Group work can provide many benefits to students including the ability to divide and conquer a large quantity of work; the opportunity to benefit from other people’s ideas, perspectives and experiences; and the chance to get to know other students in your course or program (heck, I started dating my husband after working with him on a university group project).
Let’s face it. Group work can also be a real drag. Some students take complete advantage. They miss meetings, have excuses for not doing their part and avoid responding to email, text and facebook messages. Like you’ve cut yourself off from all forms of electronic communication. I don’t buy it.
Personally, I don’t understand how these individuals can sleep at night but it happens again and again and again.
So what are you to do, a simple member of a dysfunctional group?
Much of the success (or failure) related to the group experience boils down to what takes place during the initial meeting. Early in my teaching career I assumed that students understood how to manage a group work project. I spent very little time in the classroom discussing planning and communication strategies. I know that I’m not alone on this. Many professors assume the same or they just don’t feel like they have enough time in the course to cover the details. You’re all adults, right?
My approach has changed. I do spend time on the mechanics of group work in my courses because I find that most students have never been “taught” strategies for managing groups. I want you to benefit from these tips in order to make your next group work experience more effective.
1. Use a Workplan
This simple tool is by far the best thing since sliced bread. Many different versions of workplans exist. Below is a sample which details all of the elements you will want to include (along with an example of how you would fill it out). Each objective (i.e. what do you need to figure out or do?) would deserve it’s own row in the plan. The key here is that the workplan provides accountability for all members of the group. By documenting the “action steps”, “specific output” expected, individual(s) responsible and the timing, there are no misunderstandings. And if Barry doesn’t do his job, everyone will know. This document just might create enough social pressure to deter slacking.
2. Develop and Sign a Team Contract
The purpose of the team contract is to establish a set of ground rules. I provide a team contract template to all of the groups that form in my courses (which they are free to alter to their liking). A team contract might include a bulleted list of individual responsibilities (i.e. I will show up on time to group meetings, I will let the other members of my team know if I can’t make it to a meeting, I will complete all of my work on time, etc.) and group responsibilities (i.e. As a team, we agree to discuss problems openly, share the “leadership” position, etc.). You don’t need to get too crazy or fancy here. Just sit down with your group and decide what behaviours you will accept and which you won’t. Next time I am going to add a bulleted point to the individual list stating “I will not make excuses” or maybe “I won’t whine”. That should be interesting.
3. Get Organized
There are absolutely no excuses here. I can sob about the “when I was a student” days when we did not have cloud technology or even the widespread use of email (that’s right, I’m ancient). Decide how you plan to store the documents and files your group discovers and creates. Many blackboard technologies used by the universities themselves have this capability and there’s always Dropbox, Google Docs, Facebook and more you’ve probably already been exposed to. Centralizing the document and source storage system will save your group a lot of time and headaches later in the process when you’re wondering where that government report document ended up.
Do you have other ideas? If so I’d love to hear about them.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomargari/3511791090/”>Paolo Margari</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>