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Organizing Academic Research Papers: How to Manage Group Projects

Surviving...

For most students, this is the group project's worst nightmare. A group member who refuses to pull his or her weight can really drag everyone down, and it's infuriating to know that someone who didn't contribute will benefit from your hard work. So what do you do when you have a slacker? First, if a pattern of slacking off appears, find out if there's a real problem. Perhaps this student isn't really a slacker, but simply someone with an overloaded schedule. Or perhaps this student is avoiding the group because of shyness. If there's a reason why the student isn't contributing, try to offer some reasonable accommodations. For example, if your "slacker" isn't contributing because she has a huge paper due next week, allow her to sit out for awhile until it's finished.

It's important to be firm with a slacker. Confrontation is hard, but it might be necessary. Inform the student politely that the other group members are feeling overburdened and would like him or her to pitch in more. However, if persistent firmness doesn't work, consider getting the professor involved. Professors should only be consulted when there is a serious problem because you need to learn how to deal with group problems yourself [it's one of the reasons group projects are assigned]. Nonetheless, a group member who blows off all the work is a serious problem, so if you try to deal with the problem yourself and nothing happens, go ahead and get help.


Folger, Joseph P. et al. Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, 2009.

Let's face it, some group members see group project meetings as a great time to socialize and gossip. To some degree, this is okay, it can encourage good communication and a group of people who like each other will work well together. However, if a group member is steering everyone off task and wasting valuable meeting time, this is a problem. Communicate with a chatty group member and politely tell them that the group needs to stay on task. It may be helpful to create strict meeting agendas to help facilitate efficiency. You also might suggest a fun social outing after the group meeting or project is over, as in, "Let's concentrate and get this done, and then we'll go out for  pizza." Such things can be a great motivation to get work done.


Folger, Joseph P. et al. Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, 2009.

Group projects pose special problems for students who are balancing school with full time jobs, family, or other major commitments. A good strategy is, when you first meet, share schedules among group members, noting when there are particularly busy times in each person's schedule [e.g., other papers due, internships, vacation, etc.]. Nevertheless, things do come up. If a member of your group is in this situation, your group will not be successful unless you make accommodations. For example, you can arrange to have as few meetings as possible and instead communicate through email. You can also assign these busy students tasks that have flexible deadlines and can be completed at times that are convenient for them. Communicate with group members about what they need, and understand that reasonable accommodations are expected when you are working with a group.


Folger, Joseph P. et al. Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, 2009.

Does a group member insist on always having it his or her way? Unfortunately, learning how to work with someone who doesn't want to collaborate is an important skill. So what do you do? First, try some friendly but direct negotiation. Let the group member know what the rest of the group doesn't agree with, and offer some compromises that allow everyone to have some of what they want. Keep in mind that some people who come across as bossy usually don't realize it, and that this person may be easier to work with than you realize. However, if you have someone who refuses to negotiate, you may have a problem. One strategy is to accept the differences of opinion and report them in the final paper or presentation. Although you should take the higher ground and be polite, stand up for yourself and do not let the bossy member filibuster the debate. If worse comes to worse, get the professor involved.


Folger, Joseph P. et al. Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, 2009.

A Chinese proverb says that, when the winds of change begin to blow, some people choose to only build shelters while others build windmills. Most opportunities to learn in college are based upon what level of time and energy you put into it. Unfortunately, some people choose to "build shelters" around their learning opportunities by being perpetually negative or simply saying no to everything without volunteering an alternative solution [e.g., "that'll never work," "we can't do that," "that's a dumb idea," etc.]. Such behavior can also include things like heavy, repeated sighing, rolling the eyes, frowning, looking exasperated, and so on. This negativity can spread and undermine the group's ability to focus on the task at hand. One way to manage a negative group member is to acknowledge the issue that's driving their negativity but to ask what they find positive and build upon that to move everyone forward. If the answer is "nothing," though, remain positive and enthusiastic. Hopefully, over time, your positive energy will rub off on the other group members rather than allowing the negative nabob from sapping the group's energy and focus. If the negative behavior persists, ignore it and tell the person you’d prefer to move on to more productive subjects and/or consider encouraging them to seek assistance from the professor.


Folger, Joseph P. et al. Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, 2009.

