no, group work in school is not “just like in the real work world”

A reader writes:

I’m starting a business graduate program now and all of the administrators are practically giddy proclaiming, “There’s going to be a lot of group work! Just like the real business world!”

I’ve always struggled with group work because I’m a (recovering) perfectionist and was the type of kid who dominated group projects and only allowed my groupmates to do token pieces. I’ve worked to reduce this tendency and I know that other people have strengths that I don’t but as soon as the pressure is on, I start getting twitchy about other people being “slackers.”

Also, I’ve never understood how to be diplomatic about rejecting weak ideas or saying, “your section isn’t up to par with the rest” or juggling people’s schedules to find effective time to work together. Usually, I either take over the project so I don’t have deal with other people or we just divide up the project equally and everyone retreats to do their own piece with no real synthesis or quality control so we can avoid conflict. I appreciate when teachers let us give feedback on our fellow members, but that always felt like resentful snitching and I don’t think the normal business world lets you tell a client after the fact, “Sorry that presentation sucked, it was totally Tom’s fault.”

I feel like my teachers always emphasized the importance of group work but kind of threw us to the wolves to figure out how to do it, especially when we are all supposed to be equal players with no manager to oversee the final product. Can you recommend any resources for how to do effective, professional group work among peers?

Ugh, I don’t know why schools have put such an emphasis on this because group work in school is really, really different than working on a group project at work.

Most importantly, at work you have totally different types of accountability. If someone is slacking off and not pulling their weight, you have recourse — you can talk to their boss and there’s the specter of consequences.

Moreover, group projects at work usually don’t have the same sort of redundancies that group projects in school have. In school, everyone working on a project is usually bringing similar skills and background to the project. At work, group projects are often made up of people with very different skill sets, because that’s the point of bringing them together to each handle different parts of the project. As a result, it’s more likely to be clear who should take the lead on what and who has expertise where, and that’s much more efficient than the typical school project.

And at work, there’s typically someone in the group who’s charge of the overall project and who has the power to make decisions and hold people accountable — whereas school group work often relies on consensus.

It’s weird that schools so often pitch group work as “just like the work world!” because all of these factors make it very different.

Anyway. You asked about how to do effective group work among peers. The keys are to (a) have clearly defined roles, so that it’s clear what each person is responsible for (one way to do that is here), (b) have someone who is responsible for the overall success of the project and has the authority to check in on group member’s work, raise concerns, and generally ensure that work is on track, (c) have clear deadlines and approval processes, (d) have buy-in from leadership above you about the priority level of the work, and (e) have management that’s willing to step in and hold people accountable if they’re not pulling their weight.

In school, you can have a couple of those — maybe, if you have a good group — but it would be rare to have all of them, and that’s a big reason why school group projects are often chaotic and imbalanced and frequently disliked.

{ 318 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Leatherwings

    Yeah, I found “group projects” at work to be very different from group projects at school (Thank God). I think the biggest reason that I’ve found is recourse – if someone doesn’t submit their piece of the report or whatever on time (which always seems to be a problem both in school and at work in my experience), you speak to them about it then you speak to their boss about it. At school you kind of just have to yell at the person, which is infuriating and useless and doesn’t really utilize the same skills as, say, managing up at work.

    The biggest thing you can do to fix this in group projects is the (c) Alison talks about – set clear deadlines and expectations ahead of time. If someone doesn’t meet them, they’ve backed out of a group agreement and the group itself can hopefully pressure the person to get it in as soon as possible.

    Also, one thing I wish someone would’ve told me in school (and I had to learn it in the working world by trial and error) is not to use the nuclear option right away. Be diplomatic and professional always. It’s good practice and tends to get better results.

    Reply
    1. Chinook

      To add to the idea of setting clear deadlines, make sure there is enough time for someone else to step in and finish the work if the deadline is not met. FI everything goes perfectly, then that buffer time will mean the project is done early. But, if Bob suddenly flakes and doesn’t complete his portion of the Start Trek report where he describes where the bathrooms are on the Enterprise, you want enough time for everyone to pitch in and get it done. (Man – I loved my Sci-fi/Fantasy 301 course. This really was one of the group project topics. And the answer to Bob’s question is there is only 1 bathroom on the original ship).

      In real life, these buffers are also used by project planners so that every0ne has enough time to review and fix anything that has been caught.

      Reply
      1. Lmnop

        Wait what – only one bathroom?! So they would have to travel between levels to use the bathroom? And no ensuites? You’re shattering my dreams!

        Reply
    2. Honeybee

      I think in school, you tend to default towards the nuclear option because 7 times out of 10 if talking to the slacker would make them shape up they wouldn’t be the slacker in the first place. The slacker slacks without thinking (or caring) about how it affects fellow teammates.

      Reply
  2. TotesMaGoats

    As someone who went from “helping plan commencement” to being completely in charge of planning commencement, I totally understand the OP. There are things that I can’t make decisions on because I’m not the vice provost. But after long meetings of hemming and hawing, you best believe I’m making the decisions on everything else that I can. And you can bet your sweet bippy that this will be the best commencement they’ve ever had.

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    1. librarygirl

      Wow you too? And here I thought stuff like this only happened to me. Don’t get me started on those meetings either! Just do the best you can do and remember if no one bursts into flames it was an awesome ceremony! ;)

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      1. Stone Satellite

        At work when this happens, I usually go with:
        1) Ask the appropriate person’s opinion
        2) Wait a week
        3) Do what I think is right and see if anyone complains

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        1. librarygirl

          That’s what I did at last job but it doesn’t works so well here. There seems to a be a culture of being very laid back about things until the last second and then there is panicked flurry of activity and I’m still trying to navigate/not get sucked into it.

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  3. Papyrus

    Ugh, group work in school was my own personal hell. They might as well have said “Well, if you want an A, you’re going to have to do everything yourself.”

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    1. Apostrophina

      Seriously. The one time I didn’t was a project where we had to invent a small sample of a language (for an English course) and I was told by one of the people involved that I didn’t deserve to come up with a word for “God.” (I have no idea why.) I completely checked out of that one.

      My opinion of school group work could get lower only if there were actual death-matches.

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      1. Jadelyn

        I dunno, as frustrated as I used to get with my groupmates, I feel like death-matches would improve the scenario considerably.

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      2. LifeOrDeath

        I totally agree – I am guilty of pushing the launch button a few times during group projects – but slackers are like cockroaches and all survived and I became SUPER popular! Deathmatch sounds more fun!

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    2. Dan

      I had a classmate decide everything was going to be done his way in the group. When we compared grades after the quarter, I had a B+ and everybody else had an A. Did I bomb an exam? So I asked the prof. He said, “there was feedback from one member in the group that you didn’t pull your weight.” So I went straight to asshat and asked him what he said. “Nothing that wasn’t true.”

      Well shit. If I would have known we were telling the truth, I would have told the prof the self-appointed leader was an egotistical asshat who wanted everything done his way.

      Seriously, I had no idea my contributions were any different than the other two who got A’s, other than I wouldn’t say “how high” every time asshat said “jump”.

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      1. Katie F

        Also, for a teacher to decide your grade based on gossip from another student that couldn’t be proven one way or another says more about that teacher than it does about your contributions.

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        1. OhNo

          ^ This

          Unless EVERYONE in your group went to the teacher and said you weren’t pulling your weight, AND your designated section of the presentation was clearly weaker than everyone else’s, there’s no way they should have lowered your grade based solely on peer feedback. That’s just the sign of a lazy instructor.

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          1. Snorks

            @OhNo, I got marked down in one group assignment because we had designated sections. There were 4 people in the group, the assignment was worth 80 marks so we split it up evenly. The lecturer said it was too obvious that it was split up between us, it didn’t read the same way from question to question.
            Still got 85% (from memory), so it wasn’t worth making a fuss about, but it was still annoying.
            I know when we do group projects at work the accountant handles the money side, Communications handles the media, etc!

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        2. Mephyle

          “…says more about the teacher than it does about your contributions.” True.
          But unfortunately, that has no repercussions for the teacher, in contrast to Dan who ended up with an undeserved lower mark.

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        3. Janet B

          I totally agree with you. It is inappropriate because there are 2 sides to a pancake. I feel as though education has gotten to a point where you are not being graded on your own work. When I am at work, I am graded on my contributions. I am not graded by what others say. If that were the case we would or should be sharing salaries at work. I pay for the course, and I don’t want group work to interfere with my grade in a course that I am paying for. Otherwise, the other participants should be willing to share the cost of the class that I am paying for since they are sharing the grade.

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      2. Jinx

        I had one class my senior year where we had multiple group projects with a single group, and after each project you got to give anonymous feedback on the other group members. That feedback was part of your grade.

        After the first project where I made sure only to say positives about everyone else, I received a bunch of negative comments about how outspoken I was and how I shouldn’t give reasons that an idea wouldn’t work. After that I let them do whatever they wanted. Eff that noise.

        Unsurprisingly, I haven’t experienced group project-rage since graduating. We have a task tracking system that lets you know who is/isn’t keeping up, and I’m not expected to evaluate my peers. It’s nothing like school used to be.

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        1. Simonthegrey

          The weirdest I have heard of is how a professor here at the school – no idea who – will tell students to rank their group members, and you can’t repeat the same rank. So if Sally, Jim, Bob, and Steve were in a group, Sally can give herself a 4, Jim a 3, Bob a 2, and Steve a 1. That’s great, everyone can give themselves a 1, and then the teacher adds up the scores and that’s the grade you got. Well, what if Sally did all the work but Bob, Jim, and Steve are all on the school’s Competitive Teacup Racing team, and give her 1s so they can give each other a better score? Tough for Sally! It ends up becoming really cliquish and encourages students to dump on each other, at least the way it gets implemented.

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        2. Katie F

          Anonymous feedback is the devil. Even in school I think we should be teaching people to stand behind whatever they’re going to say.

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      3. themmases

        I had a group project that was graded that way in high school. The teacher even gave us back selections from the comments about everyone’s work, although without giving away whose comment was whose.

        I was suicidally depressed that semester and ended up having to leave school for two weeks to get treatment. So my comments were all pretty much about me spending group meetings staring into space, contributing nothing!

        I don’t really expect my teacher or my 15-year-old peers to have read my mind about all that. But I would expect a professional educator to realize that *in general* some of their students aren’t just deciding not to contribute, they actually can’t. And that maybe it’s cruel, not to mention lazy, to let a bunch of teenagers anonymously evaluate each other. I’ve had some pretty bad bosses, but so far none who would fail to check in for an entire project, then pass me verbatim bad feedback from my peers with no input or follow-up of their own.

        The only thing such assignments taught me about the real world was to really appreciate getting to live in it.

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        1. Biff

          My experiences have taught me that unfortunately, for reasons I don’t completely understand, a lot of teachers don’t seem to quite leave their own teens/twenties behind. As I get older and understand more about the office, I’m increasingly shocked by the kind of absolutely abhorrent, unprofessional behavior that went on in too many of my classrooms. I grow, also, more and more appreciative of my teachers who bothered with being decent, socially educated and careful of their brood. My friends who are teachers now tell me stories from time to time about board meetings/teacher meetings and my overall takeaway is to be aghast.

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          1. Chinook

            “for reasons I don’t completely understand, a lot of teachers don’t seem to quite leave their own teens/twenties behind. ”

            From the been there/done that files – it is because they have spent more time with teens than any other group of people. They literally haven’t had to work with adults except in committee meetings. It does start to warp your sense of the world and it takes hard work to not be sucked in. On top of that, some of them have never had to deal with real life pressures of competing against other adults for jobs (though that should happen less and less as the more senior people retire). A real conversation in my staff room revolved around use first year teachers talking about long drives to visit family for Thanksgiving and our more senior colleagues wondering why we just didn’t get a job teaching in the schools where our families are. We couldn’t figure out how to explain politely that job hunting for teachers no longer meant applying at only one school and getting a job – you actually have to send out hundreds of resumes and be willing to move anywhere in the province.

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            1. Anonymous Educator

              They literally haven’t had to work with adults except in committee meetings. It does start to warp your sense of the world and it takes hard work to not be sucked in. On top of that, some of them have never had to deal with real life pressures of competing against other adults for jobs (though that should happen less and less as the more senior people retire).

              I’ve taught at both public and private schools, and this has not been true in my experience at all. You work with adults all the time! You have faculty meetings, grade-level meetings, department meetings. You meet directly with your department head. You meet with your co-planning teacher. You go to professional development conferences.

              And when you apply for a teaching job at another school, you are, in fact, competing with other (adult) teachers for those jobs.

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              1. Anne (with an "e")

                Also, you meet with parents, you take classes with your peers. I work with adults all the time.
                Furthermore….
                When I do assign group projects (rarely) I make certain to have a clear rubric for an individual grade which I determine. I do not assign a group grade. If student X delivers on their portion of the project then they will be rewarded appropriately. On the other hand, if student Y fails to do what they should then they will lose points. X’s grade will not be affected by Y’s grade or vise versa. The rubric makes this clear. The other students do not evaluate each other because I feel that it would be too problematic. Furthermore, most of the work is done in the classroom in front of me. If I observe a student who is not pulling his/her weight and/or appears to be off task I address it immediately. I rotate from group to group, listening, asking and answering questions, monitoring the entire process the entire time. I am managing and facilitating everyone. I watch. I am involved. I know what each student is doing (and not doing). I cannot imagine doing a group project any other way. I should point out that I teach middle and high school students in a private school. So, it is not college level.

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          2. themmases

            I agree. I think teachers are great! Some of my best friends are teachers and for a few years I planned to go into it myself.

            But I do look back at my K-12 education and there are multiple situations where I wish I’d told my parents what was going on. I was in an excellent suburban public school district– the kind of place people move just to get their kids into. And yet I encountered multiple teachers and other authority figures who, for whatever reason, malfunctioned freely as the only adult in the room. As a kid you might know you don’t like someone but you don’t necessarily know where the line is between ‘work it out’ and ‘get a real adult’.

            I don’t really know why that happened.

            Reply
            1. Biff

              Malfunction freely! That’s the right phrase alright.

              I don’t know how it is nowadays, but the extreme bathroom policing at my elementary school now strikes me as exceptionally creepy as I’ve gotten older and found out that some people are “into that.”

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            2. dawbs

              I think as grown-ups (HA, I’m a grown-up), we sometimes forget that kids work in ‘kid world’ where grown-ups are in charge–and we forget that ‘find ANOTHER grown up’ isn’t part of the default programming if we don’t tell kids that.

              (I recently had a conversation w/ my early-el-child that was about hard stuff. And I said that I acting like a disobedient jackass toward teachers, when teachers gave reasonable instructions would result in getting in trouble….and because this was a follow up to something of a ‘history of equality’/’social justice in the USA’/’sometimes you have to stand up for things and it’s hard’ discussion, I also said that if being disobedient was refusing to allow *insert big bad crap, as explained for grade level* to happen, I’d be proud of her–and that if telling an adult doesn’t work, sometimes you have to tell another adult.
              I swear, a light bulb went off over her head. As someone who works with kids/in education/etc, I’m kinda appalled I didn’t clarify that last year. Might have helped some stuff.)

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          3. neverjaunty

            Part of it, in my experience, is that a lot of adults – like parents – revert to “I’m talking to the teacher” mode instead of speaking to them like fellow adults. When my kids were little, there were so many instances where a bunch of parents would talk to each other about Mrs. Missingstair, the horrible teacher, but nobody wanted to actually complain about her to anyone that mattered, much less confront her. Then everyone was shocked when I actually did, and it turns out Mrs. Missingstair doesn’t know what to do when her teacher voice fails to command respect.

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        2. Dan

          Sorry you had to deal with that. You actually reminded me of my high school grammar class, where we had to edit/peer review each other’s work. Generally speaking, I write well, and my teacher *always* gave me A’s. Problem? We got to pick our own content, and my peers found it boring, and told me so. Having my papers peer edited just made me hate that part of life.

          So I went to the teacher and said, “You like my papers and give me A’s. My peers hate them. Since you seem to like the content, and give out the grades, can I just skip that circus?” I got a pass from the review requirement for the rest of the semester… and an A.

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      4. Honeybee

        That teacher is terrible. While I am an advocate for holding slacker or obnoxious group members accountable, it would have to be based on more than the word from one student in the group. It’s too easy for one student to set up one other student they don’t like for failure. Also, wtf, the professor didn’t at least talk to you first and get your side of the story?

