Working with others

Groupwork tasks are a standard part of study at university. They involve working with a team of other students to produce an assessment task. This is an important preparatory exercise for roles in most fields of employment.

Features of groupwork

Different grades may be allocated for a groupwork assignment:

  • students may receive an individual mark as well as a group mark
  • students might only receive an individual mark
  • the groupwork task is often a report, an essay, or a group presentation

Groupwork is seldom as easy as it sounds.

Some groups are dysfunctional. This can be because some students are ‘free-riders’ and don’t contribute, relying instead on the dedicated work of others. This kind of behavior can lead to an unfair situation in which one or two students do most of the work. This can result in antagonism between group members and negative perceptions of groupwork.

However, it does not have to be this way. Implementing a few tips such as those listed below will ensure you have a well-functioning and productive group.

How to create a productive group

Group size

Small groups are more likely to be coherent and more cooperative than larger groups

Three or four people is optimal for most academic groupwork purposes

If you are allocated to a larger group, separate the group into working parties (i.e., smaller groups with specific roles), then reconvene and combine your work.

Ethnic composition

Ethnic composition is important in a group. Students from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) should not be dominated by native English speakers in a group, as they will tend to stay silent and be intimidated. This does not lead to good group dynamics and can foster free-riding.

It is not appropriate to have groups composed entirely of ethnically-similar NESB students either as they will reinforce each other’s weaknesses in terms of spoken and written English language skills.

Aim for a group with people from different ethnicities. Workload allocation too is critical (see below).

Allocate workload

Generally, workload should be allocated to group members according to their skill set. Team members need to self-assess their skill levels in various areas to assist with this.

Not all students will be strong in terms of English language writing skills in an ethnically diverse group. However, that does not mean that they cannot contribute to groupwork tasks.

Where feasible, ensure that a groupwork task is split into a number of necessary duties which do not all require a high degree of linguistic fluency. Other students will be competent in other vital tasks, e.g., overall planning, data and statistical analysis, formatting and editing assignments, research skills, and so on.

NESB students can therefore still play, and importantly feel they are playing, a useful role in the group even if they are anxious about their level of competence in English.

Create roles

In addition to membership, ethnic considerations, and the fair allocation of tasks, everyone in your group should have a semi-formal role. This ensures everyone feels like they are doing something, and that everyone in the group has a dependence relationship on others which is crucial to producing joint output.

We recommend these roles:

  • Group leader: allocates tasks, leads meetings, liaises with the lecturer to clarify expectations and ensures deadlines are met; negotiates the division of tasks.
  • Secretary: calls meeting times, ensures everyone attends, keeps a record of discussions and action items agreed to; keeps a timeline of tasks.
  • Research assistant: takes the burden of work associated with doing the initial research; may also coordinate the draft of the whole piece with input from the others; it is generally best if one person pulls the work together so style and formatting are consistent.
  • Editor: oversees final editing and proofreading of work prior to submission (ideally a competent writer in English); competent in academic writing and arranging sources to support the points being made.

Any of the first three roles above would suit a NESB student who might be weaker in English language writing skills. All are critical appointments. Other roles may well be needed, for example, someone well-versed in statistical and data analysis, someone skilled in information literacy and finding resources in the library via databases, and/or someone good at citing and referencing, for example. But at minimum, the four roles above will be necessary.

Every member of the group should be clear about their obligations at the outset of a task, and willing to undertake their part in the project.

Once you have collectively set these roles, formalise them by recording them, along with your meeting schedule, etc. Think of them as part of your team’s strategy to work together.

Reward the team

Rewards are vital in well-functioning groups. They allow people to feel they contributed well. As the one responsible for monitoring work, the group leader should work out ways to recognise and reward individual effort of group members while a task is progressing. Encouraging every member of the group is part of the leader’s role, and rewards can go a long way to connecting members.

When challenges arise

Despite forward-planning,  things can go wrong. Some group members may not do their share of the work. Problems will sometimes arise no matter how well you have configured your group task, and regardless of group composition and approach to workload. If you are concerned that your group is not functioning well, speak with the team leader and/or your lecturer or tutor to explain the situation.

This might seem drastic, but keep in mind that grades will be awarded for the final product, and this has a bearing on your transcript and later employment opportunities.

If you’d like workshop ideas on what to do when trouble arises, ASK someone for help. You won’t be the first person to have encountered groupwork blues.

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