Tag Archives: higher education

Advice on Group Work

Group workSooner or later it is going to happen. You are going to have to work in a group! Some of you love the idea and others cringe at the thought.

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.

Planning Advice:

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.

Workplan

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>

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Will You Be My Reference?

Help Me!

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a loooooong time.  Clearly I’ve been too busy writing reference letters!

Let’s face it.  At some point in your life you may need an academic reference (i.e. a reference from a college or university faculty member).  This could be for any number of reasons including a grad school, scholarship or job application or maybe even for a volunteer position would you like to hold.  Academic referees are often required to answer specific questions (rather than simply provide a general assessment) about the individual in question and in addition we are often asked to rate you (yes you!), against your peers in a number of categories including communication skills, academic ability, judgment, leadership ability, maturity and the list goes on.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a professor is the number of unqualified reference requests I get from both past and current students.  Let me explain what I mean by unqualified.

An unqualified reference request has one or more of the following elements:

  1. I don’t know the student well; therefore I am not able to evaluate if the student’s skills and accomplishments are a good match for this program/award/position.
  2. The student did not perform well in the course (final grade below 75%, did not attend classes, etc.).  What do you think the rankings are going to look like?
  3. I don’t know what I’m being asked for.  The student hasn’t sent me all necessary information to evaluate if acting as a reference would make sense.
  4. I don’t remember the student.  Gasp!  Yes, this has happened.  I’ve taught a lot of students and my memory isn’t what it used to be.  If it’s been five years since you graduated (assuming we haven’t talked since) this could happen to you.

So what are you to do?

Here are my tips for what to consider before, at the time of and after the reference request.  I hope this information will shed some light on the subject and save you (and your professors) from some awkward correspondence.

BEFORE You Ask

  • How well does this person know me?  If the answer is “well, she knows my student number and midterm exam grade” and that’s it – we’re in trouble.  Think about what your professor might be able to say about you in relation to the program/award/position you are applying for.  Draft a letter about yourself.  Do it!  This is a great exercise.  If you don’t know what to include in a letter about yourself how will this person be able to figure it out either?
  • What do I want this person to say about me?  Do you want them to speak to your ability to work well in a team?  Your leadership potential?  Your willingness to contribute to class discussions?  WHAT?  If you don’t know, how are we supposed to know?  If we have observed these behaviours, skills, etc.  in action then it would make sense to ask us to speak about them on your behalf but if not…

WHEN You Ask

  • If in person, make sure that it is a good time (like not right before class when your professor is madly trying to get the projector to work) and if it is through email then make sure you communicate professionally (appropriate subject line, capitalization, sentence structure, etc.).
  • Indicate why you are asking this particular person for a reference or why you think this person would be a good reference for the purpose.  What value will he or she be willing to add to your application?  Professors like this.  It demonstrates thinking.
  • Include all relevant information in the request like the due date (big one!) and a description of the program/award/position (a link to a website with this information is also very useful).

AFTER You Ask

  • No matter the response, be gracious.
  • Make sure that you follow up with all additional information (contact information of where the letter should be sent for example).
  • Don’t assume that you can use this person as a reference for the rest of your life.  You need to ask each time you would like this person to be a reference for you.

On that last point, a couple of months ago I was surprised to get a phone message from a background check company on behalf of a student I taught SEVEN YEARS AGO.  Thankfully I wasn’t in the office when the call came in so I had a chance to figure out who this person was.  That doesn’t mean I was able to give a good reference.  I really didn’t remember this person or know anything about the position he had applied for.

I hope I haven’t scared you.  The purpose of this post was to provide you with some context so that you make sure you are proactive in building relationships with individuals who might be able to help you in this capacity.  What a great idea for a future post!

Have you had a good/bad reference request experience you would be willing to share?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohmannalianne/3405673898/”>ohmann alianne</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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End of Term Magic Moment

Stars

It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Exams and papers are graded, I can see over my filing pile and I am up to date with all of my reference requests.  I still haven’t starting writing “that” paper for a conference submission but at least I feel optimistic it will happen.

The best thing to come out of this entire term’s grading (and there was a lot of it) were the takeaways and key learning points, otherwise known as the “ah-ha” moments, identified by numerous students in their final business communications course papers.  In a previous post I pointed out that professors don’t take any joy in grading poor papers but I didn’t mention the immense joy some of us do get from grading insightful, original and well-crafted documents.

The specific points identified by the students don’t really matter to me at the end of the day.  What does matter to me is that the students demonstrated that they learned something from the course content and from the experience in which they participated.

I have known some of these students for two and even three years and to see them grow and mature in their communication effectiveness and analysis was wonderful.

Although I’m going to enjoy my break from the student’s smiling faces over the holidays I know that when classes resume I’ll be ready to smile right back.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/sleepykisser/298046370/“>水泳男</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>

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What’s Your WHY?

IMG_6731

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting a high school class to speak about the university experience and of course to put in a plug for my institution.  Instead of starting my presentation by asking standard questions like “How many of you have applied to university?” and “How many of you know what program you want to pursue?”, I started by asking “WHY?”.

WHY do you want to go to university anyway? 

The classroom stayed silent.  It was very uncomfortable.  Most students stared at me blankly.  Apparently they hadn’t been asked or hadn’t thought about this question before.

Eventually one brave soul raised his hand and reported that he wanted to go to university and get a degree because that was simply what you had to do to eventually get a job.

I was disappointed.  If the only reason you are planning to pursue or are in post-secondary studies is to get a degree, leave with that flimsy piece of paper in four years, then you are really missing out.

There are so many other reasons to attend university and although I can rhyme off building your network, developing transferable skills (that yes, can be beneficial when it comes time to seek employment) and gaining new knowledge, YOU need to identify your personal WHY in order to make the most of your experience.

If you don’t know your WHY then how are you going to make decisions?  What courses will you take?  What clubs will you join?  What relationships will you pursue?

The students who get the most out of their post-secondary experience are those who begin with the end in mind (which happens to be Stephen Covey’s second Habit of Highly Effective People).  Decide what you want at the end and then design your experience around that vision.

Everyone can benefit from periodically revisiting our personal WHY.  Incorporating this habit into our routines to help prioritize and focus time and energy is invaluable.  Unfortunately those always seem to be in short supply.

I’m curious.  What’s your WHY?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/cybercafe/4414515565/”>markheybo</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

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