        I think group projects can be really wonderful if executed well, but I think so many professors are just using them as a way to reduce the amount of grading and work they have to do during a semester.

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      5. ceiswyn

        I would actually have preferred that to the way my uni graded our major group project!

        Our grade was something like 30% on the quality of our project, and 60% on an assessed reflection on how the project went. Note: no other reflection had taken place during the course, so we had basically no idea what they wanted.

        But whatever it was they wanted, apparently it’s not what I did. That ******* group work and reflection brought my grade for the course down from 96% to somewhere in the mid-seventies, and NO I’M NOT BITTER WHY DO YOU ASK

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    3. MBA who did way too much group work

      Agree. In my MBA program, we did so much group work. Every group I was in had one slacker. Also, it doesn’t help you learn (which is the point of an MBA program, but not the point of work). We also had Bob do the math portion. Kathy did the power point. Marybeth did the marketing plan. Etc. This doesn’t help you learn new skills. You’re just using the skills you had before you started the program.

      Professor say you don’t have to worry about slackers because you have anonymous feedback forms at the end of the class, but that’s a joke. In my opinion, group work in school promotes mediocrity, slacking, and everything you don’t want in an employee.

      Reply
      1. mazzy

        Oh I never thought of that, and I’m thinking of getting an advanced degree. I’ll add this aspect to my list of cons!

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        1. Red

          I’m halfway through two masters programs, one MBA and one MPA, and the closest we’ve come to group work in either so far is small group discussion panels that meet in class to discuss the reading or lecture.

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        2. MBA who did way too much group work

          I’m sure this varies by school. My school put a particular emphasis on group work “because it prepares you for the work world” and “you learn as much from your teammates as from your professors”. (Never mind that everyone in my program was working full-time and had a pretty good idea of what the work world was like.)

          I imagine there are schools with very little group work. I think there is probably some benefit to doing a few group projects, like maybe 3 group projects over the course of your master’s degree. If I had to do it again, I would choose a school that focused on individual work with only a couple of classes requiring group work. This is not just because the logistics of team work are a pain in the neck, but because I think I would’ve learned more.

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          1. Isabel C.

            “you learn as much from your teammates as from your professors”

            Ha ha ha ha no. Not an MBA, but the advice I would give anyone going into undergrad, at least, is that you can usually skip discussion-heavy courses*: if your fellow undergrads have anything interesting or enlightening to say, they’re more likely to say it over a beer-fueled Mario Kart game on Thursday night.

            *And if you can’t, use the time to write a novel or balance your checkbook.

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            1. Honeybee

              Oh, I completely disagree with this though. I went to a liberal arts college that was heavy on discussion-based classes and I learned a lot from them. Often it was about what my classmates said that I didn’t think of, but sometimes it was about the professor guiding us to come to conclusions or answers on our own through talking it out with each other.

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          2. Another MBA

            Agreed. Group work in my program consisted of me mostly baby sitting a bunch of people and worrying about stuff that had nothing to do with my success as an MBA. One of the only good group projects I had was part of an experiential project in which we where working for a large company where there were real repercussions for not doing our work properly.

            Overall, group work lead to me having less time to study and to focus on landing a job. I learned much less in my program than I could have because of wasting my time on group projects where I learned very little. What was even more infuriating was that the group work slackers often times had more personal time to study and ended up doing better on tests and individual assignments.

            Group work in an MBA is even more pointless because the vast majority of MBA students have 3-10 years of work experience already.

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      2. Joseph

        “Professor say you don’t have to worry about slackers because you have anonymous feedback forms at the end of the class, but that’s a joke. ”
        I always thought so too. There’s just so many ridiculous things about this concept:
        1.) They’re almost always given at the end, when it’s too late to change anything.
        2.) It doesn’t really reward others. You might drop Slacker’s grade, but outside of some vindictive karma, that doesn’t really repay my extra effort or give me back the extra time I spent doing his job.
        3.) Everybody else in the group is still required to cover the slacker’s effort. If Slacker is supposed to write the background history and we decide not to cover for him, you’re still going to penalize us heavily for not addressing the history in our report. When you get the forms, you might drop Slacker’s grade to an F due to his laziness, but professors don’t raise everybody else’s grade to an A.
        4.) Anonymous? Really? It’s a four-person group in a class of 40. If you take any action at all, I’m pretty sure Slacker can narrow down pretty well who said negative things about him.
        5.) Many professors don’t even act on the information.

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        1. Lemon Zinger

          +100

          My senior year of college, I was lucky enough to get revenge on TWO unhelpful group members (different courses). Both were blasted in the peer reviews. One ended up with a low grade, and the other failed the course (and presumably didn’t graduate, since it was required for his major).

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        2. Former Retail Manager

          YES, especially to point #4! Terrible use of anonymous feedback and not useful most of the time. I had one group project in a marketing class (not my major, although I more than pulled my weight) and the professor asked if I wanted to know what my feedback was (we were cool like that). I told him I didn’t really care what they said and I trusted that he would look to my individual work as an indicator of what occurred during the project regardless of negative feedback that some may have offered. I got an A, but now I kinda wish I’d looked at what they wrote. However, I still had a full year left and classes with some of them and I know myself….if it was bad, I would not remain silent.

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        3. Christopher Tracy

          3.) Everybody else in the group is still required to cover the slacker’s effort. If Slacker is supposed to write the background history and we decide not to cover for him, you’re still going to penalize us heavily for not addressing the history in our report. When you get the forms, you might drop Slacker’s grade to an F due to his laziness, but professors don’t raise everybody else’s grade to an A.

          I didn’t have group projects in college (yay journalism school!), but I did have them in high school. Every time I got stuck in a group that wouldn’t pull their weight, I’d do my part, present it, and leave the rest unaddressed – I was not doing other people’s work. Then I would let my teacher know what lazy fools I’d been dealing with – somehow, I always ended up with an A while the slackers ended up with F’s (it’s good being teacher’s pet sometimes).

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        4. Another MBA

          Yes to #3. I hated how my grades in other classes would drop because I was the only one willing to pick up the slack on a team assignment.

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        5. Honeybee

          Most professors don’t even have time to act on it. For good reason, class evaluations are usually given back after professors have turned in their grades. And even if these are anonymous feedback forms professors are giving to their own students, that’s assuming that the professors are reading these while in the midst of grading finals and end of semester papers (and, realistically, resubmitting papers for publication or finishing up grants for research). Ha ha.

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      3. So Very Anonymous

        +100000 on the “not learning new things.” In my program some students were so afraid of getting bad grades that they wouldn’t take on anything they weren’t already good at. Not only did that mean they didn’t learn anything, it also meant that if you did try something you weren’t good at and needed to, y’know, *learn*, other group members would worry that you’d tank their grade. To me, that’s the opposite of what school is for.

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      4. IlseBurnley

        As a fellow MBA…remember that all those group projects gave you an unfiltered view into your classmates’ work ethic and skills, which may come to serve you very well one day. I came out of my MBA program with a pretty clear list in my mind of people I’d love to work with or hire one day, and people I wouldn’t recommend to a colleague or refer to a job. It sucks when the slacking impacts your day-to-day during school, but knowing the long term importance of reputation always made me feel a bit better. I hope that most of my classmates would want to hire me or help me down the road, and I tried to conduct myself in a way that would generate that kind of result over the long term. People who forget about the reality of reputational risk (memories are long) will EVENTUALLY reap the consequences; or at least that’s what I choose to believe.

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        1. Aunt Jamesina

          Yes! I’m in a non-MBA professional master’s program, and the field I’m in is fairly small. I’ve made some great contacts and others I’ll stay away from. I’ve already had to fend off one slacker when she inquired about getting her an interview at my workplace. Too bad she flaked on two of our group project meetings!

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      5. AnonAnalyst

        Another MBA here, and I had the same experience. I actually found group projects to provide fewer opportunities to learn new skills because everyone just took on the portions that were most like their old jobs, so you often didn’t have any insight into how the work was done.

        This was probably fine if you were just using the MBA to advance your career in the same field you had been in before business school, but if you were someone like me who wanted to use the MBA program to switch to a different career, it was limiting since I kept getting pigeonholed into the work I knew how to do but wanted to move away from.

        The projects where I learned the most were actually the ones where I was the only one doing the work (AKA: not group projects). Then I was actually able to learn/use the skills I was supposed to be learning in whatever class the project was for. Sure, I also got to work on a bunch of skills I already knew I was not interested in using after the program, but at least I got the experience and felt like I had come away with something more tangible than “wow, Marybeth did an awesome job on our financial projections! I wonder how she did it…”

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      6. Chinook

        “This doesn’t help you learn new skills. You’re just using the skills you had before you started the program.”

        That is lazy teaching. I saw one high school teacher who gave each group of 5, 5 assignments with 5 tasks in each. The deal was that every student had to do something different in each assignment and then pick the best of the 5 assignments to present to the teacher for marking (while the others were marked for completion marks). The students then truly had to work with each other to plan who did what for the best results and help each other out. Not ideal but at least gave people the opportunity to stretch.

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    4. Katie F

      I used to be in a class where the teacher always assigned groups of four and there would be one more student left over. They’d ask for someone to volunteer to be “fifth” in a group and I’d always raise my hand and volunteer to go the whole project on my own. The second or third time I did this, the teacher took me aside and asked why I hated group work so much.

      I said I didn’t hate the groups themselves, just that ‘group work’ always ended up being ‘one student does everything’, and if I’m going to do everything I want to get all the credit for it, because I was tired of other kids piggybacking on my grades.

      Ugh. Group work really is hell.

      Reply
    5. Mona Lisa

      Bah, this. I was the perfectionist who always did the work on group projects, too. Then one day a groupmate said that I would be the person to take home what was left of the project and finish it because I was the only one who cared. I finally snapped and said, “No, I won’t. My grade can take the hit of this project not being done, but yours can’t so you can decide whether you want to fail this class or not.” Guess what? The project somehow miraculously got finished and not by me.

      Reply
      1. Pennalynn Lott

        That happened to me last semester. I keep a running spreadsheet for each class, constantly calculating my grade. When I hit the point that I could get a 54 (out of 100) on the group project and still get an A in the class, I told my teammates that the only work I’d be contributing is what I’d done up to that point (which was still 65% of the total material, in a group of 5), which meant that I was essentially “quitting”. I’ve never seen kids scramble so fast.

        Reply
      2. AGeekNamedBob

        I did the same in one of my classes a few years ago. I had a solid A and had many slackers in my group. After multiple attempts at getting the portions of the project from the members I turned it in with “this section was supposed to be filled out by [name]” with timestamps of my e-mails. This was a production design class and when we also had to do individual presentations of our portions of the group presentations the instructor absolutely called out them out on it when spoke out of their butts, “this doesn’t match your group project portion which says” and then read my attempts at contacts to them. It may seem childish to get pleasure that sort of failure but after many years of doing the un-replied work in too many group projects it felt good.
        It was a community college so many of the students didn’t give a damn. Now that I’ve transfered to 4-year, things are better on that end. As a 34-yr old college student (earned a degree in mid 2000s then joined the Navy; restart time!) in my senior year my amount of putting up with less than satisfying is low. What is more common is people doing their parts but only half-assed. My best recourse when I feel that it affects my grade is directly speaking to the instructor during office hours. Worked in my favor last quarter how I explained two of the members were off base in their understanding of the instructors and wouldn’t listen to the other 3 of us and it lowered our grade for just that reason. She upped mine after that.

        Reply
    6. Isabel C.

      Right, or “just do everything yourself from the start because otherwise you have to sit around talking about it FOREEEEVER.”

      Maybe it’s my industry, but “working in a group” in business is like, we meet once to assign work, everyone does their own thing, and we check in regularly to answer questions or make sure folks are on schedule. That’s it.

      Reply
    7. starsaphire

      The most honest “group project” experience I ever had in college:

      First day of history class in junior college, the professor said, “Raise your hand if you don’t want to do group work.” *Everyone* raised their hands.

      He looked around the room and said, “I see you all hate group work. I hate it too. Too bad; it’s a mandatory curriculum requirement in this school. So get into groups of four with the people who look likeliest to bail you out when your third grandmother passes away the day before the project is due…”

      We still had to do the project, but at least we *knew* that this teacher understood that the whole idea was BS…

      Reply
    8. Miko

      A lot of people say this (“if you want it done, do it yourself”) but I didn’t find that to be true at my engineering school. We had semester-long projects that were almost too large to be completed by 4 people in that time – 1 would never work.

      One of those projects, I ended up being the slacker on the team (for various reasons unrelated to the course). That experience did more to prepare me for work teams than anything else I’ve ever done. I KNOW that I’m generally a smart/hard-working person, but these strangers didn’t. (Based on what they’d seen of my work for most of that semester, they were justified.)

      One day late in semester I finally told my team I had realised I needed to start contributing. One guy told me basically to get out, I was out of the team as far as he was concerned. Another person took me aside and said “here are some small tasks, complete them one by one and give them to me so you’re accountable to someone,” and encouraged me until the end. Trust, but verify. In a later project I had a slacker on a team again, but this time instead of just writing them off, I did what my old team member had done. The final night, we pulled an all-nighter in the lab, and all of us were exhausted and falling asleep. Slacker team mate was so determined to show that my trust was deserved that he stayed up all night pulling the whole project together, and we got something like 97% – without him we’d have had a collection of unconnected parts that did nothing, and yet kicking him out of the group had been my first instinct…

      Reply
    9. BananaPants

      No kidding. In grad school for my management degree it was particularly awful. Every single class had a strong group work component. They’d put us in groups of 4-6 students and without fail, easily half of the group did little or nothing, leaving the rest of us to do the entire project short-handed. Meanwhile the lazy ones skated their way to an effortless good grade by showing up to stand there and smile during the presentation. Made me rage, especially when it was brought to the professor’s attention and s/he didn’t care.

      Reply
  4. junipergreen

    Ha! Love that you’re being sold on this as work experience. I do think academic group work (thankfully not much of it in my past) gave me some valuable experience… but the lessons I learned were more along the lines of emotional labor: “how to keep it together after no one follows through” or “maintaining relationships for the rest of the semester with unreliable shirkers.”

    Reply
    1. So Very Anonymous

      “How not to scream at people who call you at 11pm the night before the group presentation (when you have to be at actual work at 8am!) expecting you to redo work you completed by the deadline because THEY all waited until the very last minute and now the project has changed.” Good times.

      Reply
        1. So Very Anonymous

          Solidarity, man. We had also had a FIVE-HOUR meeting on Saturday morning. During which I announced that I’d completed me work. I got the call at 11pm on Sunday. Had work at 8. Group presentation at 1. And rest of the group treated me like I’d been the problem for not pitching in and helping at the very end, when our slacker member decided it was finally time to do some work.

          In our case, Slacker had also had positive reinforcement on their slackerness from another professor, so we had that to contend with too. (Don’t feed the Slacker!)

          Reply
      1. Kai

        Yeah, my experience of group projects has always been either A) doing all the work myself, or B) finding out late in the process that the rest of the group was doing it all without me. Good times.

        Reply
        1. Kai

          (I feel like I should clarify that the latter situation was not because I had slacked off, but that we had all initially agreed on how to split up the work, I went away and did my part, and came back to a whole new concept I’d had no involvement in.)

          Reply
          1. AnonAnalyst

            Ahh, this reminds me of the first group project I had in business school. Good times. It culminated in a heated argument with yelling from all six members of the team. Two weeks into the semester.

            But at least we all got to work together for four more months after that incident! Which was, you know, super productive given that we all pretty much hated each other.

            Reply
    2. OriginalYup

      Yep, my experience was that group projects were valuable mostly for seeing a portion of the impossibly wide spectrum of individual and team dysfunction that is possible in the world. Which is, in many ways, excellent preparation for the workplace.

      Variations seen by me:
      – the No One Wants to Appear Bossy team in which we will drift inevitably towards certain death while everyone politely avoids responsibility for anything.
      – the I’m In Charge No I Am Goddammit team in which five totally different sub-projects in different fonts will be stapled together and turned in as a combined whole because no one will back off a single micrometer on their own ideas.
      – the Gilligan’s Island team of misfits who run around causing chaos while the Professor quietly makes coconut satellites in the background but is sadly unable to repair the actual boat.
      – the Dunning Kruger team in which the least competent member insists on bossing around everyone else until the final result has descended to the desired level.
      – the Donner Party team in which everyone’s individual failings and neuroses combine in the worst possible way.

