If you’re dealing with deadweight, you and the other hard workers should band together and take the following steps:

Be assertive

Let this person know his behavior is not OK: While this grade might not be important to him, it is to everybody else. If he doesn’t respond, move to step No. 2.

Set consequences

This kid thinks she can get away with not participating? We don’t think so! Tell her nicely but firmly that if her performance remains flat, you’ll have no choice but to talk to the professor.

Make a move

Email your teacher, and without mentioning any names, explain that someone is not participating. Seek the teacher’s advice on how to handle the ordeal.

Forge on

While some teachers are willing to intervene, others are hands-off. If your teacher leaves it up to you to solve the problem, you’ll probably have to divvy up this person’s load among the other group members since you want the project to be successful. Will the loser lose points toward his grade? Maybe, maybe not. Read on ….

Making the Grade

Group assignments are tough to grade fairly, especially because professors can’t know for sure how much each student contributed to the project. “I have largely abandoned giving grades for group projects,” says Zemsky. “Instead, I just insist that the assignment be handed in. I try as best I can to then give specific feedback.”

Some instructors will give the same grade to everyone in the group based on the overall outcome of the project. Others dole out grades individually after having students complete peer review sheets, which might also require self-evaluation.

NYU junior Zachary Werner has had his share of experience when it comes to peer reviews. Werner believes instructors are more sympathetic when it comes to grade distribution if they are kept in the loop during the course of the project: “If the professor already knows the group is having problems, he’ll probably be on the lookout for how the group members evaluate each other. Several of my professors have specifically asked each of us to list what we contributed to the project, and when the person who did nothing couldn’t vouch for his share, a red flag was automatically raised.”

Just remember that filling out a peer review is not a time to purge on paper all your pent-up feelings about a group member. It is meant to be an accurate reflection of how everyone contributed to the group effort. Need to vent? You could probably use some non-group time, so lock yourself in your room and take it out on the pages of your private journal.

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