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How to Salvage a Group Project Going Downhill

As Halloween season wraps up this upcoming weekend, the Christmas go-getters will undoubtedly begin breaking out in holiday cheer. But the lyrics “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” really don't seem to sum up the student experience at the end of the semester. Because as midterm season “ends” (not that it ever really ends), group project season begins.

Group projects are designed to give students experience in collaboration, an important skill for the workplace. The design seems in line with the old cliché that more heads are better than one. Ideally, these projects are a time to exchange a wide variety of ideas and synthesize them into a final project that highlights the diverse strengths of the group. With more people involved, there should be less burden on each individual person, thus making it easier than students’ normal, individual work.

These aspects of group projects all sound great. Unfortunately, the consensus is that these aspects don’t sum up actual group work.

“I think that I’ve always grown up having a hatred for group projects,” admits Solina Jean-Louis, MCAS ‘18. This sentiment is echoed by the other students that offered their opinions on group projects.

A variety of minor reasons for this dislike among students arose, including working with differing personalities, unequal work distribution, diverse working styles, and communication issues. However, the underlying cause of group project difficulties really boils down to a time management issue.

When asked about the greatest challenge of group projects, Gerry Rodriguez, MCAS ‘18, stated immediately, “Getting everyone in the same place at the same time, because everyone has very different schedules.”

At a school where everyone has so many extracurricular activities, academic responsibilities, community service hours, and other obligations already blocked out, it can be incredibly difficult to get everyone physically together to even begin to make a plan.

“Half the time you spend trying to figure out when to meet, and catching up people who missed the last meeting,” says Catty Bradley, CSOM ‘18, of the difficult, at times impossible, task of gathering the entire group together to collaborate.

With everyone in such a rush, in some ways scheduling seems to overshadow the expected benefits of collaboration.

Jean-Louis, for instance, states that she “like[s] working with other people," and that it’s “not necessarily the collaboration part” that frustrates her so much about group projects. “I think it’s a problem of everyone has their own schedule, everyone lives in a different place, logistically it’s hard.”

This lack of time among group members then leads to other difficulties that the students discussed, such as work distribution and procrastination.

“I think, especially at a school like this, there’s gonna be someone in the group that just doesn’t do anything and let’s someone else take over...very rarely is the work split up evenly,” Rodriguez explains.

If group projects were intended to distribute the work among many people instead of forcing the burden onto one, they do not seem to be doing their job very effectively. It seems that the go-getters will begin working hard right away, while others are far more comfortable procrastinating. Some will procrastinate until there is very little contribution left to be made.

“Division of labor never ends up equal,” Bradley states. She goes on to explain that this is due not only to time issues, but also differing levels of commitment among students. Students’ input often depends on whether or not they are part of the major, and how much they really care about their final grades.

Admittedly, the overall student opinions paint a rather bleak picture of group projects. However, since they are a necessary part of the end of the semester, it’s important to know how to tackle them.

With time management at the root of these other group project evils, a health coach from the Office of Health Promotion’s "Got Time?" program outlined some suggestions for the best ways to go about organizing your time in group projects.

“In the Office of Health Promotion we like to talk about preplanning things. So, making sure that your group sets a goal for when you want to accomplish different parts of the project,” Alex Barba, LSOE ‘18, begins.

Barba advises groups to break the project up into “big tasks”, which take an hour or more, and then further dividing these “big tasks” into “little tasks” that take no more than 15-30 minutes. Once all the actual work is outlined, it is important to create a group schedule.

“If you break the entire assignment into smaller deadlines, that will definitely help with getting everything done," says Barba.

She suggests that groups create a schedule with “buffer deadlines.” These “buffer deadlines” are smaller, more  flexible deadlines that serve as guidelines to ensuring that you don’t fall into procrastination. The end of the schedule should include a fake, or buffer, final deadline that precedes the real deadline, so that you have a little bit of wiggle room within your groups and don’t have to cram at the last minute. The Office of Health Promotion recommends a fake final deadline that is about a week before the real final deadline, although Barba acknowledges that that is certainly not always realistic.

Barba also discusses how the personal differences that the students brought up contribute to the time management problem. “[The key is] finding what works best for you...getting work done in your personal prime time, which is when you feel you are most productive and able to efficiently accomplish tasks,” she says. “Group projects are more difficult because you might have different personal prime times.”

The key to overcoming these prime time differences is in the scheduling. Once the project is broken up into big tasks, that are then broken into little tasks, the little tasks can be divided up, and the group members can all do them individually and combine them later on. This way, students are able to work in their own prime time, even if it does not align with others.

In addition to Barba’s time management advice, the students were able to offer some of their own survival tips from past projects. Overall, the students all advocated for being as proactive as possible in group projects. They did not recommend asserting yourself as a leader right away, but certainly they feel it is important to get the project in motion.

“Start early, and I know that’s so cliché,” Jean-Louis advises. “Again, I think that some people work differently...but I think starting early never hurts, even if it’s something as simple as putting links into a google doc...anything that you can do right off, right out of the gate to get the ball rolling.”

“Go to office hours for projects. Even if you are the only one that shows up to go, you’ll get good insights, and it also shows that you care,” Bradley adds.

Ultimately, all of their advice boils down to putting in the necessary amount of effort on a reasonable timeline. Students have to be willing to put the work in for a successful group project.

“No action is not gonna get the thing done; you have to be extremely proactive,” Rodriguez states.

Despite the frustrations of this group project season, remember that projects are ultimately just a time management issue. The best way to tackle it is to get started.

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