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Group projects: a slacker’s dream, or a perfectionist’s idea of cruel and unusual punishment? Like it or not, a group project may well be in your not-too-distant future. Smart planning from the get-go helps us make the best of our differences and end up with a project we can all feel good about. “There are very few things that matter more in the real world than your ability to work effectively in a team,” says Dr. Liane Davey, Co-founder of 3COze Inc., a communications consulting firm in Toronto, and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013). Click on each arrow for the steps to success.

Hands shaking

1. Get to know each other

Unfamiliar group mates? Here’s how to get acquainted.

If you can’t embrace the people, at least embrace the experience. When instructors and professors assign group projects, everyone’s first instinct is to choose a familiar person to work with. Sometimes, though, you’ll be paired with people you’ve barely spoken to.

It’s important to get a feel for everyone’s personality and interests and their goals and ideas for the project. This can help you identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses and will also help prevent conflicts later.

Getting started in a group  Try these tips from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University:

  • Introduce yourselves and talk a little about your background, particularly as it relates to your project. “People don’t come with an owner’s manual unfortunately, so I encourage [them] to make one up. For example, if you’re a night owl, let the group know you’re interested in meeting after class,” says Dr. Davey, a communications consultant in Toronto.
  • Let everyone express their goals, ideas, and concerns about the project and the logistics of how your group will function.
  • Assign specific tasks to each member based on their skills and interests (see Assign roles).
  • Create a timeline. Assign a completion date to each task. Publish the list of tasks and due dates (for example, use a shared Google Doc).
  • Designate one person to track progress and deadlines. (This does not mean that person takes on an unfair share of the work.)
  • As you define each person’s responsibilities, also discuss the consequences for not completing them. (These may range from buying everyone coffee at the next meeting, to involving your professor.)
  • Create a group contract outlining everyone’s responsibilities and how to address problems that might arise.

“Show [your group members] what you want them to do. You can’t actually ensure that your teammates communicate effectively; you can’t control their behaviour. But you can control yours. Start modelling what you want. If you want people to be open and transparent about things they’re worried about, be open about what you’re worried about,” says Dr. Davey, Co-founder of 3COze, Toronto.

Students’ stories

“Group work is hard. It’s good to come to an agreement at the beginning of the project and check up often to make sure everyone is on track.”
—Ksenia O., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“There are a lot of good ideas that come from working in group projects. It opens up new ways of looking at things that you might have never seen yourself.”
—Danielle F., third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“At the beginning of a project, we each tell the group which roles we would like and what our strengths and weaknesses are. Those of us who are not good with public speaking wouldn’t jump in to speak in front of the class. But some group members love public speaking and would want that role.”
—Samantha J., third-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario

“It’s helpful to have a broad range of academic strengths; otherwise, the project won’t be very well balanced.”
—Ethan R., third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“We each had our different ways to study, research, and present. Being together, we were able to help each other out and teach each other some tips. This was a very effective way to work and we did a great job.”
—Erica P., third-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

Pie pieces

2. Assign roles

Learn how to let your (and their) strengths shine.

Guiding each other toward our natural strengths enhances the project’s end result and gives everyone a chance to shine. If one of your teammates has memorized Macbeth’s soliloquies, by all means give her the opportunity to wow you with her paraphrasing of the Bard. Or if you’ve noticed your partner’s intricate doodles on his arm, encourage him to be the team graphic designer. 

Allowing people to choose roles that interest and come naturally to them can help the group succeed, according to Dr. Meredith Belbin, originator of Belbin’s team role theory, a system for identifying people’s strengths and weaknesses in the workplace.

Common group roles include:

  • Coordinator: organizes the team and focuses on the main objective
  • Team leader: makes sure people are contributing to their best ability
  • Innovator: provides creative input
  • Monitor-evaluator: deals out constructive criticism in a neutral manner
  • Team worker: enhances harmony and unity

+ Where do you fit in? Learn more about Belbin’s team

Students’ stories

“We had a variety of strengths. Someone was a good leader, someone had modelling skills, someone was good at research, and we all were good at writing reports. We also got along as friends and enjoyed each other’s company.”
—Kristen J., first-year graduate student, Queen’s University, Ontario

“I am good in math, physics, etc. My sister is good in art and has an excellent imagination. When we have a problem, she thinks of a bunch of ideas; I decide which one is the most applicable. I make the solution functional; she makes it beautiful. Everybody is happy.”
—Sergiy R., first-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“I think that how you learn (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) helps determine how you contribute to a group project. In the last group I worked with, we complemented each other because our areas of expertise didn’t overlap too much, and we were able to help each other.”
—Michelle K., third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia
(*name changed)

“Usually it works out to one person taking more of a lead and other’s following along. It works especially well when people have different strengths so they can take on different roles.”
—Madeleine D., second-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Speech bubbles

3. Check in with each other

Pausing and checking in gives you clarity and reassurance. Here’s what to look out for.

Be in touch like you mean it:

  • Exchange contact information right off the bat.
  • Set up times to communicate outside of class so you can work through problems, collaborate, and inspire each other.
  • Make sure you have multiple ways to get a hold of one other—phone, email, and social media. 
  • Schedule check-in times: Assessing your group’s progress will lead to a better understanding of your ongoing needs for the project. If your schedules don't align, check-in virtually via discussion boards, email updates, etc.
  • Give each other constructive feedback (see Give and receive constructive criticism).
  • Assess whether the needs of the group are being met.
  • Assess where the potential gaps are.
  • Assess what’s left to be done.
  • Consider using an app that helps you connect (e.g., Whatsapp, GroupMe).

