Grappling with group projects

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The slacker. The control freak. The coat-tail rider. The space case. No one wants them in the big group project assigned in class. Students bemoan group projects even without having to work with these types of people. Everyone was so busy, coordinating was nearly impossible. So-and-so got sick. One person didn’t do as much work as another. Mastering group dynamics can be strenuous, but the teeth-pulling and face-palming is all in the name of worthwhile career preparation.  Group work is common in the workplace and the ability to work together with difficult peers is imperative.

“Part of the responsibility of the group is to make it happen and to make it work,” says Susan Doyle, senior instructor in the English department’s professional writing program. “Sometimes it’s fair enough if the student fell apart. So if nobody is paying any attention, the deadlines are passing, they’re not planning, they’re not working out problems and the final product suffers and it’s a shared responsibility, then the student has to suffer the consequences. But if it’s because there were problems, especially with one student, then I will usually try to make sure that the student’s final grade is not affected by the group. And I think [professors] do that.”

For all the schedule shuffling, task delegation and personality clashes, group projects are not without their merits.

“I think [group projects are] important for students to become good at because…in the workplace collaborative work is the norm,” says Doyle. “So students get practice in working with other people, planning with other people, learning to work out conflicts and deal with personal issues that often aren’t addressed in their classes otherwise. They serve a lot of functions and students also get to see how much better the product is when it’s a group effort than they can do alone because the sum is always greater than the parts.”

Even one of the most common complaints—the difficulty of coordinating students’ hectic schedules—doesn’t have to be debilitating to the end result.

“I think group projects are also getting easier because it’s so much easier to do things online now,” says fourth year Political Science and Journalism student Karolina Karas. “A lot of this project that I just finished was based on computer work and… two of the people never even met until the day before the presentation because we didn’t really have to. That definitely helps with the schedules conflicting.”

The Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) deals with scheduling conflicts in a unique way for students in the core program. Third year students are separated into cohorts of 60 people, which are each made up of groups of 4 or 5 students who move from class to class together and complete course projects together. This is especially important because business classes often assign more group projects than those for individuals.

“I think the BCom people have really figured out a way to get over that scheduling conflict by putting us in the same cohort and the same group for the whole semester,” says Erin Hallahan, a student in her third year of the business core program. “The biggest downfall is that if you don’t get along with people in your group, you’re stuck with them for the whole semester.”

Business students spend a lot of time with their groups, particularly around deadline time, so ironing out personality conflicts is imperative for getting through the work.

“It really messes with your efficiency when you’re constantly fighting… it makes your group meetings two times longer than they need to be,” says Hallahan.

These issues don’t disappear when students can form their own groups. Karas’ experiences with group work have largely been in classes which allow students to form teams.

“I’ve just been really lucky that I’ve had group projects where I’ve known the people for the most part from other classes, and that really helped the connection,” says Karas. “Even if you might not get along at least you have that background to know how everyone works and to make that work in a group environment. If you already have those established connections I think that really reflects the quality of work that comes out.”

It comes down to the personalities and level of commitment in the group, regardless of whether groups were assigned or chosen by the students. Students aren’t graded on their ability to work in a team, but it contributes to the success of the project and is valuable preparation for the workforce.         

“You’re going to have to learn how to play nice with other people anyways regardless of whether you’re in a group project or not,” says Karas. “You’re still going to have to play nice, and still have that sense of teamwork even if it is individual, independent-based work.”

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