      Reply
      1. Joseph

        Excellent. Here’s a few more common ones that I saw in group projects:
        – the Poor Communication Kills team where everybody assumes that a key task is already being handled, right up until the point the plane crashes into a mountain
        – the Fountain of Eternal Words team where people use group meeting times to talk endlessly without saying a single useful statement
        – the Somebody Else’s Problem team where tasks are split up on the first day, but then everybody refuses to do any task that isn’t in their exact description, regardless of importance

        Reply
        1. OriginalYup

          Key members of the Fountain of Eternal Words team:
          – the Board Chair Oracle Sage, who thinks every word which falls from their lips is a diamond for all mankind.
          – the Filibuster-er, who will literally not stop talking until they get their way. Bonus points awarded if teammates collapse in exhausted tears whilst screaming “just SHUT UP”.
          – Verbal Kint, who will fill every available pause with a bizarre stream-of-consciousness anecdote which appears totally unrelated to the subject at hand but is actually brilliant sleight of hand a la Usual Suspects to distract the rest of the team from all the work the speaker has left undone to date.

          Reply
        2. OhNo

          May I add:
          – the Everyone Is Friends Already team, where everyone is friends (except maybe one person), and despite assuming that seeing each other all the time means you’ll have plenty of chance to collaborate, you still end up scrambling to finish everything five minutes before it’s due.

          Reply
        3. Not So NewReader

          Let’s not forget the, “we are young and you are so NOT” team with a returning student. I was 40 on a campus that hated old people. So the team decided to have a party in one of the dorms. I said to my co-leader, “I can’t go to this. If there is underage drinking, or drugs, *I* will be the one doing the jail time.” Co-leader really could not understand this except for the part where I would not be there. (For our class we were supposed to lead a team from a freshman class. What a great idea. NOT.)
          Things really ran away when I got wind that my co-leader was bad mouthing me to the group.
          Our class, itself went into major meltdown as the prof was very out to lunch. The last day of our class we were supposed to fill out surveys. There were none left by the time the pile got to me. I noticed that everyone in the class was screaming/angry with each other. Finally, one person said, “What is wrong here, why are we all yelling at each other.” They agreed it was the prof’s lack of leadership/guidance. At that point I walked out.
          She never submitted my grade/paperwork for the course. I went back to her and she said. “I submitted it.” And she refused to do anything more. I had to drop the course EVEN THOUGH I completed it.
          If I never work in an academic team, again, it will be a day too soon.

          And these courses with team work have pretty much cured me on any more education.

          Reply
        4. Drama Llama's Mama

          There’s also the “One of our team members is an exchange student from a country with lesser/no intellectual property standards” where it’s discovered late in the game that much of their contribution has been blatantly plagiarized…

          I got stuck with all the re-writes and proper citations in addition to my own workload. Good times!

          Reply
    3. Bwmn

      Add to this the reality that all jobs will have aspects that must be endured and have no path for recourse. Because unless the OP’s MBA program is much different from my university experiences, 99.9% of group work complaints that I’ve ever heard of have resulted in a version of the response “group work is like the real world where you have to work with people who you don’t always get along with”. There just really aren’t (m)any professors interested in navigating group work problems.

      As frustrating as all of this is, I just really don’t see a way to truly avoid it. On the plus side though, if you’re in school you likely have access to free/near free mental health care in case it helps to talk through group work issues.

      Reply
    4. Xay

      Yes! I just finished an MPH program where almost every class was mostly group work. The skills I gained were advanced knowledge of Google Hangouts and Skype and an unofficial graduate certificate in self care.

      Reply
  5. Jaguar

    All that having been said, you should work on not being a domineering or “Type A” personality. It’s true that responsibilities really are more appropriately distributed and distinguished in the workplace because those responsibilities literally are individual people’s jobs. But there’s also a lot of places where “perfectionist” types can disrupt that (and disrupt it badly). An analyst not using their administrative support staff, for instance. Or worse yet, a project manager ignoring, say, their marketing team’s work and handling the marketing themselves. It does happen, and it’s nearly always bad.

    Reply
    1. Bookworm

      Agreed.

      It’s also important to remember that, while at school, you likely have insight into other people’s skill sets and what work needs to be done in order to create a good project.

      In the work world, it’s not unheard of to be involved in a project where people are handling elements that are unfamiliar to you, and they might handle it in a way that looks unintuitive or slow to you. When that happens, you want to be thoughtful about intervening, because although sometimes someone isn’t pulling their weight, other times it could be that they’re factoring in different priorities that aren’t immediately obvious to someone without their skill set.

      Reply
      1. Queen Gertrude

        Exactly, OP I think that the number one lesson YOU should hopefully be taking away from this experience is learning HOW to work with other people. And learning to deal with people that work in different ways than you do. Right now you don’t seem to trust anyone but yourself, and that is really not a good thing. I have always been a really responsible person/student/employee, but I am also pretty laid back. I am not a perfectionist. Part of that is because I deal with mild dyslexia and so I just have to accept that mistakes will always get by me, no matter how much I rely on spellcheck and review my work. That’s why I’m a visual artist, my work is highly regarded because I am both fast and good (but not cheap ;). I have my own system, but every once in a while I have to deal with a client/manager who is super possessive about not my work… but about HOW I DO MY JOB. They think they can do it better or instruct me in how I should do it better. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been doing my job for 5/10/15 and now 17 years. They have exactly your attitude OP, and believe me, they have never once been right. I’ve humored them, I’ve done side by side comparisons, I’ve walked away from jobs because the price of dealing with “control freaks” was just too high. I know that working in groups sucks in school, I too had to pick up a bunch of slack. But seriously, now is the time to learn to work with people… before you are in the workforce.

        Reply
        1. TL -

          Yup to this. A lot of my college group projects were literally – meet, divy up work, meet, put work together, proof, present. I didn’t have a lot of group projects – maybe one a year? but generally they worked pretty well. (I got super lucky!)
          A big part of that was everyone being invested in doing their best work but another big part was people were generally willing to trust that other people could do the work. That’s really important in getting things done!

          Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          The take away I found, OP, is that workplaces are by far easier and saner than any college work group. While you do have to deal with “personality”, I have never seen it as bad in work places and I have seen some wild stuff in workplaces. And, yes, you do have to trust people to do their jobs, but a much higher percentage actually do what they say they will do.
          Lastly, a group work in college is finite. It begins with the semester and ends with the semester. Workplaces have a continuous flow of work, it does not stop. There is always that next project. This continuous flow changes everything. You realize you can either be a perfectionist or you can have your health/sanity. You cannot have both, you have to pick.

          Reply
          1. AnotherAnon

            “You realize you can either be a perfectionist or you can have your health/sanity. You cannot have both, you have to pick.”

            This is very true, and very tragic… because perfectionism will tell you that no, you must have both, if you really want to you can find a way, and if you don’t then you are Imperfect and Bad and that is Unacceptable.

            Reply
    2. Edith

      I agree and would add that the bit about trying not to be so type A applies to school group work too. Of course you’re going to have people who blow off the assignment leaving everyone else scrambling, but there are also people who are far too quick to assume peers are slacking off. I’ve had cases when an assignment is due at 11PM Friday, so the group decides everyone will post their contribution Wednesday so we’d have time to discuss it and put everything together. Then come Tuesday a group member will say “Since Tom STILL hasn’t posted his section I went ahead and did it.” This puts everyone, especially Tom, in a very awkward position, and can even hurt Tom’s grade if the prof saw a group member complaining about Tom not pulling his weight without noticing the complaint was premature. The fact that OP described herself as getting “twitchy” about slackers makes me worry she may wade into this territory.

      Reply
    3. neverjaunty

      Yes, this. OP, your attitude is going to be a real millstone around your neck in the working world.

      It’s great to have high standards (especially when you hold yourself to them as well) and to expect others to contribute. It’s really crappy when that means you never delegate, think everyone else is an idiot, and never let anyone do work unless it’s impossible for you to do yourself.

      Reply
  6. Newby

    I had a tendency to dominate group projects in school also. One strategy that I found worked well to help me not take over completely was to volunteer to be the person to collect everyone’s contribution and do an initial edit. That way, if everyone was actually doing their part well, I did not do much additional work. If some of it was not done well, I heavily edited it to bring it up to the quality that I wanted and then sent it around for approval or additional editing.

    Reply
    1. Nordly

      Agreed, this was my main strategy during my recent 4 year Masters program (part-time while working full-time). Other tips: as soon as possible, sit down with the group (can be over Skype or Google Hangout if it’s hard to meet in person) and set a schedule. Work back from the deadline and set milestones for certain tasks / sections. Check with everyone how busy their semester schedule is, sometimes a team member has 3 things due in the same week, so they can do more work upfront. Create an outline and/or break the work into sections and let people choose what they’d like to do, maybe even pairing up some team members if they’re working on closely related sections (especially helpful if you have a large group). Designate an editor (aka person who is going to pull it all together and submit it – do it yourself if you care about getting an A), and get consensus from everyone on the submission-edit-approval process, as well as what to do / how to communicate if someone is falling behind (for whatever reason, life happens).

      As the editor, I often felt guilty re-writing someone’s section. It’s not as bad if it’s just re-wording to ensure consistency between sections, but it’s a lot harder when the section is missing substance or the analysis isn’t as good as it could be. In that case, I leave comments / suggestions and ask what they think, and generally people seem to be happy with the feedback. I’ve also told people that I had to cut out a paragraph or section due to word count, or because it fit better in another section or to avoid duplication. If they missed something (e.g. the assignment says to mention ABC, and they didn’t), I would say something like “hey, we’re missing this-and-that, can you include it? let me know if you need help with it!”. Also, I also include positive feedback in my review (e.g. “awesome point”, “like how you tied that together”) and let them know how much I appreciate it when they finish things sooner than expected, or if they picked up slack.

      Lastly, it’s OK to hold team members to a high standard. Like I said, I used to feel guilty editing someone else’ work, because it felt like I was invalidating their contributions. At the same time, I couldn’t “let it go” because the work wasn’t up to my standards and I know we can do better (classic perfectionist hah). But honestly, most group members didn’t care that much about my heavy-handed-ness, and actually agree it’s an improvement, and getting an A doesn’t hurt either ;)

      Reply
  7. AnonAcademic

    This is timely, since I am in the midst of a short term collaborative work project with someone at my level who is grossly underperforming. I’ve made our boss aware, but his impulse is to cancel the project entirely whereas I still hope to eek some results out of it in the last few weeks it runs, so I’ve been taking over more and more duties from her. I certainly miss the days when a slacker on a group project might affect one grade for a class, rather than being something that costs an organization thousands of literal dollars! I do think the frustration level is pretty similar though, and class projects did give me practice on when and how to escalate in a lower stakes environment than a “real” job.

    Reply
    1. buin

      I’m kinda on your boss’s side here. Boss might have made time allocation projections based on you being X% time on this project. If another person isn’t holding their weight and you have to do 100%, that might have a negative impact on your own projects, or on your ability to be agile if your boss wants you on something else.

      Reply
      1. AnonAcademic

        It’s a particular challenge because I’m a trainee who needs to establish a history of independently run projects to advance in my career. The one in question, I applied for and got competitive funding to complete. It would have been a slam dunk if my collaborator wasn’t incompetent to the point of being obstructionist. The key as you said is to not let it impact the bottom line of my overall productivity which it has not so far. But as soon as the project is done in a few weeks, I will not be covering for this coworker’s limitations again in the future, that’s for sure.

        Reply
    2. Snarkus Aurelius

      There’s one bright side. Unlike school, you can make the case for a raise. If you asked the professor for a better grade because you picked up the slack for someone else, you’d get a big NOPE!

      Reply
  8. The IT Manager

    I have had to do many a dreaded group project. I honestly never remember it being sold “just like the real work world.” I suppose that’s one thing my instructors had going for them.

    Reply
  9. Snarkus Aurelius

    Count me in as one of the many who hate work AND school group projects. 

    But the biggest difference between the two is accountability.  I remember having to “snitch” on low-performing project partners only to have the professors tell me it was our problem and we had to figure it out because that was part of the learning process.  Well if I don’t have any influence on that person’s individual grade, there’s not much I can do.  At work, it largely depends on management.  More often than not, I can go to a manager, report the problem and get it effectively addressed that way or at least have my say without it immediately being my problem to solve.

    You’re right that you can’t tell the client that the presentation sucked and it was Tom’s fault.  But unlike school, you can chase it up the chain of command internally.  There’s far more of a vested interest in not losing a client vs. a classroom where the instructor will get treated the same no matter what the outcome.  In some cases at work, you can ask that you not be assigned to work projects with Tom anymore and state why…unlike my fourth grade partner projects where I was stuck with the same lazy slacker for the whole year and we both got the same grade.  No recourse there either.  Or you can choose to leave a job because there are other options whereas in school, you can’t choose to leave a group project or class or academic institution as easily.

    TLDR: group work is rarely like the real world because professors can ignore/write off common group problems because the professor’s outcome will be the same no matter what whereas managers can’t or else they look ineffective and incompetent.

    Reply
    1. nofelix

      > the professors tell me it was our problem and we had to figure it out because that was part of the learning process.

      Hated BS like this. As can be seen from all these comments, badly structured group work mostly teaches good students that they have to work twice as hard to pick up slack if they want to maintain their grades, and teaches poor students that they can coast. They’re just lazy profs not structuring learning to deliver anything useful.

      Reply
  10. Friday Brain All Week Long

    I dominated one so hard the last time I was in school…. a few years ago, an online community college class, and I was 9-10 months pregnant. The teacher made me a group leader even though he knew I would be dropping off the radar for at least a few days once my late bird baby finally came out. My group was all people fresh out of high school, so nice and so naive. I gave them each a section and ended up doing mine and most of theirs because what they did sucked. I feel bad that I had no time to be a wise mentor who taught them time management and guided them into doing their part well, but eff that I just needed it DONE. I think I scared them.

    Reply
    1. buin

      Don’t feel bad! You were in the same class as them, not the instructor, it is not YOUR job to be a mentor for them. Great if you had time for it, but it’s not something to expect from a classmate, especially in an online course. And since the instructor knew you were very pregnant and would have to miss time and decided to make you a group leader anyway… I’m on team “your grade is important” and not team “mentoring others” ;)

      Reply
      1. Friday Brain All Week Long

        Thanks! I chose Team Grade as well, but I still feel for those sweet young idiots. Hopefully they figured out how the world works. :)

        Big takeaway I get from this site is how different the world of academia is than the corporate world. Professors who have never worked a non-academic job just don’t “get” our world, and silly group work is one of the results of that.

        Reply
        1. Joie De Vivre

          ” Professors who have never worked a non-academic job just don’t “get” our world…”

          +1000

          Usually it was easy to tell which instructors had real world experience vs the “ivory tower”.

          Reply
          1. BananaPants

            My current grad program has a designated professor of practice who’s a non-tenure track professor with just a master’s degree but extensive real-world experience – versus the “life in academia with a little consulting on the side” that the tenured profs have. The professor of practice is very active in teaching since he has no research obligations and is an extremely good teacher.

            As someone who’s on her third master’s degree earned part time while working full time, I very much appreciate the profs who have some real world experience.

            Reply
            1. Stephanie

              Yeah, we had a professor in the practice in my undergrad department as well. He had a PhD, but had been in industry for most of his career. He had no research obligations (or they were very, very limited and he had no students) and basically taught the lab courses and senior design. I definitely appreciated that he wasn’t fully ensconced in the ivory tower.

              Reply
          2. nofelix

            I dunno, I’ve had teachers with professional experience, and although they’re better it’s weird how sometimes they decide they have to ‘design an assignment’ and are even worse than career teachers, because they’re inexperienced.

            I have in mind one assignment that started with a 14 person strategy meeting with nobody in charge. Unsurprisingly there were too many ideas and no strategies were agreed upon. We were only able to move on from that because at 11pm I drew up a concept to justify saying “our strategy is we have lots of competing strategies!” so that everyone could get on with their individual work.

            Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          sweet young idiots. hmm. And this is the covert learning that the profs have NO clue that they are teaching.

          It’s not their failure, it’s the teachers’ failures.

          Reply
    2. mskyle

      I failed much worse as the “slightly older and wiser group member” – I brought a group member almost to tears once :/

      I still feel awful about it. He redid my work worse than it had been to start with, and didn’t show it to me until we were about to turn it in. It was unacceptably bad and did not even meet the requirements of the assignment. I was justifiably upset but I should addressed the problem in a calmer way, for sure!

      Reply
      1. nofelix

        That sounds maddening. I think most people would have been visibly angry.

        Once I had a fellow student hijack my slidehow and add in lots of irrelevant slides. She deleted the original and brought her version on USB so we were forced to use it. Never been so outraged. Just about kept from shouting but people could tell.

        Reply
  11. Self employed

    If you are forced to do it, though, you may want to check your expectations at the door. One way to help your perfectionist “recovery” is to say at the outset, “I may get a lower grade than I would have on my own, and that’s okay.” And decide that it won’t be the end of the world, and it won’t reflect badly 100% on you. Good luck.

    Reply
    1. nofelix

      The thing is it does reflect badly on you, since group projects generally contribute the same to your final grade as individual projects.

      Reply
  12. Laura (Needs a New Name)

    This is helpful, because I’m teaching a class in the fall that has an important groupwork component. There really is no way to do it otherwise – it is impossible (and inadvisable) to have 18 students conduct 18 separate research studies over the course of a single semester. When the group project goes well, it provides an opportunity to share the workload and allow students to focus on their strengths (e.g., some contribute most to research design, others to statistical analysis). When it does not go well, nobody is happy. And I hear a lot about it.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      If you really want to mimic the real world as much as possible, assign roles based on what you know of your students’ strengths. And if you don’t know their strengths, do it randomly.

      Reply
      1. Jaguar

        I don’t really think there’s a way to do it that will work. The underlying problem with the situation is that at work, you have responsibilities. At school, everyone is ultimately responsible for everyone. If I’m responsible for the UI component of an app and a coworker is responsible for the logic behind it, even if we can both do each other’s work and I could pro-actively pitch in to help them, I’m not in trouble if the co-worker doesn’t deliver on time. Group work fails because everyone is responsible for everything. If one person doesn’t deliver, the whole project fails and the whole group fails. That difference informs a lot.

        Reply
      2. Laura (Needs a New Name)

        I don’t want to mimic the real world as much as possible! This is college. The goal of the assignment is for the students to gain experience and skills and to demonstrate their level of mastery of these new skills in the final product.

        In an ideal world, the students will come into the project with some understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They’ll volunteer to take on more responsibility for the areas in which they are strong, but gain experience and knowledge in the areas in which they are weak by collaborating with their peers who are stronger in these areas. (All of the final projects are graded individually, and I can generally get a good sense of who truly understands all of the elements and who has been riding coattails.)

        Reply
        1. Here, kitty, kitty...

          I understand where you’re coming from. However, I have yet to come across a teacher or professor who truly grokked the dynamics of each group, and so slackers still got away with slacking. The only way to combat that is to weight each person’s grade by their groupmates’ assessment of their contribution(s) – but how do you know if group members aren’t biasing their feedback based on irrelevant reasons? Important to consider. Also, I find the idea of weaker group members learning from peers who are stronger irritating, I have to be honest. I paid tuition because I wanted to learn as much as possible from course content and professors. Why should students pay to teach their weaker group members? Been there, done that, still pissed that I wound up playing teacher and learning nothing content-wise.

          I hope you take the many, many comments making strong cases for why group work is problematic into consideration as you grade these projects. I think asking for individual updates, not just group ones, is the way to go.

          Reply
          1. Honeybee

            As someone who used to teach classes, I was always irritated by the “I paid…” arguments. Students pay for the opportunity to get an education, but 1) there’s no guarantee that the student will get it exactly the way they want to and 2) the student has to do the work to earn the education. As much as a lot of students hate group work, there *are* pedagogically valid reasons for using it; there’s also a lot of educational research showing that peer tutoring and peer review/grading in classes helps both the tutors and the tutees learn. People being annoyed by completing group work and the problems it comes with isn’t really the same thing as group work in and of itself being problematic in a learning/pedagogical sense.

            That said, I am a big proponent of the periodic individual update.

            Reply
            1. Here, kitty, kitty...

              Oh, I agree that there comes a point where the “But I paid…” argument falls flat on its face; when students don’t want to put in the work and learn the material, for example, or if they don’t like a professor’s teaching style. Tough. However, there are legitimate reasons why group work is bad, and I maintain that paying tuition just to have to pull the other group members’ weight is… well, I find it morally wrong. Like I said below in the thread, college is for the student to concentrate exclusively on her learning the material. She’s paying to do so, and so she should be able to learn the material without giving a fiddler’s fart about whether other students are learning the material, too. The person I replied to mentioned that she uses group work as a time for weaker students to learn from stronger ones, and when you’re paying tuition, that simply shouldn’t happen. I want to learn from the professor / people who know what they’re doing, not teach other students. In that scenario, I’m not learning, although the other students are. It’s also wrong to pay for the opportunity to have a professor say, “I don’t care that your group members didn’t contribute, and you were left holding the bag. You’re getting a C.” Right. It’s fine to pay for that experience. Sorry, not buying it. (No pun intended.)

              I have been an older, non-traditional student my entire undergrad career. I may be the exception, but at no time have I found peer review, group work, or peer tutoring to be helpful. It has been an exercise in time wasting and irritation straight down the line. The research might apply only to people all of roughly the same age, but it doesn’t seem to have panned out in my case. I also have to seriously question if the case studies used to support the research you point to represent what professors are actually doing in the field – if professors are using the methodology that the research claims is so helpful. Judging by the comments in this thread, it doesn’t sound like most of them are, which makes the research results of questionable validity.

              Reply
              1. gogglemarks

                You’ve got it exactly. The group work many professors use in their classrooms deviates greatly from the carefully designed group activities that show up in the pedagogical research used to justify the use of group projects.
                I’m mostly familiar with science-ed research, so I’m not certain if this is the same across all disciplines, but a lot of current best practices for group work include assigned rules within a group, with the group working together over multiple small assignments and the rules being rotated through all the roles; most group activities being in class instead of at home, to allow for instructor supervision and support; and ways to take into account student feedback on their groupmates’ contributions without letting personal grudges or politicking within the group unfairly attract a student’s grade.
                Handing those same students a project and saying “do this as a group” it’s not going to have the same benefits.

                Reply
            2. So Very Anonymous

              I used to teach too, and I also find “I paid…” annoying. However, when I went back to school, I found myself saying “I paid…” because so many professors in my program just. weren’t. teaching. They were relying on group work in various forms to fill in for actual teaching; the professors who really taught did use group work, but too many of the others relied on peer instruction as a replacement for faculty instruction. I found this especially annoying since I did end up being the “older, wiser” person in some groups which sort of put a lot of teaching on me at a time when I really wanted to be *learning* and stepping out of “I’m responsible for teaching this” mode. It was super exasperating to have the younger students expecting me to lead/teach when I was, yes, paying to be a student and to NOT be the expert already. A professor is there to teach and to share their expertise. Relying on peer instruction *that* heavily is bad teaching. The whole experience has made me skeptical about educational research and about “active learning.”

              It’s also annoying that educators assume that “I paid…” is always a reflection of a student’s laziness. I get why faculty don’t like it — believe me, I heard plenty of it when I was teaching, and I know very well that it *can* be a reflection of student entitlement — but in my case, my “I paid…” irritation was a reaction to lazy teaching. Seriously, being in that program was the first time that I really understood why nonacademics resent the idea of tenure (I’m from an academic family): some of those professors really needed a hard post-tenure review.

              Reply
                1. So Very Anonymous

                  And the thing is, that group work gets used by lazy teachers doesn’t mean that it can’t work well when used thoughtfully by a good teacher (especially if the teacher makes it clear that they’re there to help if there’s a problem). I really like teaching with small-group discussions! But I don’t think I’d ever assign a group project where everyone would be graded on the project. Just too many bad experiences with it.

                  I’m also a little skeptical of teachers who privilege “but it’s been proven by education research” over what’s going on in the actual classroom/with the actual students. Research gives you ideas of things you can try, but I’m always going to think that the responses/learning shown by your actual students should guide your sense of what’s effective.

              1. AGeekNamedBob

                Group work is okay if it’s occasional but this post reminds me of an instructor I had a few years ago who essentially only used it. Every day we’d get in groups and make a quicky presentation over an aspect of the previous nights reading when directed questions he’d give. Of course, most the time I’d be only one to do the assigned readings so the others would be doing them as I sussed out the answers. Increasing the issue is the questions were more complex than the readings, asking for information not present (history class and the teacher was an impressive encyclopedia of memory, but would forget his students weren’t.) So we’d essentially be presenting the readings we all were supposed to do. I wanted to learn more about the subject, get better understanding and so forth from him not conjecturing with underread other students. Very disappointing.

                Reply
    2. Snarkus Aurelius

      The best way, if you can do it, is still give individual grades instead of every person in the group getting the same grade. That way, slackers have more of an incentive to step up and if they don’t, they don’t take the whole group with them or the group doesn’t make up for the slacker’s laziness.

      Reply
      1. Laura (Needs a New Name)

        It’s a semester-long project, so there are several components that are graded as a group (the proposal and final presentations), but the majority of the grade is individual. The part that is hardest is that, when there is a slacker, actually getting the study done is more work for the students who are not slacking. I empathize with this and will try to help groups get the slackers to step up, but I can’t *make* slackers do more. I know, I try!

        Reply
        1. neverjaunty

          Then don’t make your students do it for you. Because if you can’t, how can you expect them to?

          I get that it’s easier to grade fewer group projects than a whole bunch of individual ones, but you’re prioritizing your time management over your students’ ability to learn and produce work in a meaningful way.

          Reply
          1. Honeybee

            To be frank, the vast majority of professors do this. And it’s not just about the professor’s needs – sometimes that’s the best way to get through all of the course material necessary.

            Reply
    3. Artemesia

      With research it can be structured so that different team members are responsible for different phases of the research and there are checks along the way. I have done program evaluation projects with teams of students working to evaluate programs for actual organizations and while everyone learns about each phase of the process, two team members were charged with each phase and running it by the team and taking their inputs; it worked pretty well.

      Reply
      1. Laura (Needs a New Name)

        So, what happened when one group failed their check? I’ve got built-in checkpoints (project proposal, IRB submission, suggested deadline for finishing data collection, required draft of final project, graded formal peer review), but the real consequence for not getting one element done by the deadline is that they are then totally f’ed for the next parts. Like, if you don’t get your IRB submission in when I tell you to, you probably won’t have your study approved in time to finish collecting your data. I don’t control the IRB! Similarly, our poster service requires 5 business days to print a large-format poster. If your poster isn’t in by that deadline and then isn’t ready for the poster session … welp, I warned you!

        Reply
        1. Artemesia

          When we worked with real clients I kept my finger closely on the pulse — the preliminary work was presented in seminar and critiqued and honed while the next team was planning whatever their part was. I learned survey research at the U of Michigan that way with a professor who contracted with an agency for a research project and then the class developed the elements of it in teams. Worked very well. Worked very well for me when I did similar projects.

          For group projects that were essentially simulations, I didn’t worry quite so much about the product as we went along, but also built in checks so that one part of the team wasn’t left high and dry by another.

          I will also say that an undergraduate program I developed in which there was a lot of community based projects as well as a lot of team projects had the best placement rate for liberal arts students in the university. Students with these experiences were better prepared for the workplace and tended to be easy to place and moved upward quickly. Developing teamwork skills as well as writing and presentation skills were explicit in the curriculum.

          Reply
        2. KellyK

          Is there enough leeway in the schedule that you can have both a grade deadline and a “real” deadline. That is, they hand in their IRB submission to you *before* it’s due to the IRB. If they haven’t done it, the students responsible for that portion have a lower grade, but there’s still time to scramble and complete the task before the real-world deadline.

          Reply
    4. OriginalYup

      One of my favorite grad school instructors had a great grading process for group projects. The group work product itself received a grade. Then, she had each member of the group anonymously rate the rest of their group team members. Based on individual responses, a student could receive either (a) the full score of the group result as their own grade, or (b) a lesser grade if it was clear that they didn’t really contribute to the final product. So no one could get a higher grade than what the final result merited, but the slackers couldn’t float by on everyone else’s hard work. It was definitely extra work on the instructor’s part to do this, but it took a ton of angst out of the whole experience and made the non-slackers feel like their efforts were actually worth something.

      Reply
      1. Laura (Needs a New Name)

        I like that approach! I’m definitely building in a more formal peer evaluation component this year and I like this way of framing it.

        Reply
      2. Stephanie

        Yeah, seconding this. Do some sort of system that accounts for both the overall group grade and an individual grade based on peer evaluations. So say, the student’s final grade is 60% overall grade, 40% individual grade. You can also have each student say what he contributed to the project. So if the marketing plan was terrible and Percival said he did the marketing plan, you know to give him a lower grade. No system is perfect, but this might help things.

        Reply
        1. Joie De Vivre

          One of my professors required each person in the class to turn in a weekly status report on their work for the group project.

          When someone slacked, even if they embellished their weekly report, it wasn’t too hard to figure out.

          Reply
          1. Not So NewReader

            Oh, I like this a lot. I had an economics class with a weekly paper. At first half the class groaned. It was the COOLEST thing. We got so much feed back from the prof, we all learned so much REAL life stuff.

            Laura (NaNN), having them submit week updates can be a real tool for expanding on points that would go right by otherwise. Set a limit on how long the update can be. One side of a page, double spaced? Not sure, you got to think about how much you can read in one week. Ask them to talk about what they think they did well with and what they think they could do better with. Tell them if they ask a general question, you will try to answer them. I couldn’t wait to get my econ paper back each week. It was covered with intelligent comments and insights. I was HAPPY to write these weekly papers.

            Reply
          2. JAM

            We did something similar to this too. Week 1 was a status report, Week 2 was a team sit down check in, Week 3 was a status report, Week 4 was a deadline. He got feedback from both intorverts and extroverts alike, was able to hear who was doing what, and had regular deadlines to check in on our final project so one person wasn’t rushing at the end. He could also tell us Team X is already tabulating their survey results, why aren’t you finished with collections? and could offer advice based on that.

            He graded really fairly and it made it so all of us were aware of project management, not just our own assigned tasks. We had definite slackers on the team based on previous classes but by the end they were there assembling the final project and practicing the presentations with us each night. In turn, I gave my teammates a more positive final report because I saw them step up and I was also able to take a step back and not be so controlling like I was probably (okay, definitely) on Day 1.

            Reply
    5. Xay

      I think the best way to do it is the approach that one of my professors used in the only group work oriented class that didn’t drive me insane. The first two weeks of the class were focused on coming up with a group charter, rules, and plan for the group – not the project. It made life so much easier that semester.

      Reply
      1. Xay

        Oh, and the group charter was required to include accountability for the group, including how to escalate problems with uncooperative group members with the understanding that the professor was willing to intervene.

        Reply
          1. Xay

            My group set a meeting attendance requirement – attend all weekly group meetings/Google Hangouts with a minimum 6 hour notice if you can’t make it. Everyone in my group had full time jobs and families, so we built in flexibility for unexpected conflicts.

            We had one group member that vanished two weeks into the project – didn’t show up for meetings, didn’t post in the class forum and didn’t respond to emails. So after two weeks of documented absences, we contacted the professor with our concerns and to see if the person dropped the class without letting us know. The person reappeared in our group that week and said they were having personal problems and that was why they didn’t participate. We didn’t have attendance problems after that although the quality of their contribution wasn’t the best. I don’t know what their grade was – I certainly didn’t give them great feedback because the person seemed to do the absolute bare minimum but I gave credit for what they did contribute.

            Reply
  13. Leatherwings

    One of my family members is a very good (not that I’m biased) professor at State University. They don’t ever assign group work anymore because they can’t handle the complaints that go with it. Students hate it, they hate it, and only the top half of the class (at best) does any work.

