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8 tips for navigating group projects

By Laurie Davies

At a glance

  • Group projects in school cultivate an essential skill for business and other agile industries: cross-functional collaboration.
  • From assigning tasks for each team member to understanding each other’s motives, successful group projects among students boil down to clear communication, hard work and mutual respect.
  • Group projects can be a valuable learning experience that helps students improve their communication skills and prepare to collaborate and communicate effective in the real-world. 
  • Explore more than 100 programs aligned to upward of 300 careers at University of Phoenix!

Work together, succeed together

Love ’em or hate ’em, group projects are a part of University of Phoenix (UOPX) life. They’re a part of real life too.

 

Team projects have been part of UOPX’s DNA since the beginning, says Jonathan Lewis, UOPX’s assistant dean of operations and faculty for the College of Education. The University approached the Fortune 500 companies of the day to find out which skills they wanted in college graduates. Collaboration was high on the list.

That was almost 50 years ago, but collaboration is still an essential skill — especially in the business world where agile environments value cross-functionality — and one that UOPX emphasizes with frequent group projects.

 

8 tips for happy collabs

Whether you’re Type A or Type be-in-the-background-while-everyone-else-works, here are eight tips for keeping your sanity and functioning well in a group.

1. Get started on the right foot. Meet virtually. Make introductions. “Someone should take the initiative, get the ball rolling, and begin ‘jigsawing the work,’” says Lewis, who spearheaded a University-wide effort four years ago to reinvent group assignments to foster greater collaboration and learning.

2. Establish roles. Each group needs an opener, a closer and a project manager — the person who assigns tasks and makes sure everyone is hitting deadlines. “Everyone should leave the first meeting knowing who will do what,” Lewis says. Ideally the “closer” will be the person who is a good writer, can edit the project into one voice, and can apply APA style guidelines. Learning each student’s strength can help establish roles within the group and make the project run smoother. 

3. Create deadlines. Make note of deadlines, and enlist everyone in the group to contribute their tasks on time or early. Think of this as handing off a baton, where you’re reaching out to the runner behind you and saying, “Remember, I need this by this time because my piece feeds off of your piece.”

4. Stay focused. If your project is veering off course (or not getting off the ground because of lack of dedication or direction), Lewis recommends getting back to the core of the assignment. “Ask the group questions: What are we trying to do? What do we want this to be? How can we get back to that?”

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5. Communicate early and often. The Collaborate space in University of Phoenix’s educational platform, Blackboard, gives students space to communicate and hold live chats in a group setting (this also allows the instructor to see who’s pulling their weight — and who’s not). Lewis encourages students to create and hold regular check-ins throughout the planning and development process. “You can get a lot more done in 30 minutes together than you can in three days of emailing and waiting for responses,” he says.

6. Own your responsibility. Lewis says it’s important to do whatever you have agreed to do or been assigned to do to complete the project. He even goes so far as to recommend doing it so that the Type A lead on the group project will be satisfied with it. “On this project, that’s who you’re working for,” he says. “The workplace doesn’t appreciate low effort. The [Type B] is in the wrong if they’re resenting an expectation of high effort.” That doesn’t mean Type Bs bring nothing to the table. Traditionally more flexible and relaxed, they can help maintain an emotional equilibrium in the group when stress flares, and they can potentially be more accommodating of disruptions to the timeline.

7. Identify your work. Remember how the group project was likened to a jigsaw puzzle earlier? Lewis encourages his groups to identify “who got what corners of the puzzle” in the final product. In a PowerPoint presentation, for example, students should include their names directly on the slides they provided. “If Jimmy didn’t do his, then create a blank slide and put Jimmy’s name on it,” he says. Yes, that can seem harsh, but students aren’t doing Jimmy, themselves or the instructor any favors by staying up late to do Jimmy’s piece for him.

8. Respect each other’s motives. Most UOPX students are juggling hefty and heavy amounts of real life en route to their degrees. Respect can go a long way. For example, the Type A person may sound like she’s nagging because she’s working hard and fast toward getting the group project done. The “slacker” may not be slacking at all — she may have a sick child, a work deadline and two other kids who need help with homework. “Give others the benefit of the doubt that they’re not judgmental on one side or lazy or stupid on the other side. If you can look past methodology to motives, you may like your group more,” Lewis says.

 

Putting groups into context

In the end, it’s the last point that often derails groups and group projects. Type A’s want to get the work done early, and they’re shooting for an A grade, while B types might have other priorities, and they might be satisfied with a grade below an A. And this can vary by personality too: Not all Type A’s require the A grade, and not all Type B’s settle for less. But generally speaking, not everyone in your group, regardless of type, will have the same academic goals.

“Those two types may never get along, and it’s certainly challenging in the short duration they are given to complete coursework because they don’t know each other and don’t trust one another yet — factors that at least an employment setting helps mitigate,” Lewis says. His best recommendation? Give each other the benefit of the doubt.

“We’re measuring the collaboration skill through these assignments,” he says. “As a faculty member, my responsibility in giving a grade for collaboration requires me to peel back into the group process to see if Johnny did it by himself and Susie and Larry smoked cigarettes outside. At work, the end project is what we’re measuring. But in school, collaboration is what we’re measuring.”

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