Group Projects in College: Helpful Tips for Surviving

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Group projects can be challenging. Your instructor knows this. Your instructor also knows how important it is to give students experience working 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, or possibly working a night shift, or possibly doesn’t have reliable access to the internet at home. (On the other hand, maybe your partner is just slacking off.)

Learning how to function in a group project is an important life lesson that your instructor might feel is as important as, or even more important than, checking all the content and formatting boxes that are spelled out in the assignment description.

As a student, you may of course be motivated by a desire not to lose points because of what someone else did (or didn’t do).

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.

Early on, e-mail 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.

While you wait for your peers to respond, get a rough outline started and draft a rough timeline in a Google Doc and share it with the 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 assume malice.)

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 struggling 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

by Dennis G. Jerz
28 Aug 2017 — first posted
02 Feb 2022 — minor tweaks

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