    The official stance of their whole department is now: Group work = useless. Hallelujah

    Reply
    1. BananaPants

      My professor for my summer class has this stance. He got tired of the complaints, so everything is 100% individual effort. There’s no one to blame for a crappy grade but yourself!

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      Ha! I took one night time course. The class was OUT of control completely. I told the prof that I had a 25 mile drive each way for this class, not bad except mostly rural roads. One stretch of road had the guardrail taken out each week. I asked if I could do an independent study. He said YES, by all means. He added that I was wasting my time being physically present in the class.
      I did the final project by myself. There were five teams in his class. He said my final project was better than anything the teams came up with. I did the SAME project that the teams did.

      Reply
  14. Artemesia

    I have taught working professionals in advanced degree programs and for the most part people pull their oar on team projects. One thing I always make clear to teams is that they are empowered to throw out members who do not do their share. It has only happened once, but I think knowing that is an option makes teams feel better about insisting on follow through.

    We also do a lot of team based activities with the class. When you have 30 or so people for 8 hours at a stretch in a weekend grad program, lecturing and even facilitated discussion is out of the question for long long stretches, so having teams working together in class also helps them develop relationships and the ability to cooperate. (and I always let them choose their teams the morning after the first Friday evening class) Doing activities with the content in teams and then discussing with the whole class gives everyone more airtime with the content that a typical facilitated discussion (i.e. guess what I am thinking question and answer session)

    It is unfair to assign teams, and then not provide support for young team members in developing teamwork skills or with mature students to not empower them to sanction team members who don’t do the work.

    Reply
    1. Cassandra

      Yes, this, thank you. Very little prevents a group project from looking more like a real-world one… and I think Alison’s response wrongly assumes that all group work is inside a given workplace. (It’s not! Professional organizations, grants, committees, task forces all cross organizational barriers. It’s not always possible to run to somebody’s boss to fix an issue.)

      I have three tricks I always build into group projects in my (professional-school) syllabi, because they model real-world projects better and because they just plain work:

      * A lightweight project-management infrastructure. Minimally, a project charter (though I am quite enamored of Team Compacts especially for those new to workplace norms), project schedule, and project manager. Depending on the type and scope of the project, I may add in an intermediate milestone like a mid-semester progress report or a peer evaluation.

      * Project managers are explicitly empowered in the syllabus to bring issues to me for help and resolution. I don’t leap to whip-cracking; 9 times out of 10 coaching the PM is enough. (The tenth time, someone has completely dropped off the radar and I follow up to figure out what’s going on.) This has reduced complaint email from students essentially to zero. Pure magic!

      * End-of-semester 360 evaluations, where each student tells me privately how each other student in their group performed. Triangulation means no one person can torpedo anybody else, and I hear about slackers, jerks, and project hogs and adjust grades appropriately. Group projects CAN have a boss — me!

      Reply
      1. Libervermis

        These are great things to keep in mind – generally I’m not a fan of group work because of all the reasons this thread has enumerated, but for some of the classes I’ve taught it becomes a question of scale. Grading 100 individual projects is…daunting. And my feedback will be less through because of the sheer number. Grading 20 or 25? This I can do, and do well. I’ll continue to stay away from group projects when possible, but if I have to because of curricular requirements or issues of scale, I’ll keep these tips in mind.

        Reply
      2. K.C.

        Thank you for this! Having worked in the corporate world prior to becoming a professor, I can definitely say that some groups I participated in were just as horrible (or worse than!) group projects I experienced in college. The realism and success of any group is related to accountability and how well the boss (in the class context, me) helps team to process and structure. Project management and 360 evals are spot on suggestions. I also suggest finding ways to hold individuals personally accountable for their contributions also will help the social loafing effect.

        One thing I have used to great effect in my classroom is individual and team-based quizzes to test reading comprehension. Students get a short quiz at the beginning of some classes, where they take the test individually, and then again as a group. This has been a total game changer for me as an instructor. Students are more likely to carefully read what they are supposed to prior to class. It also helps students to better manage how they interact with their group. If they are too pushy (and wrong!) or not pushy enough (and right!) this will be reflected on their individual and team quizzes. Students really do a great job of teaching each other by trying to persuade others to choose the correct answer, and it helps them to either deepen their knowledge on the topic, or identify questions they have that we can then address in class.

        Group work can be really effective and beneficial for classes and workplaces, but a lot of work needs to go into managing things correctly. I personally believe that teaching students to be good group members and to speak honestly about their concerns and conflict prepares them well for the workplace. But it IS a ton of work.

        Reply
    2. BananaPants

      My previous graduate programs – one in management, one in engineering – were 100% working professionals and it was still very hit-or-miss on whether teammates participated in group work or coasted along on others doing more than their fair share. We were maybe more likely to complain to the professor after repeated attempts to engage teammates, but some of the profs just didn’t CARE. One actually said, “At work your boss doesn’t care if your coworker isn’t pulling their weight, he cares only about results” – which was patently false, not to mention frustrating.

      Reply
  15. Amy G. Golly

    Ugh. I still remember my grad school orientation (Library and Information Science). When I said our group’s approach to a project would differ in a work environment vs. an academic one, she cheerfully and insistently explained that there was no difference whatsoever between group projects in school and group projects at work. I still think that woman needs to spend some time outside of academia.

    As the LW said, in the work world you can’t tell a client after the fact, “Sorry that presentation sucked, it was totally Tom’s fault.” And that’s a huge difference!

    Reply
    1. Snarkus Aurelius

      You know what I would have said?

      “So in the work world, if I blow off group work, fail to show up to relevant meetings, and contribute the bare minimum which was created two minutes before the deadline, I’ll get the same treatment as the rest of my group peers? Awesome!”

      Reply
  16. Important Moi

    I appreciate your asking for resources for how to do effective, professional group work among peers. I am struggling with not lecturing you or coming across mean spirited.

    While the end product is important, interactions with people matter. I am concerned you come across condescending to your peers. In a class, when the course is over, you generally move on other classmates and/or other classes. You don’t say what your work situation is but you might have to work with the same people again (and again).
    No one wants to work with a jerk.

    Generally speaking, adults like to be treated with respect, not condescended to by a (recovering) perfectionist and was the type of kid who dominated group projects and only allowed my groupmates to do token pieces. You say you’ve worked to reduce this tendency. I am genuinely curious, what did you do?

    You also mention not understanding how to be diplomatic about rejecting weak ideas or saying, “your section isn’t up to par with the rest” or juggling people’s schedules to find effective time to work together? The question seemed far until you mentioned “take over the project so I don’t have deal with other people or we just divide up the project equally and everyone retreats to do their own piece with no real synthesis or quality control so we can avoid conflict.” Wow.

    I think you should read books on how to communicate diplomatically. There are many thoughtful commenters here. Maybe they can help you.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      Good points. I vividly remember a student who came into a grad level class where team work would be involved already having chosen a team name and logo (she had not yet formed a team, met team members etc) and when the final report was read, came to her team with an 80 page document she had done herself. It was terrible and tanked the team’s efforts. The course was designed so that students designed evaluation instruments, then received data (I generated appropriate faux data specific to their particular design and instruments) and then met in class to decide how to present the data to a specific audience and then gave the presentation using selections from that data. She had created her document without knowing the audience to which the report was addressed . It was way too much stuff and lousy stuff at that which meant her team didn’t have the learning experience and the product was largely irrelevant to the task. Her ‘perfectionism’ and willingness to share the process destroyed her team’s experience. I thought the way the class was set up this sort of thing would not be possible; it did alert me to be more aggressive when a student like this was in the class to protect the team’s process.

      Reply
    2. Leatherwings

      I don’t think I’m reading this the way you are. It’s SO common in group projects at school for some students to slack off, or be weak writers, or not submit things in a timely manner. I don’t think OP is saying those exact words to her peers, but is rather being up front about what happens in group projects in the letter in order to illustrate what the situation is like.

      I think most people have been in those situations, and OP is asking how to deal with crappy situations like this diplomatically. Many students don’t, and I certainly didn’t. I remember angrily calling someone at 12pm one night because they didn’t submit their portion of a paper that was due at 8am the next morning. That’s common, and it’s admirable that OP is asking for help in dealing with a situation that a majority of other students don’t deal with very well. No need to lecture.

      Reply
      1. mazzy

        You brought up some bad memories from college when you mention the call! I was the recipient of such calls when I was out for a week due to food poisoning.

        I also had a near argument with one co-grouper who insisted on writing and editing the papers. She wasn’t a native speaker but spoke well. Unfortunately, her writing was very bad. The grammar wasn’t horrible, but she made dozens and dozens of mistakes in the arena of something making sense but not meaning what she thought it did, or looking up a word in a dictionary but not realizing it doesn’t get used that particular way, or using rarely used grammar when more common sentence structures were more readable,

        Reply
        1. mazzy

          Clicked submit too soon. I ended up rewriting everything and not only not getting credit for it, but getting dinged for not being a team player. I suppose I was supposed to praise her horrible writing.

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        2. Nordly

          Sorry about the food poisoning, that sounds awful! Did you communicate with your group that you were out sick? I’d be worried too if nothing was done 8 hours (overnight) before a deadline, especially if there was radio silence on the other end. My most memorable experience was a team member, who didn’t do much of the work but volunteered to finalize the presentation and submit it. The draft was all done the day before and it was due at 1 pm, but by the time I got to work around 9 am, nothing was done. We emailed her, she didn’t respond at all. Cue last minute frantic emailing to see who was available to pull it together and submit it (I had work and meetings, other team members had a long commute and wouldn’t be on campus till noon). Eventually she responds around 11 and said she’s on it, and couldn’t see what the big deal was about. Like what the hell??

          Reply
          1. Pennalynn Lott

            Yep, we had a guy who went totally radio silent for the two weeks prior to our final, major group presentation. He showed up to class the day we were to present and just wanted to steal someone else’s section. When we told him we’d already kicked him off the team (for not responding to emails, texts, phone calls, and IM’s) he got mad as hornet, said “someone” in his family had died, and that he still deserved the group grade. . . though he did absolutely none of the work and told no one (not even the instructor) about this mysterious family death that caused him to miss two weeks of school and become completely uncommunicative. . . because it was a group project and he was a member of the group. Um, no you’re not. At least not anymore.

            The instructor (a PhD candidate), had all of us [only our group, though] write detailed feedback for each team member, and the rest of us – to a person – said the same thing, “Slacker never did anything and had no contact with us until he showed up for the presentation.” I have no idea what kind of grade he got, but I hope the instructor failed him. Hell, if it were me, I’d have hauled him up before whatever board oversees such things and accused him of academic dishonesty. I’m guessing she didn’t, because I saw him on campus the next semester.

            And the worst part (for me at least) wasn’t that he was some naive kid who needed mentoring. Heck no! He was in his early 50’s, had worked for decades, and had grand-kids!! He should know better than to pull a No-Call-No-Show.

            Reply
          2. Mazzy

            It wasn’t a time sensitive thing so I didn’t tell anyone I’d be out, then I got “we feel you aren’t pulling your weight this week” calls. It was a bit much.

            Reply
    3. J.B.

      Coordinating this kind of work is work too – emotional labor. It can be done well, with enough support. It has taken me 10 years to develop better coordination skills. That ten years included some ugly missteps. You’re coming across as OP-blamey, and I get that you’re trying to make a point. The OP could likely improve their EQ but without support it will be just as hard for her as it could be for other classmates to learn technical skills.

      Reply
      1. aebhel

        This. This response strikes me as kind of obnoxious; not everyone is naturally skilled at soothing ruffled feathers and gently leading other people by the nose to make sure that all the work gets done and nobody’s feelings get hurt. People who are naturally concerned with emotional connections are more likely to err on the side of letting the work suffer so they can continue to get along with their classmates; people who are less emotionally focused are more likely to err on the side of letting their relationships with classmates suffer so that they can get a successful project done. Each approach has downfalls.

        Yeah, ideally, everyone would make a good-faith effort to contribute, but IME that almost never actually happens.

        Reply
      2. neverjaunty

        It probably will be hard. They’re still crucial skills for the OP to learn, and I don’t think it’s “OP-blamey” to note that it’s going to screw up even a motivated A-team group if she treats them like unavoidably idiotic encumbrances.

        Reply
    4. Sketchee

      I worked for a company that structured it’s projects like school group work. No one was really accountable, so everyone felt accountable and would end up doing odd jobs. In a small company that might work. When you’re talking about 200 people, it gets very strange when a sales person is doing assembly and production.

      I’d have to find polite ways to say “My time is probably best spent handing the graphic design.” Rather than writing, marketing, editing, and then producing and shipping the thing.

      Reply
    5. themmases

      I agree with you that OP does need to focus on their interactions with their group members. However, I disagree that asking for help giving negative feedback necessarily means the person wasn’t being diplomatic before. Many people hate giving negative feedback, so they find ways to just never give it at all (like doing the work themselves) or overly soften it.

      IMO it is harder to disagree and give negative feedback in school group work than at your actual job. Not only are you all peers, no one can really claim to be an expert since you are all students in the same class. It’s awkward to feel like you’re putting yourself forward as an expert or smarter than someone else on top of having to comment negatively on their idea. Or to feel like you have a choice between tearing apart someone’s work, and turning in something you really don’t feel good about.

      I think the OP can make that part easier by separating the ideas from the people as much as possible. Make it about their role, or about something you are doing as a group. For example brainstorm your topic together so when you narrow things down, you’re not naming names and you will reject some of your own ideas too. Discuss making it an explicit part of everyone’s role to tell the other group members what they need. Frame requests in terms of what you need to do your job. It’s not about either of you as individuals.

      And remember that feedback is a gift… It’s a very rare person who can improve without it. Your tone and phrasing should reflect that this is someone you’re trying to help, and who you’d like to also help you.

      Reply
      1. Important Moi

        I agree negative feedback is difficult hence my suggestions about diplomatic communication. I think that pointing out your tone and phrasing should reflect that this is someone you’re trying to help, and who you’d like to also help you is sage advice.

        Reply
    6. dmcmillian72

      Yeah… See, I saw (read) exactly what you did, Important Moi. This person’s biggest problem seems to be that she (he?) is a control freak who doesn’t respect anyone else’s way of doing things. People don’t seem to matter to this person unless that person operates in the group exactly the way the OP operates in the group. That is indeed a problem. As if group projects aren’t already tense enough (having to depend on someone else’s work for your grade), imagine having to do so with an insufferable know-it-all who…out of the gate…feels that most people’s work won’t measure up, AND that he/she probably doesn’t want to be bothered with his/her group mates anyway? #FoodForThought

      Reply
      1. Important Moi

        Thanks, I’ve been reading the comments today. You and I see this situation the same. I actually tried not to use the words you did, but still think I was chastised by others.

        This site has been good for me though, I get to practice using diplomatic language!
        ;-)

        Reply
      2. aebhel

        That seems like a wild overreach from the actual letter. Plenty of people don’t like group work; plenty of people have had repeated experiences with having to choose between picking up the slack or submitting a substandard project that makes them wary of the whole thing. It’s a long jump from ‘I’m a RECOVERING perfectionist who doesn’t enjoy group work and I’d like some advice on handling it diplomatically’ to ‘MUAHAHAHA OTHER HUMANS MEAN NOTHING TO ME.’

        But yeah. Calling the OP a ‘control freak’ and an ‘insufferable know-it-all’, with no actual advice whatsoever? Super diplomatic, there.

        Reply
  17. JA

    OK, looks like I may be in the minority, but I have to say — my experience with group work in *grad school* far exceeded my expectations and my undergrad experiences. YMMV, but I went in expecting to do 100% of the work, and in some groups ended up worrying if I was pulling my weight. It depends on your cohort, your grad school, and your specific group members, but my grad experience was very high quality and I learned a lot from my group members — many of whom I am still in touch with several years out and would work with again in an instant.

    It’s not the same as real-world work for many of the reasons others have mentioned, but I did recognize some similarities once I started my job. In my case, my job is like having a number of group projects all the time. I have always been a type A, perfectionist, last-minute worker. Group work in grad school helped me understand setting deadlines ahead of the real due date, getting feedback from multiple people, writing in a voice that can easily be duplicated by others, and fitting in all sorts of additional time before the real due date for the unexpected stuff that comes up. Sure, it’s not exactly the same, and I still roll my eyes every time I hear profs get excited about group work. But I have a very different attitude about it coming out of grad school than I did coming out of my undergrad. I hope that if you’re in a high-quality program that can be picky about the people it admits, then you’ll have a good experience too.

