Surviving group work: 7 steps


Amongst the nasty habits your lecturers have is setting the piece of torture that is the Group Assignment. Be they assessed collectively or individually, they are a potential minefield for the student so I have summarised my survival tips here. I won’t promise these will mean you have a fun time, but following this advice will give you the best chance of doing well and completing the assignment with the least amount of stress. I have taken a worst case scenario approach because these assignments are often absolutely fine. But to make sure it goes well, here are seven things I have found to be important:

  1. Get on with it. If you are not a procrastinator, there is bound to be at least one in your group. If nobody has taken the initiative to set up meetings, divide up tasks and make a timetable, then take it on yourself. Even if this isn’t your usual thing to do, at least make everyone agree to a first meeting and make it clear that attendance is not optional.
  2. Focus. It can be fun meeting up with your fellow students even when you have work to do. But make sure you focus on the task in hand before any socialising happens. Keep it business-like by establishing from the first time you meet that the group is about getting this work done well.
  3. Planning. You need to agree a plan but you should get this agreement quickly. Groups frequently lose time by debating who should do what by when. If you get into arguments about these vital things, compromise. Even if you think you end up with a less than ideal workload, it’s best to show you are willing to take tasks on for the sake of the group. Obviously, don’t be a patsy and have a lazy group member offload their work on you. But don’t sweat the small stuff.
  4.  Momentum. Set up some sort of virtual meeting place where you can exchange ideas. At Birkbeck, we have a student app that does this but elsewhere you could use something like Slack for messaging. If some people in the group don’t like this, then find at least some means of chatting online with the group. Experience shows it will be tricky to get everyone together physically so some sort of electronic chat will help. If the channel is quiet, enquire about how people are doing. Talk about what challenges you are facing with the work and how you are progressing. If it goes quiet, do not ignore it. The deadline will not go away and the work has to be done.
  5. Rogues. Sometimes one member of the group is not pulling their weight. This is always difficult but is not made any easier if it is ignored. If you do your early meeting right, then it will be clear who has to do what by when and therefore obvious who hasn’t delivered. My advice is that there are no excuses (well – almost never!). Consult with your lecturer if the offender persists but you will need to make an effort to bring them on track. Most universities have methods for the group to assess contributions. Don’t be afraid to use this – but be fair. Make sure you tell the offender that this will happen unless they start to deliver. You might lose a friend but if they have let you down, they aren’t really a friend anyway. (Harsh – but let’s be real about this!)
  6. Finish. What ever you do, finish it. Staying up all night isn’t ideal but you have to do what it takes. These days, you and your family are investing a large amount of money in your education so make sure you get the best you can out of your education by doing the work that is set. And you will probably have realised by now that deadlines are enforced pretty ruthlessly these days.
  7. Celebrate. Once it’s over and the work is submitted or the presentation made, meet up to celebrate if you can. It is well worth marking the end of a piece of work especially one that requires a lot of effort. Go for a coffee or a drink and give thanks that you made it through.

And that’s it. I have more advice about how groups work together in my blog about studying in groups. There is advice there about how to set out ground rules that are also relevant to group assignments. As always, there is more details about this and everything else you need to know about studying at university in this book on study skills.


5 thoughts on “Surviving group work: 7 steps”

  1. What about someone that bossing other people around, judge other people’s work rudely and show no respect? Those are big problems that cause stress.

    1. Yes that also is a problem. And there are many variations on the difficulties that can be found working in a group. The official response is to say that this is what happens when you are in your job after graduation. And the first step (which I’m sure you will have tried) is to deal with it yourself or with others. There are some pointers in the blog about study groups that might help. If the behaviour is bullying and cannot be controlled by the group, then the only recourse is to consult with your tutor. Perhaps groups can be changed or (in extreme circumstances) official sanctions applied to the bully. It’s difficult and afraid there aren’t easy solutions. My experience is that it is usually best dealt with by the group if at all possible.

  2. Sage advice Prof. Much appreciated. I fell foul of my own feelings when I became smitten by one of our group. I struggled to concentrate and focus until one day when she made a statement of utter tosh and I told her so. Afterwards I apologised and asked her out. She replied,”I would rather use caustic soda as a moisturiser than go out with you!” From then on I got stuck into the group project and we delivered a successful result. During the celebrations, she came up to me and said, “I’m sorry for what I said about my going out with you.” We are still together…

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