Groupwork tips for students

Groupwork tips for students

Getting the most out of your groupwork assignment

Some people, like most sale representatives, doctors, teachers, researchers, etc., tend to work fairly independently of their colleagues.  While working independently has some advantages, it also has its downsides, as such people rarely have opportunities to learn from each other, and the result of their work is only as good as an individual member.

The majority of teams, however, can be described as ‘interdependent’ teams. These are the teams that combine resources, knowledge and expertise to achieve something that they may not be able to do on their own. Most workplaces consist of interdependent teams, and you are likely to be asked about your groupwork experience in a job interview.

Passing a job interview is of course not the only reason to engage in groupwork. Being part of a team brings considerable benefits, for example, it allows you to become a better professional, learn new skills and get better at ‘groupwork practice’. However, it also requires clear strategies and a ‘teamwork attitude’.  

10 steps for effective groupwork:

Step 1: Establish shared goals

One of the first steps in working together is to establish shared goals. Get together as a team to discuss what you see the key goals to be. If there are uncertain points, make note of them and clarify with your convenor.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you discussed as a team what the team goals are?
  • Are you sure what the task is? Have you discussed the issue or problem that you will work on?
  • Have you identified and clarified any misunderstandings?

Step 2: Get to know each other

In most cases you’ll work with people you don’t know, who are from different backgrounds, who have different experience, interests, ideas, etc. This can present challenges, especially in the early stages of working together. Remember: you can’t assume that you understand and interpret correctly everything that your team members say and do. Expect that you’ll occasionally misunderstand each other and keep an open mind. This is a great practice for working in a globalised world.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you found out as much as possible about other team members?
  • Have you shared contact details and agreed to quickly reply to any group messages?
  • Are you ready for misunderstandings?

Step 3: Break the project into specific tasks

Take some time to consider the topic or problem you are working on. What do you know and what do you need to find out?
Discuss what specific steps your team needs to make to achieve your goals. Write down specific tasks.

Be as specific as possible. For example, instead of a general task, like ‘literature review’ write

  • Search for relevant literature (list some keywords you might use)
  • Create a team Endnote (or other referencing software) file
  • Add all the references to the file
  • Find and document key arguments and data
  • Write up a short literature summary

Checkpoint:

  • Have you broken down the project into specific tasks?
  • Are the tasks detailed enough?

Step 4: Agree on timelines

After your team has created a detailed breakdown of tasks, allocate specific dates. Allow enough time at the end of the project for improvements and revisions, as well as proofreading.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you put deadlines on specific tasks?
  • Have you allowed enough time at the end for revision and improvements?

Step 5: Allocate roles

Teamwork is an opportunity to learn from each other and gain new skills, so it is a good idea for you to volunteer for a task that you are still learning about, not just something that you are already strong at. Many effective teams allocate 2 people to the same task: an ‘expert’ in a task and someone who is willing to improve in this task. Ideally each person would experience being both an ‘expert’ and an ‘apprentice’ in the same project.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you considered strengths and weaknesses of your team members in allocating tasks?
  • Have you made sure that each team member has a chance to learn something new in this project?

Step 6: Agree on keeping the project documentation

Effective teams keep good records of their progress. Some teams do it in a shared online document (e.g. a Google or Dropbox document). Others use wikis or other ways.

Discuss with your team how you prefer keeping track of tasks and progress.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you discussed how your team will be keeping track of progress?
  • Have you set up the ‘documentation’ space and made sure that everyone has access?

Step 7: Schedule meetings

A good team needs regular ‘check-ins’ to make sure that the project is on track. It is best to schedule these meetings in advance to make sure that the days/times will work for everyone. However, life is life, and some team members may not be able to attend (illnesses, etc.). To plan for this, make sure that each meeting has a facilitator, who will circulate the agenda prior to the meeting, and a note-keeper who will keep notes of the meeting and will circulate them to all team members after the meeting. It is best if all team members take turns in being facilitators and note-keepers. Allocate these roles in advance.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you scheduled regular team meetings?
  • Have you allocated facilitator and note-keeper roles in advance?
  • Have you made sure that team members take turns in these roles?

Step 8: Discuss ‘team rules’

It is important that you discuss the ‘team rules’ at the very start of the project. What will happen, for example, if a team member is unable or unwilling to contribute? How will decisions be made if there is a disagreement in the group? What if there is interpersonal conflict? Address these points early, as it will help make the group experience smoother.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you brainstormed and discussed such scenarios, like ‘freeloading’ or ‘not being able to do one’s share’?

Step 9: Produce a ‘project brief’

After your team has discussed specific tasks, roles, meetings, documentation and team rules, it’s time to produce a ‘project brief’ that will sum up this information. You can allocate one team member to do it, however, they need to circulate the brief to all team members for ‘sign-off’. This brief can become your team contract and will help everyone be on the same page.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you put the tasks/roles/deadlines/meeting dates in writing?
  • Do all the team members have access to it?

Step 10: Reflect on your experience

Each teamwork is different and offers an opportunity to learn. Take time to reflect on what went well, and what did not go so well, and what you could do differently next time. These reflections may be very helpful when you talk to your future employer about your teamwork experience, as they’ll show your maturity and willingness to learn from experience.

Checkpoint:

  • Have you paused and thought about your teamwork experience?
  • Have you identified clear ‘actionable steps’ that you could do differently next time?
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