    Reply
    1. Anomanom

      I was coming here to say just this. My group saved me in my MBA program. The program I was in tended to draw the type a high achiever type 10+ years into their career, which I’m sure influenced that, but it was a very different experience than my undergrad. We also had one team for the entire 2 year program. There were some growing pains at the beginning, but by the end we were a machine. Those of us less good at finance who still wanted to learn it would do the lower point homework and first draft of higher point stuff then let the other finalize and proof, and those of us who were better writers always took the final edit and let others draft the papers.

      Also, as a bit of a perfectionist, learning the lesson that sometimes you need to let go and let the team handle it was REALLY important for me. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and sometimes someone else CAN do it better than you would have. Super useful life lessons.

      Reply
      1. Anomanom

        What saved me was, we were a team and all had full time jobs. I knew that when my work life got crazy for a few months, I would speak up, be expected to do the bare minimum while they handled it, then when it calmed down for me, I would pick up the slack when the next team member had something go sideways. Group work can be great.

        Reply
      2. Traveller

        I did a similar program, and had a similar experience.
        A few life-long friendships formed in that group.

        Reply
        1. Honeybee

          This, too. I still have a close friend who I met working with on a group project in one of my second-year graduate classes back in 2009.

          Reply
    2. Honeybee

      I was wondering if I was the only one. I did a lot of very satisfying group work both in the latter half of undergrad and in graduate school. (I can only remember one bad group project in graduate school, and it was in a mixed undergrad-grad class and the problem was the one undergrad in our group.) Moreover, I taught multiple classes with group components and most groups had pretty positive experiences (and I made it clear my students could come to me with complaints and that individual slackers would get penalized).

      Like you said, it’s not 100% the same, but there were some similarities and I definitely learned stuff.

      Reply
    3. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)

      I was in a grad school group where two of my teammates *plagiarized whole paragraphs from Google results* on our group paper. Fortunately, I was editing the document, noticed that the writing sounded suspiciously better than the rest of the paper, and started searching phrases online. I barely restrained myself from calling them with yelling tirades about how monumentally stupid they were, and rewrote the offending portions of the paper myself. When I told them why, they seemed genuinely puzzled. This was GRAD SCHOOL.

      If someone pulled that crap on me today, I’d probably contact the professor about it immediately to make sure my ass was covered. They – and I – could have been kicked out of the program if I hadn’t been sharp-eyed and lucky enough to catch the plagiarism.

      Reply
  18. Pwyll

    When I did my undergrad we were cohorted, meaning I was with the same people in every single class the entire program, sub-divided into small groups of 5 that were graded as a single unit (AKA, all 5 members of Group A would receive the same grade as each other). That was pretty much the closest we ever got to having “group work” be similar to work-work. Each of us had slightly different backgrounds, and fulltime jobs, so we were able to pivot off of each other’s strengths and schedules. It was pretty awesome (if you ended up with a good team).

    But generally? NOPE. Group work isn’t any closer to “professional work” than term papers are (which is to say, neither are).

    Reply
  19. Sarah

    We assign lots of group work because we don’t want to grade a million projects.

    Er…I meant because it’s just like the work world. Yeah. That’s it.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      We kinda knew that already.
      Actually it is understandable.

      Why not have a shorter group project? Or have several small team projects, where people work in 2s or 3s and then switch for the next project. That way they are not chained to each other for an entire semester.

      Definitely let people get out if they are getting a raw deal with their team, or if one member is making the all the other members cry/scream.

      Reply
    2. neverjaunty

      Ironically, you’re giving your students a really good preview of the work world. Just not likely in the way you intended.

      Reply
      1. Honeybee

        Most professors actually aren’t intending to give their students a preview of the work world, no matter what they intended. College isn’t vocational school, after all. It’s not really supposed to give a 1:1 experience for what working in the professional world is like.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          That is a whole ‘nother discussion. If college is only to broaden people’s minds then only the rich can go. The rest of us have to have a return on our investment, or we cannot pay our tuition loans nor support ourselves.
          While I understand that ideally one would want to broaden one’s own horizons, the reality is that most people cannot go to college for the sake of going to college.

          Reply
  20. Teacher Nerd

    I’m a teacher (high school AND college), and I don’t like requiring group work, but I’ll note a few things to keep in mind:

    I don’t know of any teacher who assigns group work who believes it’s “just like the real work world.” Depending on the type of “real work world” one partakes in, though, there may be some similarities. I realize, though, that I work in a different field where I DO have to regularly work with other people in ways that do not apply to those in business settings, so MY “real work world” may be different than those of others.

    Not everyone will have the same skill set when they do group work, although again, this will depend on, you know…the actual group in which one is working. At the college at which I teach, classes are quite diverse in terms of age range, so it’s common for age ranges to run the gamut from fresh out of high school to middle aged. I can guarantee you that there are different skill sets involved just by dint of experience. Do not underestimate, too, the ability to learn how to work with other people, something the OP seems to have trouble doing.

    Group work done well in academia will have someone who’s in charge – or, perhaps more clearly put, will be structured in such a way that each person within the group will have a specific task, emphasizing different skill sets, interests, and individual strengths – just like in “the real world.” (Does that mean that since I’m a teacher, my work isn’t “real work” because it’s not in a business setting? Of course not. Please don’t minimize what goes on in school as “not real work.”)

    As others have noted, there are interactional and social skills that the OP could work on – as we all have things to improve. These are aspects of group work done in school that, if learned and learned well, could actually be helpful once DONE with school. (Yes, again, I know that group work in school is not always done well. Group work in paying jobs isn’t always done well, either.)

    Reply
    1. Sadsack

      In my experience, being in charge of a group project at school is utter hell. Hunting down classmates only to have to do their work for them or redo the sloppy jobs they did is the worst. Although, someone else here mentioned that it sometimes can work well in grad programs, and my experience is only in undergrad. I can imagine that people in a grad program are more invested in the class and in being a good teammate. At least, that’s my hope.

      Reply
      1. So Very Anonymous

        Group work did not work well in my professional grad program. Was not used in the same way in my academic PhD program — group work there was more like, you were in a group assigned to lead discussion for an hour in a seminar for a given week, so you’d meet with your group, work out a discussion plan based on the reading, and then lead the class as a group. Never had a group project where we wrote or made something together. That may have changed now that group work is trendier.

        Reply
    2. Snarkus Aurelius

      Does that mean that since I’m a teacher, my work isn’t “real work” because it’s not in a business setting? Of course not. Please don’t minimize what goes on in school as “not real work.”

      I don’t think anyone is saying that. It’s more like the stakes and accountability systems are much, much different in the two environments. You can’t compare the two scenarios that much.

      Reply
      1. Chinook

        “Does that mean that since I’m a teacher, my work isn’t “real work” because it’s not in a business setting? Of course not. Please don’t minimize what goes on in school as “not real work.””

        Having done both, I am the first to admit that they are both hard work but they are also very, very different. The biggest difference I found was that, when I taught, I was the expert in the room and I didn’t have to negotiate around adult personalities and objectives on a day-to-day basis. I was also given a lot more freedom to do what needed to be done as long as I met my end goals as set up in the curriculum. And budget rarely, if ever mattered unless I was running a field trip (which meant what I had for supplies was it but nobody came half way through the year and told me my copy budget is now 20% lower because the Canadian dollar dropped).

        Trust me, I know teaching is really hard work but it is also very different from working in the blue collar and white collar work worlds. Skills are sometimes transferrable between the two, but not as much as you would think.

        On the plus side, the worse that happens at work is someone may steal my food from the staff fridge. Not once have I had a colleague even attempt to put dish soap or white out in my coffee!

        Reply
        1. Honeybee

          I think the point is that the message is often sent that “group work in school is not like the real work world” when yes, it is, for certain definitions of “real work world” (that include teaching/academia).

          Reply
      2. LadyKelvin

        No one is saying that being a teacher isn’t real work, they are saying that being a student and having to do a group project in the classroom isn’t real work.

        Reply
          1. LadyKelvin

            Right, by real work I meant not the same as working in a group at a job. I was just using Snarkus Aurelius’s terminology of “real work”.

            Reply
          2. Not So NewReader

            Right. It’s the lack of relevance that everyone is commenting on. I agree that teachers work very hard. But the way a school group project plays out and the way a workplace functions are two verrry different universes.

            What I saw was every prof had this idea that they were going to teach us how to work with “personalities” by having us do team work. UH, shouldn’t the focus be on learning the material? I mean, schools can do a mandatory class on how to work with personalities and get that done all in one shot. At some point, the students have to learn the actual subject matter.

            We have lost that, we no longer focus on learning the subject. And the team work thing is just one example. It was more important to be well-liked by the team than it was to actually learn the material.
            At the other end of the story, many employers do not see a college degree as being relevant. Why? Because the student can’t DO anything. Sure they took classes but they still can’t DO things.
            You go to college to get a better job, then later you find out that employers do not value the degree. If it is not going to get me better employment why would I bother? I can sit at home and read books from the library for free and educate myself that way.

            Reply
            1. Honeybee

              Well, for one thing, professors don’t always have learning the subject matter as a singular objective. When I taught summer public health classes, learning public health was only ONE of my goals for the course. I also wanted my students to become better presenters, better writers, and better researchers. So my class was structured to teach both the material and emphasize the skills I wanted the students to acquire that were relevant to the course material but not strictly directed by it.

              Second, I would argue that many employers don’t see college degrees as being relevant because they are expecting liberal arts universities to be something they aren’t – vocational schools. Colleges were never purposed to train people for specific jobs or to make them fodder for employers. Not that college education shouldn’t be practical, but employers these days also seem reluctant to do any actual training for the people they hire and expect them to be turned out of college the perfect employees. (Alison’s written about this before).

              Reply
    3. Anonymous Educator

      Group work done well in academia will have someone who’s in charge – or, perhaps more clearly put, will be structured in such a way that each person within the group will have a specific task, emphasizing different skill sets, interests, and individual strengths – just like in “the real world.”

      Yes, so much this! I was not a big fan of assigning group work, but every now and then I did as a teacher, and I would always give discrete tasks to each member of the group instead of just being like “You all figure this out and deliver a product.” In that sense, if you’re doing it right, it should be similar to the work world. In most workplaces I’ve been in, any group work is divvied up by task. My bosses don’t say “You, Mary, and Martha are going to deliver this project. Go!” It’s always, “You take care of X, Mary will take care of Y, and Martha will take care of Z. Here are the respective deadlines.”

      Reply
      1. LadyKelvin

        Yes. Group work done like that would be the ideal way of mimicing a job. Unfortunately I have never done a school project where the group work was anything but “here’s the project, its due XXXX, here are your group members/pick people to work with.” You are a rarity in education.

        Reply
      2. Simonthegrey

        I give some specific and small group assignments, but that is because part of the required objectives I have to meet include fostering academic dialogue and community. So these are usually in-class projects taking up a course period here or there, not something where students meet outside of class.

        Reply
  21. Big10Professor

    Group work = less grading ;-)

    In all seriousness, though, I find group work makes a lot of sense for graduate students and rarely assign it for undergraduates.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous Educator

      Is it, though? I would always grade each individual member of the group’s contribution, and then I would grade the project as a whole, so it was always more grading for me! I guess not everyone does it my way…

      Reply
  22. Ad Astra

    I found that group work often made sense in capstone-type courses in what my university called “professional schools” — so, the schools of business, journalism, engineering, and architecture. Many of those capstone courses involved doing real work for real clients, and at that point in the program many students had started to develop distinct skill sets that allowed for some natural division of labor.

    And they were still a PITA, if I recall, but they did at least resemble something one might encounter in the working world. As for group projects in my gen ed/humanities classes? No, nothing like the working world. And a huge scheduling nightmare.

    Reply
  23. Sadsack

    Group school projects are such bullshit. Even where we had to take turns bring project manager, people didn’t do their share and had a million excuses. When I played PM, I had to stalk people and ultimately would end up doing their portions just to meet the deadline. Only one class I took required peer reviews at the end where we scored our teammates. Even then, that’s after the fact and after all my lost sleep and extra work for the group project to he complete.

    I truly believe that group projects are assigned in school so the professor has less reviewing and grading to do.

    Reply
      1. Sadsack

        Oh, but my undergrad classes were pretty evenly split between traditional students and adults with a wide range of work experience. I expected more from people who were already working for many years, but no, many of them sucked as group members.

        Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I am laughing. We had one person who refused to attend team meetings because he had wrestling to go to. We met once a week, I think he showed up three times. He never answered emails and never had inputs. He showed up at the last meeting and told us how we were going to write our conclusion, that I had already written. He got told to sit down and shut up.
      Our team got the second highest grade. That was only because two of our team members were no shows. The winning team had everyone working on the project and that gave them the edge.
      Those two no-shows? Our response was if the prof did not care, neither did we. We decided not to waste the precious little energy on people who did not care anyway. We put that energy into do the absolute best we could with what was left of our team.

      Reply
  24. Mark in Cali

    It’s worse when you’re an adult student.

    I’m going back for a second bachelor’s degree (changing into a tech field) and I’ve had to do group work. When you get paid at your real job to work on projects, lead groups, and manage programs it’s really hard to keep your patience with group work for school projects where the requirements are often more tedious than what my boss would expect. Also, if you end up working with a young go-getter, they often want to go above and beyond when I know that if we meet the requirements of the assignment we’ll get an A (priorities).

    I’ve learned that designating a project lead immediately is key as well as letting go of high expectations. Let the project lead do what they are supposed to do and if they let the project fall sub-par than so be it. A good class will be designed so that one mediocre group project won’t make you fail.

    Reply
    1. Pennalynn Lott

      I, too, have recently returned to school. In a Marketing group a couple of semesters ago, I had a Young Go-Getter who kept wanting to add things to our project, making it more and more complex, but there just weren’t enough time and resources for us to fully flesh-out her additions. She snuck a few of them in on the final presentation anyway, and we ended up getting called out (and knocked down in points) for the half-baked ideas. I had tried every version of “More Is Not Better” with her, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. :-(

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      Yes, it really taxed my patience too. And it saddened me that a whole generation is learning all these misconceptions about workplaces are like. I fully expect we will hear decades of cries for help in businesses and orgs until the schools change what they are doing.

      Reply
  25. Master Bean Counter

    I hate group work. I remember knocking my self out on my part of a group project in undergrad. A group of three people and I did at least 75% of the work. The teacher marked us all down on the really bad work of one group member. What I learned from that is to never trust anybody in a group project. Having learned this I was better prepared when grad school came around. Thankfully I only had two groups to work with. In the first group it was 50% of people who were driver to get things done, while we carried the group, nobody had to carry it alone. Also by the time the second project came around we made the slackers do the first piece, which wasn’t a big part of the grade, but was a lot of work. We took it from there and finished it up.
    The second group was me and a tool. The professor saw what was happening and supported me when I gave my partner enough rope to hang himself. It was beautiful and he’s still one of my favorite professors.

    Reply
    1. Leatherwings

      Yeah, I once went to a professor with another person I did a paper with (in a three person group) and explained that 1/3 of the paper was so terribly written and turned in so late that we didn’t think we should be graded on it.

      The professor just kind of nodded and looked bored at first, but then later after reading the first half of the paper, stopped grading it to clarify which of us did which pieces. It was bad enough that she noticed the difference and was like “oh, they weren’t kidding about that one kid.” She ended up not grading us on that part of it nor grade him on our parts. Best professor.

      Reply
  26. cataloger

    I have to share my awful high school group work story: in one math class, we had assigned groups that we worked with all year long. We even did our EXAMS in those groups, so all students in a group received the same grade, even students who were absent on exam day! Also, after each exam, the scores would be re-calculated and the group with the highest score would sit closest to the front, next highest behind them, and so on. Worst class ever.

    Working together at work is SO different.