Keeping things in check as you go along can prevent potential last-minute blowouts. That zany ideas person might need a word with their practical hands-on teammate (“We probably shouldn’t make the lava real lava”).

Students’ stories

“Prompt and clear communication have been key strengths, in my experience.”
—Stephanie H., second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“Some students may not be as adept at/willing to communicate or understand each other—much less challenge someone’s ideas so that the group may hone the focus of the project. Yet in spite of this, students are willing to agree and strive to see what each other means. This may lead to a disjointed group presentation or something of that nature, but the group members usually walk away satisfied.”
—Matthew H., third-year undergraduate, University of South Alabama

“Communication skills are often overlooked; not many people are good at communicating their thoughts. Good communication is a key to success. Sometimes it’s not about hard facts and knowledge of theory.”
—Cindy L., third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Ticking clock

4. Create personal and team deadlines

These planning steps will set your group apart from the rest.

Nothing happens without structure: It’s crushing to have an hour until the assignment is due and more than five hours of work left to be done. Create personal due dates for yourself as well as deadlines for the group as a whole. Getting ahead allows for a final review, and lets you and your crew show up well rested to present your project to the class.

  1. Double the amount of time you think a task will take. Stuff happens. Chances are you’ll need the extra time.
  2. Create a Google Calendar that is accessible only to the team. Give everyone editing power so you can stay on top of tasks and deadlines and handle unforeseen setbacks and delays.
  3. Be prepared if they fall through. “Talk ahead of time about how you’re going to deal with failure in the group. It’s almost a given that someone is not going to hit the deadline. How are you preparing for that?” says Jordan Tinney, Superintendent and CEO, Surrey School District, British Columbia.

Students’ stories

“Some people are organized and on task. Others are more creative but may need to be kept on task.”
—Anthony K., third-year undergraduate, Algonquin College, Ontario

“You really have to have a leader to take charge and make sure deadlines are set for everyone.”
—Name and university withheld

“Students who work together on group projects tend to learn accountability, keeping in contact to decide specifics for how the project is to be completed and assigning final deadlines.”
—Erin D., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino

“When working in a group, it doesn’t have to be everyone on the same page but having a good work ethic where everyone is participating and throwing in ideas and able to accomplish a goal.”
—Edward S., fifth-year undergraduate, Temple University, Pennsylvania

Cycle graphic

5. Give and receive constructive criticism

This essential life skill keeps your projects moving in the right direction.

In a group project, your classmate’s best interests are also your best interests. Don’t be afraid to speak up—thoughtfully. This is a chance to practice doling out (and taking) constructive criticism.

How to give constructive criticism:
Give a compliment and then state a need. This helps your peer see what needs to be done without feeling estranged from the rest of the group, according to guidelines developed at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Make sure that the critique you are offering is about the work and is not a personal attack. Starting with the compliment validates your peer’s work and makes them more open to critique without sacrificing the quality of your project. #winwin

What this looks like:
Compliment: “Thank you again for taking on the graphic design portion of the project; your creativity really shows.”
Statement of need: “The assignment asks us to portray the character’s feelings as much as possible. Is it possible to display more emotion in the way the Greek figures are animated?”

Students’ stories

“In the most recent group project, we all worked together for most of the time, allowing each of us to help one another out in situations and give constructive criticism on the parts that we thought needed work.’”
—Da’Cole C., third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“In general group projects only work when all group members are willing to put in the work, share the work equally, and respect each others’ opinions and contributions.”
—Tracy H., second-year graduate student, University of Windsor, Ontario

“We complimented each other’s work by saying, ‘Hey, good thought,’ or, ‘I think you should make some adjustments.”
—Da’Meon W., fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino

“The biggest strength of all members is open-mindedness. If we all have an open mind, we will hear each other and work cohesively. By being open-minded, there’s also a much better chance that you can easily solve problems if they arise.”
—Grace N., third-year undergraduate., Humboldt State University, California


6. OK, it’s not me, it’s you

Not every relationship was meant to be. But it was nice meeting you.

What if there’s that one person who’s just not meshing with the group? Perhaps their ideas for the project differ from the direction the group took, or maybe they just aren’t doing their share. For whatever reason (his hamster died, she’s not motivated, they’ve been out sick), you’re dealing with someone who is just not into it.

If it’s not a matter of perspective but of unfinished work, then you may need to talk with your peer. Don’t delay this conversation. Sometimes people aren’t aware that they’re not contributing an equal share. Talk with your group mate one-on-one (an intervention with the whole group might put them on the defensive) and see what’s going on. If they still aren’t pulling their weight, then you may need to revisit those consequences for uncompleted tasks.

Students’ stories

“[They were not] willing to do anything; they were just looking to get someone else to do the work and get credit. At the end, they withdrew from the course leaving me alone struggling to get everything done so I can pass.”
—Wahiba R., third-year graduate student, Algonquin College, Ontario

“There’s usually one person who’s less committed than they seem, so our strategy involves minimizing their tasks so it won’t harm us later in the long run.”
—Thomas N., second-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“Most groups consist of one or two doing the work and the rest getting the credit. This semester, the professors allowed us to cull [group members] if they were not productive.”
—Joshua H., third-year undergraduate, University of Arkansas–Fort Smith

“Usually there is always someone who leaves the rest of the work to others. This is why member surveys are great for group projects. It gives the incentive to work harder so that your teammates will rank you as you deserve.”
—Kristina W., third-year undergraduate, California State University, San Marcos

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