Effective Group Work

Working within a smoothly functioning group can be the most rewarding of all experiences. In addition to enabling you to achieve far more than you could on your own, a good group can also serve as a support group that can help you when you fall behind. It can also be a lot of fun. But if a group is not functioning well, then group work can be a frustrating experience. It might seem that which experience it turns out to be depends on your luck with the people who end up in your group. But that is less important than you might think. A lot depends on how members of the group acquire and use cooperative skills and how they resolve problems that arise within the group. You should use this opportunity to develop those skills because they will prove to be invaluable to you in all aspects of your life.

It is not necessary that the members of the groups be good friends with one another. The qualities that go into close friendships are not necessarily the same as those needed for effective group work. But you should learn to respect and value each member of your group for the different knowledge, skills, experience, and personality that he or she brings to the group. This means that you must listen respectfully to others' opinions even if you disagree with them or think them wrong. Try to win them over to your point of view instead of beating them down in an argument.

One of the biggest obstacles to a successful group occurs when one or more members of the group is perceived by the others as not doing their rightful share of the work, either due to an inability to do so or to a lack of commitment to the group. This can cause the other members to feel resentful because they are shouldering the entire burden of the work. How can your group deal with this?

The first thing to realize is that the reason for this poor attitude may be that such members feel that they do not know enough to contribute to the group. They may feel that they are holding the group back by always asking for explanations or assistance. Such people may try to mask this sense of inadequacy by keeping a low-profile and hardly speaking, or adopting an 'I don't care' attitude.

You can help overcome this by always being encouraging of questions and requests for assistance. This means that you should not put down such questions as being either trivial or signs of ignorance. Sometimes we can inadvertently make other people feel academically inferior by giving the impression that everything is easy for us. Remember that when you respond to a request for help, both of you benefit. The person asking the question learns how to focus on exactly what he or she needs to know, how to effectively phrase a question, and gets the needed information. The person answering is forced to focus on the topic, select out the relevant information from all that is available, and clearly articulate an answer based on their own understanding of the material. Getting practice at using all these extremely valuable skills is one of the purposes of group work and you should seize the chance whenever you can.

A good way to share the work is to assign roles to different people in the group and then maybe rotate these roles during the course of the semester. The tasks involved could be: making sure that all assignments and other handouts have been obtained and distributed for each member of the group; collecting returned homework for the group and returning it to members; being responsible for meeting deadlines for group assignments; being responsible for writing out the group homework solutions; making sure that everyone has been consulted and signed off on group homework and exam solutions; sharing information-gathering tasks; being responsible for making sure that everyone's name and group number is on each group assignment handed in; and so on.