Group assignments get a pretty bad rap – but there are good reasons why they exist. Here’s how to rethink your approach to group projects and ace your next assignment.
Marks are important, sure, but your transcript isn’t the only thing you’re meant to take away from your time at university. If you exclusively focus on your individual grade or section of the assignment, you’re missing the bigger picture. Treat group assignments as an opportunity to develop your interpersonal skills, which are vital employability qualities.
“Companies hire people, not resumes,” says Dr Steven Hitchcock, associate lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School. “It’s really important that students have an opportunity to figure out how to negotiate and communicate with empathy – a lot of people don’t figure out how hard and complicated this can be until it’s too late.”
Career Development Officer Angela Harrow also points out the importance that companies place on teamwork skills. “Most graduate employers consider teamwork an essential employability skill and they will expect students to demonstrate their capabilities during the recruitment process as well as in the workplace,” she says.
As coordinator of a core undergraduate unit, Dr Hitchcock knows what works – and what doesn’t. “We want you to work together and come up with something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, rather than an assignment with separate parts strung together,” he says.
Take a bit of time to get to know your group members before diving straight into the task. This will make it much easier for you to overcome hurdles together later down the track.
“Being a good team member means being active in conversations; learning to work cooperatively is crucial to your group’s success,” says Dr Clinton Moore from the University’s Counselling and Psychological Services. “Speak to the whole group, not just the people you already know.”
If you view your team as a relationship, not a burden, you’ll be more likely to succeed as a group. “Research shows that organisational support – when people believe in you and want you to succeed – is a huge predictor of positive outcomes,” Dr Hitchcock points out. So if you think a team member isn’t pulling their weight, try asking if they need help instead of jumping on the offensive (or on Facebook to rant).
You’re always the only one who actually does anything, right? Well, therein lies the classic group assignment paradox. “Generally, every one of us thinks that we’re the one on the team that does all the work,” says Dr Hitchcock.
With all those clashing ideas, opinions and timetables, it’s natural that conflict will occur. But don’t shy away from this – instead, understand it as a normal and even productive part of the process.
“The common mistake people make is trying to avoid conflict when they run into it, and that’s when things fall apart,” says Dr Hitchcock. “The best thing is to just keep those lines of communication open.”
Determine whether the conflict is healthy and useful, or unhealthy. “Conflict is unhealthy if it becomes personal or aggressive,” advises Dr Moore. “Instead you should aim for calm and assertive interactions that attempt to bring everyone to the table, by emphasising with the other points of view.”
“Learning to present your ideas clearly, keep your emotions under control and understand when to compromise will help you confidently navigate any conflict you may encounter in the workplace,” says Angela from the Careers Centre.
So, if you find yourself facing a stalemate, try taking a vote as a group and just moving forward. You can take comfort in the knowledge that these situations present useful learning experiences, and are great examples for you to give in future job interviews.
Resist the temptation to just divvy the work up to go and work independently – you’ll almost always encounter problems when you try and stitch together a bunch of completely different parts.
Dr Hitchcock instead recommends creating a timeline with specific individual accountabilities. “The best way to divide work up is to do it in stages. Your timeline should have a helix structure, where you break away to think or research individually, then bring it back together before breaking away again.”
This will help you to spot any problems as they occur, rather than discovering them the night before submission. Plus, it will let you leverage your group’s different perspectives to come up with better and brighter ideas.
If you’re really not getting anywhere, make sure you get in touch with your tutor.
“Every teacher wants you to succeed, so recognising when you’re stuck and asking for help is really key – and not asking for help is a mistake that all students make,” says Dr Hitchcock.
They can give you advice on how to tackle the problem, or sit down with the group and help you to negotiate. Just don’t leave it to the last minute – there’s not much your tutor can do when it’s T minus 2 hours to submission!