    Reply
  27. Menacia

    I struggle with the group collaborations on a problem as well. Since it’s an online course, there is really no way to set up a meeting with the person and so we do our own work in our workspace, discuss it, and then agree to post the results. Well, this one person I was working with decided they were too impatient and posted the *wrong* answer to the question. The work each week was due on a Sunday night at 11:59 pm, and they decided they wanted to get it in on Tuesday! It’s not as if you get extra points for being early. I wrote this student back and read them the riot act, then proceeded to post the correct answer. I absolutely hate the idea of my hard work being muddied by someone who just wants to be first or wants the credit, unfortunately, that *is* the way the real world works at times. :(

    Reply
    1. Beth

      Online group work, in my experience, was 500X worse than real group work. I was in an online program where most people were in-state, but some were in other parts of the country, so we weren’t all in the same time zone. In one class, we were forced to meet in some sort of awful Microsoft chat program, and I still remember the time when we all were scheduled to meet at 7:30pm in a chat (and that’s another big difference.. even if people are busy at a real job, you know they will at least probably be in the same building as you for 8 hours every day..). I showed up and by 7:45, no one was there, so I left. For whatever reason, everyone showed up a couple minutes later, and then complained about how I wasn’t there, as if I couldn’t read the chat logs!

      In another online group session, my “legal” name was displayed, but I introduced myself by my middle name (what everyone calls me). They thought that this “Susan” person was a real slacker for not contributing and almost left my name off the project — after that, I realized I needed to explain upfront the name issue! That’s another thing I wouldn’t have to deal with in a work environment.

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      OMG. Online is way worse. And in another country. I am almost crying, it’s a thousand stories. I use the term “sic” at the end of a quote to indicate that I was quoting exactly although there were errors in the quote.

      It was DAYS and DOZENS of emails because no one knew what “sic” meant and did not look it up. We MISSED our deadline over this, the report was resubmitted without my consent and… you know it contained errors because they “fixed” my one “error”.

      Reply
  28. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    I don’t disagree with the overall thrust of Alison’s response, or most of the comments here. But because the OP mentioned a graduate business degree, I’ll chime in with my husband’s experience. He attended a top-20 business school that had an extensive “real world” component; the school essentially ran several businesses (a strategy consulting business, a marketing consulting business, an investment fund, etc.) and students did the work. They had real clients, who paid real money, for their work. My husband spent at least 20 hours/week on these projects (more, when he was the team lead) and the projects lasted around 6 months.

    So – in that case, it was very nearly the same as “real work.”

    Reply
    1. Person of Interest

      Yes to this – I’ve had a few friends do Exec. MBA programs that included actual consulting projects for actual clients. I think the difference is that the professors do act more like a workplace leader – providing at least some overall direction, without expecting the group to figure everything out on their own with no guidance.

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      Yep, that is real work. Unfortunately it seems to be a rare sighting. Your husband is very fortunate.

      Reply
  29. Person of Interest

    Oh god yes to this entire response. The worst part of school group work (and most unlike real-world) is the lack of accountability/leadership. And I will just add from my experience that these group projects are made ten times worse when you are in an online program and only interact with your classmates over email and the occasional G-chat? It’s so much easier for the slackers to blow off the group when they live in another state/time zone, and there’s truly no way for the teacher to see that unless someone blows the whistle.

    I also hate when the profs claim that this is valuable learning for the real world, when 90% of the class is already a seasoned, working professional (it was an executive program).

    Reply
  30. Aurion

    Oof. Like many others, I hated school projects.

    For school projects, if my team member farts around and refuses to do their work, I don’t have any recourse whatsoever. At work I can take it up with my boss, their boss, and something would be done, whereas professors/teachers usually don’t care much making sure each team member pull their weight. My guess is because work pays the employees so they want to make sure they get their money’s worth, whereas school doesn’t have that kind of incentive.

    But even if profs/teachers/management all don’t care about each team member carrying their weight (and stories of such abound)–hey, I’m being paid to be at work. At least I get compensated for the trouble. In school, I’m paying for my class. It adds insult to injury that I have to work extra hard to shore up their deficiencies and have to pay to do so.

    Side tangent: this is why I have such a problem with the leader vs manager debate. Supposedly leaders are peers who lead by example, they’re in the trenches with the everyman and not delagating from On High…that sounds great and works to an extent, but only works if everyone wants to follow along. Authority and the ability to hand out consequences is huge. So long as managers wield their authority fairly, “manager” is not a dirty word.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      “So long as managers wield their authority fairly, ‘manager’ is not a dirty word.”

      Love this. Right on. Most descriptive work words are not dirty words, it’s just how you play the game that separates you from the jerks. “Politician” is not a dirty word, people have hung negative connotations on it, but it is not a negative word.

      Reply
    2. Here, kitty, kitty...

      Oh my goodness! My tired brain read this as “…if my team member farts, I don’t have any recourse.” I was thinking, what, are they in a locked room or something? Then my brain came back online.

      Reply
    3. Here, kitty, kitty...

      And yes, this is probably the biggest thing about group work that gets me, too. I mentioned it in a comment up-thread. Being paid to take up slack is one thing, but in school, you are paying for the privilege of doing all the work – and paying to shore up someone else’s grade. To me, that is unacceptable, and the main reason why group work should die a slow and painful death in almost all instances at the undergrad level. College is truly the time when it is all about the individual student learning as much as she can, without worrying about what her peers are or are not learning. That will come later, with professional work.

      I really don’t understand why so many professors continue to foist group work on people, even when they’re confronted with damned good reasons why it’s horseshit. It makes for easier grading, but it also teaches the slackers that they can slack with impunity (which is a bad lesson to learn in preparation for the working world, in which there exist much harsher penalties for slacking), and teaches the hard workers that they won’t receive a reward commensurate with the amount of work they put into the project. This is oh so motivating, let me tell you. Thanks, professors who continue to assign group work even though you know damned well it backfires.

      Reply
  31. Misteroid

    Group work in school (both high school and college) is AWFUL. I have so many memorable stories, but most memorable of all was my capstone project. This was a project that was required for graduation from college, so there was a buttload of pressure to do well.

    First of all, I should note that I worked weekends. Everyone wanted to meet up on weekends, and I didn’t want to be difficult, but I also wanted my paycheck. So there’s that.

    And then I kept noticing a pattern: every time I did anything or added anything to the project, my groupmates would tell me that they had had a conversation about it when I wasn’t there, and had decided that the thing I did was no longer needed. I spent HOURS on this crap, and they were just like, “oh, yeah, we decided that three days ago and didn’t tell you.”

    I was routinely told I was terrible at communicating (even though I tried to explain that I just wanted a heads-up about changes that were made when I wasn’t there!) and finally, things came to a head when one other girl in the group yelled at me and called me a terrible person. I’ll admit, I didn’t conduct myself perfectly, and we ended up yelling at each other in the school library. (Pro tip: if you are watching two strangers yell at each other in the school library around finals week, do not interfere unless you are the librarian/other faculty or staff. You will only make everything worse.)

    And to top everything off, on the day we presented our capstone, one of the other members no-called, no-showed.

    (This is a long story to say: group work in the real world is much less frustrating. Good luck!)

    Reply
  32. Allison

    I hated group work in school, I always became the runt of the litter, so to speak. We’d be thrown together, usually a leader would emerge and some people would aggressively stake out the work they wanted to do, and there wouldn’t be that much left over for, say, little ol’ me who was really shy and passive at the time. So I’d do my little share of the work, and then they’d all resent me for doing so little while they all worked their asses off, and it was like, if you wanted me to do more why didn’t you just ask me to do more??

    Whereas in the business world, there’d be some sort of team lead or project manager deciding who was doing what, and they’d be the person to talk to if someone felt overwhelmed or concerned that someone isn’t pulling their weight.

    Reply
  33. Juli G

    Oh God, yes. I’m finishing up my BS after a long break for work & life stuff. I’ve been in the business world for 15 years, and group projects in classes are quite literally the bane of my existence. My school has a lot of older students working/raising families/etc. and finishing up degrees, and finding time to “meet” is a colossal pain. I always offer to be the pull-together/edit person, because I actually do that in real life, and it’s an easy way for me to contribute and make sure all the pieces come together.

    I think the goal of the projects is so that schools and teachers can say they focus on teaching students teamwork and collaboration, which look good on the website/literature. But most of the time the “teach” this by offloading the teaching to other students, who may or may not be able to handle teaching those skills. My spouse always asks about my classes on the first day, when I’ve read the syllabus and have a feel for things, and when I say the dreaded words “Group Project” he sighs dramatically, and prepares for 3 months of venting, stress-management, and unpredictable schedules as group mates invariably disregard stated availability.

    Reply
  34. Jeanne

    Try not to laugh out loud at the next teacher who says that. Someone who has never worked outside of academia is talking way outside her sphere of knowledge. If it was like work, the slacker could get “fired” and have to leave school. Your teacher, the “boss” would assign specific sections of work to you only not to all of you. And on and on. Try to find other students who are hard workers to do the project with you and get through the class.

    Reply
  35. vanBOOM

    I happen to know a lot about this topic by virtue of the various jobs I’ve had. I suppose my response could be structured into two parts: Why are colleges doing this, and what’s with the claim about this resembling “real world” work?

    First, pressure from employers and state legislature is the primary reason colleges have increasingly focused on teamwork and teamwork assignments over the years. Employers complain that they do not want (and/or have the time or financial means) to train new employees and that colleges should deliver ready-to-work employees to their door steps. Colleges have countered by saying that their only obligation is to prepare students for discipline-specific work and that dedicating more (scarce) time and (scarce) resources to the development of those sought-after workplace skills creates a huge burden. The government, feeling oppressed between the demands of employers and the pressures colleges increasingly face, responded by establishing numerous accountability processes that universities must comply with to demonstrate that students are being prepared for the world of work following graduation. The development of teamwork skills is an extremely common, if not universal, component of those accountability processes across all states in the U.S.

    Second, I have observed this debate from the perspective of a professor (who has designed and implemented teamwork activities in college classes) and on the bureaucratic side (where I’ve managed and evaluated efforts expended to comply with accountability processes). Are teamwork exercises in college classrooms equivalent to “real world” experience working in teams? No. They can’t be. Part of that reason is because the settings are, of course, completely different…..but a larger part–and I’m sad to say this–is that the overwhelming majority of college professors simply are not motivated enough and/or prepared enough to make teamwork a meaningful experience for college students. They’re not motivated enough because they usually aren’t directly rewarded for doing this time-consuming work that gets in the way of excelling in other activities more likely to help them get tenure. They’re also not prepared enough because graduate schools don’t “teach teaching” (and if they do, the focus is on those discipline-specific skills) and the universities that eventually hire those unprepared new faculty provide a truly pathetic amount of resources to help them understand and comply with these demands. As a result, the designs, assignment details, faculty management strategies, and samples from teamwork work completed by an overwhelming majority of faculty that I have worked with has been TERRIBLE. It does not surprise me to learn that students have so frequently been disappointed with these activities when they have been so poorly designed and managed, only to then be justified with lazily muttered “but, real world work!” justifications.

    Now, a few final details/tidbits here before people misunderstand my tone or my point. When I say that faculty aren’t motivated enough or prepared enough, what I am really saying is that faculty aren’t *incentivized* enough nor are they *supported* enough. I am not calling them intrinsically lazy and incompetent; I am saying that to a certain extent (though not full), I cannot blame them. I was never a dick to anyone because I had to do this, and I was genuinely interested in learning as much as I could and in making the teamwork experience as meaningful as I could for students. However, not everyone has the energy and enthusiasm that a fresh-out-of-grad-school prof has, and the “real world” experiences that majority of faculty have tend to be decades old (though most will have professional experiences exclusively limited to academia). Furthermore, I never saw these experiences as being the same as “real world” work; I saw them (and described them to my students) as being more similar to training scenario simulations (akin to open basket or leaderless discussion exercises; you’re not observing their work per se, you’re just getting a sense of their potential). I think it is a mistake to call them otherwise, and though I’ve never refused job reference/letter of recommendation requests from worthy students, I have always been careful to repeatedly emphasize the word POTENTIAL when describing specific details from any relevant teamwork the student completed (where applicable/requested).

    tl;dr: Colleges don’t like doing this, either, but the teamwork trend will continue as long as employers want to try to shift training responsibilities from themselves to the colleges.

    Reply
    1. vanBOOM

      Oh, and as a quick P.S.: Despite my best efforts to NOT describe these teamwork experiences as being “just like the real world”, some students inevitably (mis)remembered me saying just that. Most of the time I think it was because they were not paying attention and used their assumptions to fill in the gaps of what they remembered me saying, and other times I think it was because they found out their teamwork grade sucked and used that (false and never communicated) claim to invalidate the activities (and thus, in their mind, their bad grade). So, although many profs are wrong to take that approach, sometimes students keep the myth going as well.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        Put it in bold font at the top and bottom of your syllabus. ;)

        Thank you for this extraordinary reply, not only do I appreciate your time in typing but also the extreme amount of thought/thinking you show here.

        I have often thought about this that employers demand “add water and stir” employees. And you know, of course, what is pushing that demand, all of us, we the people. Technology doubles every 18 months? That will only speed up more. In my community employers are antsy because people cannot run a computerized cash register. They are afraid of the computer. Other jobs are not accessible to people because of their lack of computer skills. This ups the pressure cooker.

        Honestly, I think where schools need to be is teaching people how to teach themselves. This is the world we have, it’s constant learning to the day we die. I remember the night before an Excel spreadsheet was due for a class, one poor woman said to me, “how do I make Excel work?” It had taken me weeks to pull the assignment together, it made no sense to use Excel for it, but we were told to use Excel. I am ashamed to say, I told her that I could not help her, I could barely help ME. The only way I was able to fudge something together was because I insisted on taking an MS office course. My advisers said I would pick it up on the fly. The biggest problem was that assignment is that made no sense to do it in Excel. I took the Excel I had learned and taught myself how to cram that assignment onto a spreadsheet. I used all the wrong numbers and all the wrong data. I arrived at an answer that I decided was probably wrong, so I reduced it by 50% on a whim. I got a 92 on the assignment because my final answer was within range.

        Being able to sit down and teach yourself something is a very important life skill and work skill. It’s probably in the top three life skills to have. Just my opinion, though.

        Reply
        1. vanBOOM

          Ha! I should have, indeed, done that in my syllabus, if only to deter the two out of fifty students who actually read it. ;)

          I completely agree with your assertion that teaching people how to teach themselves is probably the most valuable and impactful skill that one can teach and learn. I think undergraduate programs struggle with this because of the importance of teacher evaluations and program-specific graduation rates coupled with the consumer model that has infected higher ed. Think your professor is being mean because they respond to your questions with more (guided) questions intended to point you in the right direction instead of just giving you the answer? You can tank their teaching evaluations (he/she was a meanie, after all!) and complain to their Dean to reduce Meanie McMeanFace’s chance of getting tenure (especially if it is a woman; doesn’t she know that she’s here to be your college mommy?).

          Graduate programs tend to be much better at teaching people how to teach themselves because the consumer-focused leash tends to not be as tight and because students are *expected* to have more autonomy. No one has time for hand-holding because everyone should be writing right now. If you don’t like the program/faculty–and not due to actionable reasons, like explicit, repeated racial discrimination–then you’re often told that you should just leave and go somewhere else (or do something else). It is important to not be so hands off with students that you don’t teach them *anything* about how to teach themselves, of course.

          Reply
          1. sstabeler

            that isn’t entirely the student’s fault, to be honest. Unfortunately, in High School, there’s something of a focus on what the right answer is, rather than why the answer is correct. (this is for a couple of reasons- for a LOT of teachers, the job is just that, a job, and they only care about doing enough to keep their paycheck. it’s quite rare to see a teacher interested in actually teaching a class properly.) hence, students enter college/uni with an expectation that they will be taught the “right answer” rather than having to think. (this may also explain the tendency for people to parrot the bullshit of whatever political party they support. They were trained by the school system to parrot back the “right answer” and here is a politician giving the “right answer” to a political issue without needing to use your brain.)

