Working in groups
Students are often required to work on group assignments. Working with other people can result in a better product, more creative ideas, or better solutions to problems. This section suggests ways to make group work more effective.
Groups usually go through 4 stages:
The first meeting is especially important. Group members begin to establish a climate or atmosphere and create explicit expectations for all group members.
Introduce group members
An ice-breaker activity that allows group members to get to know one another will help the group to bond. For example, it may be interesting and helpful to know if group members hold jobs, are married or single, have children and so on.
- Assign a recorder. This person keeps a written record of which group members are present and what happens at each group meeting.
- Assign a task facilitator. This person is responsible for checking with group members about their progress in completing the task(s) they have been given.
- Assign a climate facilitator. This person checks in with group members to discuss how things are going. For example, group members may have concerns or frustrations about their assigned tasks. The climate facilitator works with group members to find solutions.
- Consider each member’s strengths, weaknesses and preferences.
- Experience: some people may have never done group work before or taken a course in the subject area. Others may be moderately or extremely experienced. Consider these levels of experience to make decisions about each person’s role in the group.
- Expertise: group members may have areas of expertise that make them especially suited to take on certain roles. For example, someone may be good at internet research, and another may be a good typist.
- Desire to learn: group members may be eager to assume certain roles because they want to learn something new. For example, some may want to do internet research even though they have little or no experience doing this.
Determine communication processes
- Set dates, locations and length of all subsequent meetings; this helps the group avoid future frustration. If all meeting times, locations and lengths are set at the first meeting, group members can plan their schedules to accommodate these meetings. For example, they may choose a different work shift so they are free for meetings.
- Compile and distribute lists (each group member should have a copy of these lists)
- Members’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses
- Appropriate time for contacting individual group members. It may be appropriate to phone some group members at 11 pm on a Tuesday evening, but another person may not be able to take calls at that time. Knowing what’s appropriate can save time and ensure that group members respect each others' schedules and lives outside the classroom.
Clarify purpose and needs
Each group member must be clear about what the group is trying to do, what needs to be done in order to achieve that, and what each group member’s needs might be.
- Individually, write down personal needs
Group members' personal needs might include getting a certain mark on the project to maintain their GPA or being free to work at their part-time job on Saturdays.
- Write down group objectives
Group members try to clearly state what they believe the group needs to achieve. For instance, a group objective might be to complete the assignment on time.
- Share with group
Group members share what they have written under personal needs and group objectives. Sometimes people are surprised by what others in the group have written. For example, one member may not have realized that another member needs a certain GPA to be accepted to a particular program the following semester.
Agree collectively on group objectives
This is a critical step. Based on what each group member has shared, the group must agree (reach consensus) on what they can all support as group objectives.
Problems or conflicts are a natural part of group interaction and are not necessarily negative. Often, new ideas and better ways of working emerge as a result of "storming" if group members are willing to approach differences in a positive way. The problem solving approach that follows will be a useful guide in working through conflicts when they arise.
Step 1: Define the problem
Group members write down what they feel the problem is and share what they have written with the group. After discussion, the group decides on a definition of the problem that all group members accept. The problem might be that one group member is not doing assigned tasks.
Step 2: Analyze the problem
Look for the reasons behind the defined problem. If a group member is not doing assigned tasks, the group needs to understand why. For instance, the group member may have been out partying too much, or the group member may have been ill.
Step 3: Brainstorm possible solutions
As a group, brainstorm many possible solutions (at least 10). At this point, make no judgements about which is the best solution, and make no judgements about what is a good or bad solution. You’ll be able to do this later!
Step 4: Select the best solution
Consider the pros and cons of each possible solution and select the one that is best in this situation.
Step 5: Evaluate the solution
Consider what will happen in the future if the group chooses this solution. In other words, what will the consequences be? Decide whether the group can accept and support the consequences of the solution. For instance, assume that the problem is that one group member is not contributing. The group members might decide, (after going through the problem solving process), that each of the remaining members will do extra work to make up for this. The group members must consider whether they can live with the consequences of this solution to the problem.
Norms are guidelines for behavior agreed upon by the group. All groups have norms whether group members are aware of them or not. For instance, in a family group, one of the norms may be that family members support one another when any one of them is threatened by someone or something outside the family group. In your group, it is important to make norms explicit (state them clearly) so that all group members understand and agree with the norms established for the group. The following are some examples of norms that your group might decide to adopt:
- Treat each other with respect and dignity
- Attend meetings on time and stay for the duration
- Complete tasks as assigned
- Listen to, be open to and value other members’ opinions and ideas
- Be non-defensive
- Manage conflict
- Contribute ideas and opinions
- Be willing to let go of cherished ideas to achieve group purpose
Create an Action Plan
The group was formed in the first place to "perform". In order to perform or produce the desired product, the group must have a process or procedure. One way to ensure this is to create an Action Plan. The Action Plan outlines what action each group member will take to move the group toward its purpose of completing the group work. The Action Plan also indicates when each action will be completed. Each group member must have a copy of the Action Plan.
Refer to the Action Plan at all meetings
The Action Plan helps to keep group members honest about the commitments they have made. At group meetings, the group refers to the Action Plan, and the task facilitator takes time to check with group members about actions for which they are responsible.
Identify whether assigned tasks have been accomplished
Note which tasks have been completed and which have not.
Summarize at the end of each meeting
Make a list of what has been accomplished and what is left to do.
Revise Action Plan as appropriate
The revised Action Plan lists only those tasks that have not been completed. Circulate copies of the revised Action Plan to all group members.
Reflect and celebrate
When the group has achieved its goals, take time to reflect on the process the group has gone through. Identify what worked well and what did not. Take time to celebrate as a group.