Surviving group work

October 4, 2017 | Campus Life


Love it or hate it, collaborative learning is here to stay. Use these tips to make the most of it.

There comes a time in every university student’s life when you’re forced to join forces with your peers to tackle an assignment. And you don’t always get to choose your A-Team.

While it might feel like your professors are playing a cruel game with your GPA when they assign group work, they’re really not. Profs use group work (or “collaborative learning”) because it works.

“It’s important to understand that your instructor is doing it for a reason,” says Carolyn Ives, curriculum planning and development coordinator, Centre for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ). “It’s not meant to be torture; there’s going to be some kind of valuable learning that comes out of it.”


Related: Are you ready for the school year? Check out other stories in the Student Primer Series.


So what’s so valuable about group work?

“These experiences tend to be more impactful kinds of learning activities,” says Carolyn. “Collaborative learning, whether it’s something you’re doing for 15 minutes in a class or a project spread out over the whole term, does tend to push people just a bit outside of their comfort zone and it does tend to have more lasting impacts in terms of learning.”

Don’t believe her? Here’s what other students have to say.

“In those first couple years, you think, ‘Oh my god, another group project? I can’t do this again.’ But by the end of it, when you have a group of people that have made it that far in their university degrees, you have a really solid team to work with.” — Amy Beard, Bachelor of Commerce alumna

IMAGE_PRIMER_groupwork-Nyat“At the beginning, I really did not like that pretty much every business course required group work, and I found that there was always that one person that takes the lead. I was always a bit more shy, but as the courses went on, I challenged myself to take on more leadership roles and work with the team, so it was rewarding in the end because it was definitely a learning process.” — Nyat Haile, Bachelor of Commerce alumna


5 tips to make sure you have the best experience ever



If your palms start to sweat as your prof counts you off into groups or asks you to join up with your in-class neighbours, you’re not alone.

“There are a number of reasons why students may struggle to embrace collaborative learning,” says Carolyn. “Sometimes it comes down to scheduling and workload—a lot of students are concerned they’re going to end up doing more than their fair share. And sometimes it’s about relinquishing control or fear of personality conflicts.”

Here are tips to make the experience manageable:

1. Establish ground rules

Instead of taking your part of the assignment and retreating until the due date, bring the group together early on and establish ground rules: who’s responsible for what? How often (and where and when) should the group get together? What are the consequences for breaking the rules? (Maybe it’s having to buy coffee for the group).

“If everybody has a role and is clear on what that role is, that can be really helpful,” says Carolyn.

2. Determine what success looks like

Is an A-plus the only acceptable grade or are you comfortable with a C? Be sure to check in with your group and review the assignment criteria to determine what success looks like to everyone.

One fear students have is that everyone in the group will get the same grade, regardless of who shows up or puts in the most (or best) work. Depending on your prof, you may be graded separately, given a shared mark or a combination of the two.

3. Create a group identity

Once the ground rules are set, consider ways to get your group to gel. Sometimes it’s as simple as a team name, or as silly as wearing matching hats or t-shirts on presentation day. Carolyn says those fun, little activities can help establish a more cohesive team.

4. Be prepared

Even with all the other steps in place, group work may still feel intimidating. You can’t control the rest of your group members, but you can control your own behaviour. Show up to meetings on time, come to class and pull your weight on the assignment—because being unprepared can cause undue stress for the other members and for yourself.

5. Talk it out

Most importantly, communicate with your team or faculty member when things aren’t going well. Or even if things are going well. Keep the channels of communication open from the very start. Some student groups plan regular meetings, while others keep a conversation going online through email or social media, or by working in shared documents.


Ecology of group work

Science research is all about collaboration, which is why Biological Sciences lab instructor Christina Elliott and lab supervisor Randi Mewhort have integrated group work into their second-year ecology lab courses.

“When we’re doing group work training, we show an example of the number of scientific papers that have multiple authors versus single-author papers and literature, and it’s a huge difference,” says Christina. (About 90/10, says Randi.) “We use that as an example of why it’s important to work with other people in the sciences because that’s what ends up happening, and you don’t always get to choose who you work with.”

At the start of the term, they put students into groups of four to work on a research project and write a lab report as a team. But right from the start, students have an out. If they discover that one of their group mates is someone they have a personality conflict with (a past group member or former flame, for example), they can let Christina and Randi know. Interestingly, few students use this as an opportunity to jump ship, but it does give them some measure of control.

“We also have another ‘divorce clause’ where once students are in their group, if they find it’s not going well, they can remove themselves and work on their own—it just means a bit more work for them,” says Christina.

Randi stresses the importance of talking with your group and faculty member to try to resolve any issues because it often comes down to miscommunication. (Which is why Randi and Christina say faculty members should let students know why the group work assignment is important.) And because it’s better to be upfront about issues, she has the students fill out a quiz that helps them identify their communication styles; this allows the group members to discover how they might best work together.

“It eases things between the group members because they get a better understanding of where they’re coming from,” says Randi. “If students can find time to research a little bit about communication or look up tips, that’s key. We find a lot of them struggle with communication, and this is a life skill.”


Crash course for the working world

Group work is here to stay, so learn to make the most of it. One way to think of it is that the experience is a lot like teamwork in the working world—you don’t always get to choose your coworkers or the projects you’re assigned, but you can find value in the work you’re doing and ways of strengthening your team. It’s all about your attitude to the experience.

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