How to work and contribute effectively in groups.
How can I develop my group work skills?
Effective collaboration and leadership is an important skill, and one you refine throughout your university life.
The best way to improve your skills is to participate in as many different groups as possible and reflect on what you learned from each experience. The broader your experience the better.
What type of groups can I participate in?
At university you will have the opportunity to work in groups in and outside of the classroom. Some common groups include:
Study groups: students from a specific subject meet regularly to study together
Class discussions or activities: working in groups during classes or tutorials
Online collaborations: participating in discussion boards, co-creating work such as wikis, blogs or videos
Group assignments: students in the same class work together to produce work that is assessed and often receive a shared grade
Strategies for successful group work
Set expectations early
Before you begin working on your task, take time to get to know each other, discuss ways of working and time constraints, and clarify exactly what you need to do.
- Set expectations and common goals - What do you all want to achieve? How do you expect members to behave, communicate and participate?
- Analyse the question or task together - Make sure you have a shared understanding of what you need to do.
- Share contact details - Discuss and agree on how you’ll keep in touch (e.g. email, phone), how often, and how quickly you expect responses from others.
- Set regular meeting times - This will help avoid misunderstandings and save time in the long run.
- Discuss and allocate roles - Be very clear about who is doing what as this helps to organise the project and stay on track. For example, who will take responsibility for taking meeting notes, organising an agenda, summarising and communicating the group’s progress?
- Set deadlines for completion - Break tasks down, think about how long sub-tasks will take and then set clear timelines. It can help to work backwards from the final completion date.
Do a SWOT analysis
Once your expectations are clear, do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Knowing these details will help you to allocate tasks to the most appropriate member.
Discuss and note each group member’s answers to the questions below. Then pull them together to think about your group as a whole.
- What strengths do I bring to the task?
- What aspects of the task am I weaker in?
- What opportunities are there for me to learn or apply skills or knowledge?
- What could threaten our success in this project?
The answers to these questions can help you to better understand your group members and what each person brings to the group. This can help to make sure you’re making the most of and valuing everyone’s strengths and contributions.
From Burns, T., & Sinfield, S. (2008). Essential study skills: the complete guide to success at university. London: SAGE Publications. Page 167.
Imagine your group has been asked to write and present a research paper.
Strengths: cumulatively your group has a broad range of skills including communication, research, analytical, interpersonal. These will be useful in this task.
Weaknesses: No-one enjoys presenting and only one person has experience presenting in front of a large group.
Opportunities: You all need examples of teamwork to include on your internship applications. Also, this is an opportunity for some of you to develop important presenting skills.
Threats: Three group members will be going on placement in the middle of the project, meaning they won’t be able to contribute during that time. This means you’ll need to plan your timeline very carefully to finish on time.
Get to know each other and how you work
You don’t need to become best friends, but understanding how you and your group members prefer to work will help you to develop a good working relationship and minimise misunderstandings.
- Do I think best alone, or do I like to talk things through with others?
- Do I tend to focus on practical things (how will we get this done?) or am I more creative and ideas focused?
- Do I like structure and plans, or a more flexible approach?
- Do I tend to make decisions based on evidence, or on ‘gut feel’?
Measure and share progress
Track how you’re progressing towards your goals and celebrate as you achieve milestones and meet deadlines. This can help with motivation and accountability.
Working in groups is not always easy, in fact, they’re often a great place to develop interpersonal, negotiation and conflict management skills. Tip: take responsibility for trying to solve the problem with your group before going to tutors or lecturers. Try the strategies below to overcome these common challenges.
A group member is not contributing or attending meetings
Reflect on how you agreed on and set expectations.
Think back to your initial conversations about expectations of behaviour:
- When, how often and where you'd meet
- Deadlines and task allocation
- How to communicate with the group if you couldn't attend
Refer back to these expectations in your conversations and revise them if necessary.
Ask questions and suspend assumptions.
Contact the group member and try to discover why they aren’t meeting the group’s expectations. Asking general, non-confrontational questions is a great way to start this conversation, for example, “How are you going?”, “How’s your workload this week?”, or “Is there anything we can help with?”
It’s important not to make assumptions about what’s going on, since our ways of working in groups are often impacted by our values, cultures and personalities. Also, there are often unexpected things that impact us such as health conditions, family commitments or even issues with technology.
You are falling behind with work or are confused about your part
The best thing you can do is speak up early- the longer you leave it, the more upset your group mates will be!
If you’re not comfortable addressing the whole group, contact a group member you feel comfortable with. Everyone understands that sometimes things happen that are out of our control.
If you’re not sure how to develop your part and feel anxious, you may not be the only one. Talk to others about their parts and ask for clarification.
Difficult discussions: Dominant or quiet group members
One of the main benefits of group work is the diversity of experiences, skills and views that each member brings. This is lost when a dominant group member limits other members’ contributions to the group (especially during discussion), or some members don’t contribute.
Silence doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t understand or isn’t interested. Quiet members may prefer to have time to think about their contributions before speaking, or may lack confidence (especially if speaking in an additional language).
Think back to your discussion about ways of working
Could some members’ work preferences be influencing contributions? For example, if you have members who like to think about ideas before discussing them, could you give them advanced warning of discussion points before meetings?
Play a relationship role
You can help to maintain positive relationships by noticing the behaviours, feelings and emotions of group members and taking action. For example:
- Point out that everyone needs to be heard
- Allocate speaking times during a meeting where everybody has a turn
- When it’s your turn to speak, ask questions to the group or specific individuals, rather than simply giving opinions
- Leave an open space after each contribution, so that quieter members can speak up
- Allow thinking time before meetings or discussions (sending round an agenda before meetings is a nice way to do this)
- Acknowledge that everyone’s contribution is valuable (even if you don’t agree with it)
There’s a conflict between members
Unfortunately, even when you’ve done everything to set up your group for success, conflict can still occur. This is normal. Depending on the nature of the problem, you might choose to get the group together or speak to people individually before coming together.
- Focus on the problem, not the person – this will help everyone to be objective
- Acknowledge and respect everyone’s experience, view or opinion – give everyone a chance to be heard without interruption or judgement
- Brainstorm possible solutions together
- Negotiate and decide on a solution as a group - this is likely to involve compromise, and it’s a good idea to make sure everyone has to compromise, not just one or two people.
Even when group work seems to be more challenging than rewarding, you’re still learning important transferable skills in teamwork, conflict resolution and time management. These are important life and work skills and they’re worth spending time on.
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