• Abbie Tibbott

Group Project Hacks: Get it Sorted

Over the past month I’ve discussed presentations and how to edit your essay, but have only briefly touched on group projects. Depending on your course, the amount of collaborative work you’ll need to complete will vary, but universities seem keen on them as a form of assessment. Even if group work isn’t a large part of your degree, you’ll probably encounter some informal presentations or in-class assessment that requires working with others. Therefore, I thought I’d discuss what to expect of group projects at university, as well as some hints and tips regarding how to get the most out of the experience.


What to expect

We’ve all been put into groups and been expected to produce results, and university is no different in this sense. For presentations and group projects that counted towards a module, we were generally split into groups according to alphabetical order. This meant that there was some overlap to who I worked with each time, but seeing as my friendship group was spread across the alphabet, I didn’t get to work with my best friends. This is a fact of life, and at university it’s important to remember that you’re not a child anymore, and it should be possible to work with anyone. It’ll help you prepare for the workplace, and I find that working alongside people I don’t know that well puts more pressure on me to be productive.

The project may involve written work, research and/or a presentation, so it’s important to read the brief of what’s involved. Your university may run workshops or a lecture to outline what is expected, so I’d recommend attending whatever is on offer, as it’s usually more difficult to find out later on. You may be expected to use certain software or run to a timeframe, so it’s vital that you get a grip on what you need to do, especially as there always seems to be one group member that doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on.

Knowing where to set your expectations regarding your fellow group members is also key, and this requires patience and a bit of compromise. You’d think that everyone at university wants to put in maximum effort and be as easy to work with as possible, but generally there are still a significant proportion of students who coast through their degrees, and it’s more than likely you’ll end up working with these people at some point. My advice on this is to try and not get too frustrated, as the people who aren’t pulling their weight certainly don’t care! It may be irritating and stressful to have to put in more than your fair share of work, but if you identify any slackers immediately, it should give you more time to plan for this.

Honestly, the extra work is always worth it, and there’s often a way to give feedback on your performance as a group, so feel free to give them a bad review then.


My advice

To start with, as soon as you’re assigned your group, it’s time to call a meeting to get everything started. Don’t leave this until the week before the deadline! Do it immediately, and don’t be afraid to be the first to reach out. Some people at university are very introverted, and may not feel comfortable reaching out to people they don’t know very well, so make the first move! Try and find everyone on Facebook to begin with and create a group chat. Even if you don’t like social media very much, having everyone on Facebook just makes communication so much easier. Call a meeting as soon as possible to make the first steps, making sure you’ve read the brief of what’s expected before you turn up.

When you meet up for the first time, introduce yourself to anyone you don’t already know, and ask if everyone has an idea of what’s involved for the project. If you have choice over a certain aspect, such as picking a sub-topic or direction for the work, pick it now. Work to your group’s strengths, leaning towards subjects that you’ve already studied or that anyone has a special interest in. If you have to bid for a project, now is the perfect time to draft a proposal. I had to do this in my second year, as we had to bid for the subject we wanted our public history report to cover, and we sat and wrote the draft in about ten minutes.

This isn’t a requirement, but it may be an idea to designate roles within your group, dependent on what’s involved. If you have to present, have one person construct the PowerPoint and handouts, using information provided from other members of the group, as it makes the formatting much cleaner and professional rather than everyone pitching in. Splitting work equally works best, but if someone is happy to take on a bit more, take this as a sign that they are happy to work a bit harder and offer it to them in good faith.

Setting deadlines is your next task, and this entirely revolves around what your project actually is. Having everything done a week before the deadline is always best, especially if you’ll need time to perfect a presentation, so make sure you give everyone enough time. Encourage members to be vocal on the group chat, especially if their work is going to be late, or if they’ve run into any issues. Having someone turn up to the meeting with nothing is a complete nightmare, so stress that this isn’t acceptable from the beginning.

From then on, call meetings as and when you need them. Having a weekly meeting may be too often if your project involves a lot of research, so try to be flexible. For my second year project, we would update each other on the group chat about our progress, and once we’d all progressed to a similar stage, we’d have a quick meet up to compare research or pass on any messages, then set a new deadline. We didn’t all attend every meeting, but it’s so easy to send work to each other nowadays, so I’d just send over my current research if I was going to be absent.