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The Benefits of Group Work

As painful as group work can be in college, it can actually be beneficial in the long run because the work closely parallels the group dynamics of being on a committee, task force, or other group found in most workplaces. Whatever form the group work takes in your course, the opportunity to work with others, rather than on your own, can provide distinct benefits. These include:

  1. Increased productivity and performance--groups that work well together can achieve much more than individuals working on their own. A broader range of skills can be applied to practical activities and sharing and discussing ideas can play a pivotal role in deepening your understanding of a particular subject area.
  2. Skills development--being part of a team will help you develop your interpersonal skills, such as, speaking and listening as well as team working skills such as leadership, and working with and motivating others. Some of these skills will be useful throughout your academic career and all are valued in the workplace.
  3. Knowing more about yourself--collaborating with others will help identify your own strengths and weaknesses [for example, you may be a better leader than listener, or you might be good at coming up with the 'big idea' but not so good at developing a specific plan of action]. Enhanced self-awareness will both help your approach to learning and will be invaluable when you enter the workforce.

Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Golde, Chris M. Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presented November, 1994; Updated November, 1996 at Association for the Study of Higher Education; Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Collaborative Pedagogy." In Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 54-71.
 

Stages of Group Work

I.  Getting Started

To ensure that your group gets off to a good start it may be beneficial to:

  1. Take time for all members to introduce themselves, including name, background, specific strengths.
  2. Nominate or vote to have someone act as the group leader, either for that project meeting or for the group of the project.
  3. Exchange names and contact details, including email addresses and cell phone numbers.

II.  Discussing Goals and Tasks

After you and the other members of the group begin to understand the task they need to undertake, take time to make sure everyone understands what it is they will need to achieve. Think about:

  1. What the assignment is to ensure that everyone has the same understanding; develop a shared understanding of the overall assignment by brainstorming.
  2. Note when the assignment is due (or when each part is due) to ensure everyone is on the same schedule.
  3. Discuss specifically how you are going to meet the requirements of the assignment? (For example, if the assignment is to write a sample research grant, what are you going to research and what organizations will you solicit?)
  4. If you are allowed considerable flexibility, it often helps to brainstorm a number of ideas and then assess the merits of each one separately. Things to consider: How much do you know about this topic already? How easy or hard would it be to get good information? (Remember: Speak with a librarian before assuming finding information is too difficult!). Is the topic interesting to everyone? (If it is not interesting to some, they are may not be motivated to work as hard as they might on a topic they found interesting) Can you do a good job on this topic in the available time? With the available people? With the available resources?

III.  Planning and Preparation

This is the stage when your group should plan exactly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and who should do what. Pay attention to the following:

  1. Work together to break the project up into separate tasks and decide on  tasks or sub-tasks each member is responsible for. Make sure that work is equally distributed among the group.
  2. Assign due-dates for each task.
  3. Develop mechanisms for keeping in touch, meeting periodically, and sharing progress (and/or stumbling blocks).

IV.  Implementation

While your group carries out its tasks, you will need to preserve your group's sense of purpose. Effective communication is vital, particularly when your group activity extends over time. Here are some tips to promote good communication.

  1. Keep in touch with each other frequently, reporting progress regularly.
  2. If someone is having trouble completing his or her area of responsibility, work with him or her to try to figure out how to solve the problem. Be supportive and helpful, but don't offer to do other people's work.
  3. At the same time, make it clear that the group is depending on everyone doing their part--it is not okay for one person to show up at the last minute without his or her part done.

V.  Finishing Up

Be sure to leave enough time at the end to put all the pieces together and to make sure everything has been completed. If you have a presentation at the end, go through the same process--decide who is going to do what, and give everyone enough time to prepare and practice ahead of time [preferably together]. At this point, it is vital to ensure that you pay particular attention to detail, tie up any loose ends, and review the whole project rather than just your contributions.


VI.  Writing Up Your Project

Writing the group report can be challenging; it is critical that you leave enough time for this final stage. If your group decided to divide responsibility for drafting sections, you will need to nominate [if not already done so] a member to pull the final piece together. Make it their assignment rather than assigning that person to also write a section of the report. It is best to choose whomever in your group is the best writer because careful copyediting at this stage is essential to ensure that the final document is well organized and logically structured. Focus on the following:

  1. Have all the writers in your group used the same writing style [tense/voice/person]?
  2. Are there smooth transitions between individual sections?
  3. Are the citations to sources, abbreviations, and non-textual elements [charts, graphs, tables, etc.] consistent?

Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Collaborative Pedagogy." In Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 54-71; INDOT Group Work and Report Planning Handout. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Working in Groups. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Working in Groups. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Group Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Golde, Chris M. Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presented November, 1994; Updated November, 1996 at Association for the Study of Higher Education.