Group Projects in College: Helpful Tips for Surviving

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Group work can be challenging. Employers value applicants who can work in groups because, in the real world, few people work alone.

Most of your classmates will be responsible, eager learners.

However, your assigned partner may be slow to respond because he or she is dealing with a family crisis, temporarily overwhelmed, or working a night shift. (On the other hand, maybe your partner is just slacking off.)

What can you do to increase your chances of having a successful group project?

1. Protect yourself by starting early.

Read the assignment well before the due date, and plan. Don’t wait for someone else to contact you.

Email your partners with a list of three or four spans of time when you’d be available to meet. Don’t suggest just one time, and then wait for everyone in the group to weigh in on whether that time will work.

Get a rough outline started in a GoogleDoc and share your ideas with other group members.

2. Nudge a slow partner with helpful specifics.

If your partner hasn’t responded to your polite nudging email after 24 hours, reply to your original message, and add another, more specific suggestion.

Maybe your partner is overwhelmed, and needs you to take the lead in making decisions: “If I don’t hear from you by X, I’ll assume Y. If that doesn’t work out, let me know, and maybe we can ask Dr. Jerz for input.”

This is a polite reminder to your partner that you already have documentation that the delay is not your fault. But remember — your partner may have a very good reason for not responding. (Don’t jump to conclusions.)

3. Document your efforts to make it work.

Without getting legalistic or accusatory, if you really worry you are headed for disaster, kick it upstream.

I tell my students to add my name to the CC line of an email that includes the first two (unanswered) messages, and add something polite and understanding like, “I’m sorry we haven’t been able to connect. Maybe we should ask Dr. Jerz for different partners. Let me know by [day/time]. Meanwhile, I’m going to start on A and B. You can start on C if you like, unless you have a different idea.”

4. Remember one outcome of a group project is demonstrating teamwork skills.

If you pounce on every delay as evidence your partner is a slacker, or you get defensive as soon as your partner expresses concern about your side of the work, you aren’t showing good teamwork skills. What is important in group work?

  1. willingness to help out a team member who isn’t sure where to start (but might be very valuable if told exactly what to do). (This is why it’s a good thing for you to start making some decisions that will make it easier for your partner to say, “Sounds good, I’ll follow your lead.”)
  2. willingness to get help from a superior while there’s still time for regrouping (rather than waiting until the night before and firing off an angry email about how your partner is a slacker who’s bringing you down, when it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it).
  3. ability to document so that, if your project falls apart, it will be easy for everyone involved to do a postmortem (and learn as much as possible from the attempt… CYA).

See Also

 Academics: Taking Notes -- 5 Tips for College Success Academic/Professional Speeches: 10 Tips on Oral Presentations for School or Work

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