Dealing with ‘that’ group member

Having a group member that doesn’t do anything is all too common, which is very irritating for everyone involved. If you’re struggling to make initial contact with the group member, try your module convenor or personal tutor to ask how you would go about getting in touch. Not everyone is on social media, and if your course is big enough you may never have seen them, so your department should be able to provide you with a student email address.

When someone doesn’t participate in the group chat and chooses to skip meetings, it’s often very difficult to judge their work ethic, but I’d always be more pessimistic than helpful. Make sure you have a contingency plan if you are struggling to get someone involved, including who will take over that person’s workload. I’d suggest splitting it between you, or asking if anyone’s happy to take on the work by themselves. This means you’re covered if that person never submits anything, or that you have extra research instead regardless. Make sure you leave a paper trail, such as repeated requests for updates in the group chat, emails or a written checklist of meeting dates and attendance. This means that if that group member complains that you weren’t involving them you have lots of evidence to back yourselves up with. Usually you’ll find that a person like that will try to pin the blame on the rest of you to try and cover up their lack of participation, so don’t let your hard work be undermined by that lazy waste of space!


Being honest

Being authentic is the most important aspect of group work. If you’re struggling to meet a commitment, say as early as possible and ask for help. I understand that it’s irritating when someone doesn’t pull their weight, but having plenty of time to prepare and keeping that group member involved is the most important thing. At university, you may never know the true extent of what someone is dealing with if you don’t know them well, so try to be as flexible as possible. Having that person submit a smaller quantity of quality work shows that they are still committed to the task, and it’ll be easier to add to that work rather than restarting a large quantity that is full of mistakes and is poorly written.

It’s all about compromise, and situations like these do teach you to be more flexible, even when you'd rather not be!


Rehearsals for presentations

I’ve already written a blog full of advice on doing well in presentations, but here are a few things to consider. Firstly, it’s important to gauge how comfortable everyone is with public speaking when you’re allocating sections. If someone isn’t comfortable speaking, try and include them by allowing them to explain a smaller section, or answering questions at the end. Having everyone contribute is best, as the lecturer assessing your work may have no idea of everyone’s contributions to written work, so let all of your group have a turn.

Leave a decent amount of time to practice your presentation, timing it or even recording it and watching it back. It may be possible to book a room to rehearse in, or just find an empty classroom. Having the time to make everything perfect will put your mind at ease, so try and get everyone to attend at least one run through.


Submission advice

When you’re ready to submit written work, make sure everyone in your group has been sent a copy of the final product. Ask them to read it and come back with any final feedback, and if they choose not to read it then take it as a sign that they’re mentally done with the project! Giving everyone the opportunity to give their final thoughts covers you if you get some feedback that isn’t so positive, as you’ll be able to say that you were all happy with the submission.

Peer reviews were common at my university, and are essentially a method of getting feedback on the project and giving lecturers an insight into the group dynamic. If you’ve had trouble with your group, now is the time to air your woes, but this needs to be done diplomatically and sensitively. Typically, I found that the members who wrote the peer review were usually the ones who did all the work, and those that coasted along or didn’t contribute were either not bothered about contesting it, or didn’t even know it needed to be submitted. That means you probably won’t run into any issues, but be careful not to say anything outright rude.

Here are some ideas:

· …” x failed to contribute to the group, and missed important scheduled meetings even though they had been clearly communicated”…

· …”x was difficult to work with, difficult to communicate with and confrontational when asked for progress”…

· …”x failed to produce work of an acceptable standard, and repeatedly missed deadlines, which negatively impacted the rest of the group”…

· …”we tried out best to work alongside x, but the process was made more difficult by their continual refusal to commit to the project, the lack of work produced and the unwillingness to participate in the presentation”…

Overall, group work is complicated, and there are no promises of success. I hope my advice goes some way towards making the process easier, especially as collaborative work crops up often across courses offered at university. Stay on top of everything, hold others accountable and keep a record of messages and emails, just in case of disaster.

Happy studying!