Every student’s nightmare – group work. How to make the most of it?

“I simply hate it. Every time I see it coming up, I literally panic!” You might think that such reactions relate to a painful medical procedure, but, in fact, students have expressed these thoughts regarding something much more common: group work.

Good learning practice states that university studies entail work in groups, where people strive towards common goals and offer support to each other, thus diversifying the learning experience and shaping academic culture. However, even to those unfamiliar with the good practice, it’s as clear as day that group work skills are beneficial, since even lone wolves may struggle without support. For some reason, though, group work projects can be some of the most harrowing experiences in academia. But there’s a way around the horror – even in challenging COVID times.

A field guide for group work partners

Undoubtedly, group work projects are one way to figure out who the people working alongside you really are and see who you can count on. We can’t help but envisage the anxious overachiever who wants to get good grades and compete for the performance stipends. They begin working on the project a month before the deadline and push others to do the same: faster, higher, stronger! Then there’s certainly the cool guy who tries to calm down the worried teammate. They assure you that everything is going just fine: we are progressing, and you should take a breather.

Sometimes, a team might welcome a natural leader who loves to divide up tasks but forgets to assign jobs to themselves. And, well, then there are a bunch of slackers who tend to ghost those who call for action. They sit back and let the overachiever work their magic: maybe this time, too, I can skip the heavy lifting…

Sounds familiar? At different points in time, we all notice traits of these stereotypical characters in ourselves, and that is okay: sometimes we have more to contribute, sometimes less, because we simply don’t have the strength and motivation. Why, though, does it seem that the slackers outnumber the hard workers?

These stereotypical characters populate many teams. Moreover, we can all notice traits of these characters in ourselves. Image credit: Icons8 / Inga Külmoja

About social loafing

In psychological research, the phenomenon of social loafing was described already 50 years ago.1 Simms, A., Nichols, T. (2014). Social loafing: a review of the literature. Journal of Management Policy and Practice, 15 (1), 58.

It turns out that people tend to be much less productive when working in groups compared to trying their best individually – it doesn’t matter whether the task requires physical or mental effort.

Responsibility disperses, and people tend to rely on their peers in the hopes of the more diligent ones taking the lead. Or, the opposite happens: the project simply does not progress. No one wants to tell on their teammates, and, as a result, lecturers can also have a rude awakening: the seminar that was planned to include group presentations is to be spontaneously re-organised, since the submitted projects are lacklustre.

The last academic year has given us new challenges. It has been shown that physical distance significantly affects group work efficiency.2 Alnuaimi, O. A., Robert, L. P., Maruping, L. M. (2010). Team size, dispersion, and social loafing in technology-supported teams: A perspective on the theory of moral disengagement. Journal of Management Information Systems, 27 (1), 203–230. When teammates are not at the same location, progress can be hindered: people struggle to connect with each other, and responses are asynchronous. It becomes much easier to lose heart, not respond, or even fail to set up a team chat in the first place.

We need an antidote… now!

There is an antidote to social loafing. However, to remedy it correctly, the problem itself must be defined. Here are some recommendations to help you and your peers surpass three types of challenges, focusing on daily life organisation, study organisation, and work organisation in teams.

Upon meeting for the first time, start from the beginning: get to know each other and figure out what kinds of tasks each person finds suitable. Be careful not to inadvertently label one person the overachiever and thus cultivate learned helplessness in others. Don’t hesitate to inquire about the general well-being and mood of your teammates.

Quite often, the factors hindering groupwork can hide in plain sight and be unrelated to the assignment itself. For example, exhaustion can further social loafing. Tired people struggle with goal-oriented activities, and due to dispersed responsibility, group tasks get knocked lower in the to-do-lists.

If you are starting to lose grip on your project, look collectively into your daily habits: does the group get enough sleep, eat regularly and have a varied diet; do you find time to stretch, take a walk or get in some exercise after a day behind the computer screen?

Such discussions with your teammates can also be helpful because you can offer support to each other. A judgment-free brainstorming session can help you overcome the issue. Upon disentangling the problem you’re facing, focus on the solution, rather than criticising each other. And, if this time you happen to be the one that’s slacking, then help others by helping yourself!

Once you’ve reviewed these basic needs but still lack motivation, take a look at your calendar. Have you allocated time for everything that needs to get done? Dividing your daily tasks into smaller bites and arranging them in a schedule can help you make sense of your own thoughts and assess the workload more accurately. Thinking about the abstract assignment in more specific terms will also increase the chances of actually starting on the project – progressing with it appears to be more likely!

Collaborative learning and teaching

The way studies are organised and tasks assigned also plays a major role in succeeding in your project. Not every task should be carried out as group work. With every team assignment, it should be explained as to why working in groups is required.

Lecturers can also determine the recommended learning outcomes collaboratively with the learners. That way, everyone understands which activities lead to which results. A joint walk-through of group assignments can offer students more autonomy, since it allows for more informed decision making in the group. Additionally, it has been shown that social loafing can be cut down by measuring and assessing individual performance.3 Simms, A., Nichols, T. (2014). Social loafing: a review of the literature. Journal of Management Policy and Practice, 15 (1), 58. Some lecturers can ask teammates to describe their own contributions and that of their peers, and to take that into account upon grading.

As a final resort, it could also be helpful if lecturers assign each team member specific responsibilities. And thus, we have the recipe for conducting studies in a way that supports group work: the importance of the project and the contribution of each member in the team should be highlighted.

All described “antidotes” are effective in online learning too, but when working together in physical isolation, remember to make time for video calls. In electronic communication, switching on your camera helps avoid depersonalisation and thus protect against social loafing.4 Alnuaimi, O. A., Robert, L. P., Maruping, L. M. (2010). Team size, dispersion, and social loafing in technology-supported teams: A perspective on the theory of moral disengagement. Journal of Management Information Systems, 27 (1), 203–230. If you reduce your peer to merely “someone who has to do task X”, you feel less morally obligated to do your own part and ensure no one else struggles. The key takeaway is that when dividing up tasks and assessing each other, no one’s needs and wishes should be skipped over – regardless of whether you’re working online or in person.

In using these tips, you have your very own toolbox – or medicine cabinet – to help you make the most of every group project. Don’t hesitate to experiment and try different solutions, since what works for one may not work for another.

Helo Liis Soodla is Vice Chairperson of the University of Tartu Student Body. She and Silja Madison, Marketing and Communications Specialist of the Student Body, gathered the student body’s ideas for this story. You can share your experiences, thoughts, and ideas on how to make university life and study organisation even better with the Student Union at tyye@ut.ee. You can also read the Estonian version of this post in the UT magazine.

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