            To someone like that, it’s as if the professor is deliberately withholding the “right answer” to make sure you fail.

            as for the consumer model, that is far less surprising, and to an extent, it’s not a bad thing. The reason it’s evolved is because of an increasing recognition by students that they will need to pay back significant amounts of student debt post-graduation, and even bankruptcy is unlikely to help. ( more or less, you need to be physically incapable of working before student loan debt is forgiven in bankruptcy. Which would be fine if private lenders didn’t still charge interest as if it was an unsecured loan that may or may not be paid back.) and as such, they demand that degree courses provide value for money- that is, that if they take this course, they will end up with a qualification that will let them get a job earning a high enough salary to offset the student loan debt.(this is why, since degrees are increasingly mandatory for even low-level work, that I think it may be time to admit that college is becoming a de facto part of mandatory education and have free tuition for students. (or at least at state universities- if someone wants to go to an ivy league college, then that’s different) The free tuition is because the fees are harder and harder to justify compared to the salary you can expect post-graduation.(average student loan debt for the class of 2015 is $35k, average new graduate earnings are $32k. A rule of thumb is that you should not borrow more than your first year’s salary, so the average college graduate cannot afford the average student debt.

            Reply
            1. vanBOOM

              I appreciate all perspectives on this difficult topic, but there are a few things you’ve written here that are concerning to me, inaccurate, or a combination of both.

              “That isn’t entirely the student’s fault…students enter collect/uni with an expectation that they will be taught the ‘right answer’ rather than having to think….it’s as if the professor is deliberately withholding the ‘right answer’ to make sure you fail.”

              It is true that students should have access to resources, while in high school, that will enable them to get a realistic picture of college expectations to be prepared for that difficult first year of college. I know this all too well as a first-generation college student…and yet, given that we have the wonder of the internet today, I could have also had more initiative in finding people, forums, etc., who would allow me to ask simple questions like “What is college work like compared to high school?”, “How can I be successful in my classes?”, or “What is something you wish you had known about college work before starting your first year?”. Students also have responsibilities–to themselves and to the college–to not punish good professors whose methods may be painful in the short-term, but are quite effective in the long-term. I may hate my personal trainer’s guts while he or she is making me do burpees, pistol squats, push-ups, etc., for 30 minutes, but I feel amazing and more physically capable afterwards…which is why I hired that trainer in the first place. I’m certainly not going to fire my trainer for doing his or her job well just because it isn’t easy.

              I don’t doubt that the occasional professor displays pleasure at students’ shortcomings, but the overwhelming majority want students to perform well. Joyously failing students is not only wrong, but in the practical sense that effectively would also tank your teaching evals and graduation/persistence rates. You would be asking to get fired at that point. So, the default assumption that a professors in general are trying to sabotage students rather than develop students is irrational.

              “For a LOT of teachers, the job is just….a job; it is quite rare to see a teacher interested in actually teaching a class properly.”

              This view is unfortunate and problematic. High school teachers’ jobs are incredibly difficult, and close to half of teachers will leave the profession within five years of receiving their teaching credentials because of burnout, depression, financial strain, and feeling unsupported by their employer. You cannot possibly know that teachers, on average, view it as just a job and are not interesting in proper teaching. Teachers are increasingly starved of resources that those in the profession took for granted even a few years ago, and certainly a few decades ago. To persist in such a thankless profession with meager investment from the public, you’d *have* to have a passion for teaching to keep you going. In general, it is helpful to consider both personal factors (i.e., motivation) and situational factors (i.e., availability of resources) before drawing conclusions about people. The line of thinking that is evident thus far seems to reflect a preference for assuming that something is personally wrong with someone (they’re malicious and lazy!) rather than asking whether there is something about the situation that could explain observed behaviors (they’re trying to *teach* me).

              “as for the consumer model…to an extent, it’s not a bad thing…students…need to pay back significant amounts of student debt post-graduation…and as such, they demand that degree courses provide value for money- that is, that if they take this course, they will end up with a qualification that will let them get a job earning a high enough salary to offset the student loan debt…I think it may be time to admit that college is becoming a de facto part of mandatory education and have free tuition for students.”

              I support proposals for free tuition. It is ridiculous to send the message that college will substantially increase your chances of obtaining a secure financial future, only to then turn around and shame “irresponsible” students for taking on debt that they needed to borrow in order to do what society strongly recommends for the average person. And I wish that entry-level job requirements were easier for recent college grads to grasp. However, those requirements are not out of reach because of under-performing colleges; it is happening because employers either cannot or don’t want to invest time and money on training, so they are shifting responsibility for obtaining those experiences and skills on to the job seeker. I have outlined my reasons elsewhere for why the expectation that colleges should provide all or even majority of job-ready training is unrealistic. However, I do agree that colleges should be more concerned with recent grads’ employment outcomes. Something else that I usually never see happening, too, is that professors need to clearly communicate with students (as I frequently have) about what colleges are designed to do to help them get those jobs (teach them how to *think*, increase knowledge, develop central skills and abilities) versus what they are responsible for doing for *themselves* to get those jobs (finding opportunities to gain experiences, such as through internships and volunteer opportunities, and to develop additional skills beyond what any program can provide).

              Reply
    2. Honeybee

      They’re not motivated enough because they usually aren’t directly rewarded for doing this time-consuming work that gets in the way of excelling in other activities more likely to help them get tenure. They’re also not prepared enough because graduate schools don’t “teach teaching” (and if they do, the focus is on those discipline-specific skills) and the universities that eventually hire those unprepared new faculty provide a truly pathetic amount of resources to help them understand and comply with these demands.

      YES. Add to this that your average professor has never worked outside of the academy – most likely, they’ve gone from high school to college to graduate school to teaching, maybe with some times in between to adjunct teach or do activities to help them get into graduate school. So they wouldn’t really know how to model group work on corporate-world group projects anyway – and nobody is training them on how to do that, either.

      Reply
      1. vanBOOM

        Yes, indeed! I think this is one of the more focal reasons why I think the expectation that colleges should produce ready-to-work employees is inappropriate. If I am, say, a computer science professor who got my PhD in 2007, then in 2016 I would still likely be teaching students about things where majority of the basic foundations of that information is from 2007. That may be a fine approach for majority of the theoretical topics, but that would also mean that college students are learning the “old” ways of coding HTML instead of the “current” ways of HTML5. (By the way, before anyone screams at me: I’m not a computer science expert, so please correct me if I’m wrong here. I just know that I recently took up HTML again as a hobby via taking a college course, only to learn at the end of said course that I was taught the “old” HTML.) There will be profs who recognize the importance of constantly updating their skills, but again….tenure rests on research, and unfortunately less so on professional development activities. The stakes are much higher for industry web development orgs, so on-the-job training and experience is appropriate and the woeful cost of training is *necessary*.

        Reply
        1. AnotherAnon

          Yes, html/web stuff has changed drastically. :) I left when css was new and shiny; my friends’ websites were mostly written in Notepad (or some horrible WYSIWYG software that came in a box), and had midi music and cute animated gifs and “under construction” signs everywhere. Netscape was still a thing.

          When I returned to web development (after nearly a decade of mostly c++), it was all about which javascript libraries you were using, both on the client *and* server side, and css (and sometimes even html) was something generated by other tools, and you had to worry about what your website would look like on someone’s phone… html was being contorted in very strange ways to cram in all the features of actual software development, and I felt really embarrassed that the online version of my resume was still hand-written plain html. Heck, soon that resume won’t even be readable, because my server still isn’t set up to do https, which iirc will become mandatory next year. (not that it actually matters, because if I was well enough to use it I’d be well enough to fix that, but wow does it make me feel old).

          Reply
          1. vanBOOM

            Wow, I can’t imagine the shock of having to take in so many changes in a relatively short period of time (well, a decade is eternity for tech….but I can only think of a few advances in my own field that I would need to pick up if I left for a decade; it would mostly be new knowledge, not new skills per se).

            The requirements that need to be met in order to demonstrate that one is competent to offer a college course on a relatively new skill or topic are difficult to meet because so much of it depends on what classes you took in graduate school…and if Exciting, New, Competitive Job Skill #1 is what you’re trying to offer students, chances are you may not be counted as being “competent” enough in that domain because your grad professors didn’t teach you that (even if you’re a true wiz).

            Reply
      2. Glouby

        Yes a hundred times! I actually “teach teaching” at my institution (to other grad students – I’m a student myself), and yeah, every time I prepare a set of resources for a workshop, I think, “WHYYYYY did no one think to give me these resources when I started teaching undergrads.” Cue weeping and grinding of teeth.

        Reply
        1. vanBOOM

          My experience is very similar to yours, haha. I think you and I were used to outsource that responsibility because our mentors weren’t taught how to teach, either, and we’re the cost-friendly alternative to providing that training. :)

          Reply
  36. Chelsea

    Full-time project manager and part-time MBA student here. School group projects are much, much worse.

    I am one of the perfectionist types who if left untamed can cannibalize a group project. I’m lucky enough, because my project management/herding cats role enables me to erase inconsistencies or imperfections in each team members’ work before the final product is out of our hands and on someone else’s desk. Of course, at work, your role dictates how visible your individual thumbprint will be to colleagues outside of the team and/or your organization so this is very much not always the case. You should look for a project management role like this when you graduate!

    Reply
    1. jsj

      I’ve been seriously considering PM, and it looks like you and I have some of the same characteristics and preferences. :)

      I don’t want to derail the main conversation here, but would you mind describing how you got into PM, relevant background info, and things you like/do not like about PM? (I noticed you were doing the MBA thing, so I’m not sure if you’re necessary “on your way out” to try something else or not.)

      Reply
      1. Chelsea

        I am in the non-profit world (currently at a university – where I’m going to school), so I don’t know if I can speak well enough to for-profit/”formal” project management. Essentially, I manage medical researchers’ with the entire grant-writing process and their planned collaborations with other institutions, building their budgets, keeping them on a timeline, and answer any questions for them along the way as they write their (150+ per year) research grants, I also correct any and every thing toward the end of the process. So my PM is very different from for-profit in actual content (but not different in skill set). I got into it from years in nonprofit fundraising and a connection to the university I work at. I think if you can prove the ability to multi task, prioritize, meet numerous conflicting deadlines, and an ability to work with many departments within and outside of your organization to gather information, you can sell yourself into a lower level PM role to start.

        Hoping to do something different once I graduate, but I think the skills learned in any type of PM role will hopefully serve me well. I’d recommend it if you like to take charge, own your work from beginning to end, and are tenacious about going back and forth with deadline prompts and corrections to others’ work. Hopefully this was somewhat helpful (if not, an unexpected answer!).

        Reply
  37. CM

    While I agree with Alison that a lot depends on group dynamics, accountability, etc., I think the part of this that is in the OP’s control is effectively communicating with others. This can be a great change for the OP to learn those skills. OP, you can Google “effective communication” or read a book like Crucial Conversations or Mastering Communication at Work. These will give you techniques for communicating not-so-great news/thoughts to people in a straightforward way that will allow you to maintain a good relationship with them.

    Reply
  38. Jessie

    As an Engineer I gained valuable experience from our senior design project. However, the difference between that and most “group work” is the project was two semesters long. You didn’t come into it with the skills you needed; everyone had to learn their area of expertise as they went. It was a big enough project that there wasn’t a lot of redundancy because everyone had their own thing to focus on.

    Reply
  39. MsMaryMary

    I hated group projects in high school. In college (I was a business major), however, my experience with group projects was much improved. I think there were a couple reasons:

    1. Our groups had a leader. Either the professor randomly chose one, or we elected one, or someone volunteered. But there was almost always a designated leader. We were highly encouraged to break up the project into distinct pieces and have people work on different parts. Sometimes the leader assigned tasks or people volunteered, and sometimes the prof stepped in.

    2. We did peer evaluations, and the professors took the evaluations seriously. They’d also give warnings to student mid-project if a team leader came to them and said someone was slacking off. I knew of at least one slacker who dropped a class halfway through the semester because the professor told him he was about to fail the class (his group still got screwed by being down a person, but at least everyone knew they were working shorthanded).

    3. Most of our projects were client facing. We’d do projects for local businesses or parts of the university or alumni. For our capstone class it was a Fortune 100 company. Your group did have to stand up at the end of the project and present to a real client in addition to the professor. We weren’t getting paid, but there were real businesses and real people involved in our work.

    I’m not saying it was perfect. It was stressful. I spent a lot of late nights cobbling together a report written by four different people, but I’m a strong writer and editor and would volunteer to be the one who put the pieces together and wrote a conclusion. I still do that at work sometimes. I learned a lot about managing up by working with team leaders who weren’t strong, or who got stuck on something. I learned that someone might write like a 4th grader, but be a great presenter, or be able to setup a website overnight. When I was the leader, I learned that I had to let other people run with their parts of the project, because there was absolutely no way to do it all myself.

    Reply
  40. SubwayFan

    I had to write in because I had the same problem. I did my MBA in a program that really emphasized group work, and I did that on purpose because, like you, I used to stink at group work, either dominating, or not gelling at all.

    Things we did in my program that helped: at the pre-program orientation, we did a personality test like assessment, and were asked to break into groups where everyone had different strengths. There were four categories to the assessment, so each category was supposed to have 1 from each category at least. Later in the program, we got to know each other pretty well, and figured out things like Sudha’s strength was financial analysis, and Sarah was great at presenting, Lucy was super at keeping everyone motivated, etc. So we used to form different groups for projects, trying to find out who had what strengths and building well-rounded teams.

    I’d also say, you’re in a graduate program, so the idea is for you to take a leadership role in your own education. If you feel like Jessica isn’t pulling her weight, you need to tell her. Nicely, ideally, but you have to tell her.

    Lastly, one thing we always did before beginning a group project was to “break bread” and establish norms. This was before you start working, we would all sit down with food (this can be go out to dinner or stop for coffee in the local cafeteria), spend at least 15 minutes getting to know everyone, and then everyone sets down the norms for the group. This is a great time to say what you all want out of the project. Sometimes you just want a letter grade–I must get an A! I’ll settle for a B. Sometimes you want something more–I’ve never done accounting before, I want to really learn the formulas. I want to have a complete marketing plan to put in my portfolio to show to potential employers. I want to try out this idea I heard about in this HBR article. And then say what you’re all willing to commit to. Do you want to meet in person? How often? Will a phone call do? Do you want to share files digitally, or print things out? All those things set the norm for the group and once you all know what you want out of the project, it’s a lot easier to work in the group.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  41. Jessie

    In my opinion, a good group project should be a lot more open-ended than an individual project. It shouldn’t be “write a research paper as a group on the impact of global warming” it should be “identify an environmental issue and come up with a proposed solution.” Something that requires brainstorming and collaboration in order to work properly. It shouldn’t be “get together as a group and calculate how long it will take this teapot to break” it should be “come up with a teapot that won’t break as easily.”

    Reply
    1. Mando Diao

      I wouldn’t go that route either. It puts a huge onus on the kids who get stuck with the “bad” group to not have the instructor laying out an objective assignment. I remember being stuck with exchange students a few times. Having to do a group project about “pick your favorite era of American history and how it influences your lives today” was flat-out cruel when you’re working with classmates who aren’t American. Anything to do with ideology or ~global solutions is a problem as well. It also assumes that every kid is in a group that gets along, which only compounds issues for kids who already feel disliked and bullied.

      Reply
  42. Jake

    I never had a professor claim group work is like the real world.

    I’ve heard that a group project’s content is similar to what you’d do in the real world, and it’s being done as a group because the scale is too big for a single person. Professor’s were actually very clear to us that they were teaching us technical skills, not work skills.

    Reply
  43. hbc

    My major had a pretty good group project for a semester-long lab class. You had a well-defined project from industry, a faculty advisor you met every other week, and roles were assigned and then rotated for the semester. One person was the team lead (submitted weekly reports, made decisions if there was an impasse, etc.), one was the person in charge of the gear, and the other put together a presentation about the progress up to that point. We all had to participate in the actual lab work, keep our own logs of the data, and the labs weren’t open after hours for Type As to work on their own time. Everyone had to do a short survey every week about how things were going, whether there were interpersonal conflicts, etc..

    Basically, it was one part lab course, one part instruction course on some basic project management/work skills. If your teammate couldn’t bother to put together a graph of your data, that came out of his grade alone. If you had an interpersonal issue, it wouldn’t go more than two weeks without being discussed with your professor (unless you chose to hide it, which was on you.)

    A good group project like that is probably more work for the professors than grading three times as many reports.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie

      Yeah, that was our engineering capstone project. We had weekly check-ins with a faculty advisor and had to submit reports ahead of that check-in, even if the weekly progress report said “Still stuck on the teapot glazing technique–tried X, Y, and Z to no avail.”

      And yeah, there was a reason there was a prof in the department whose main course was just senior capstone projects–it was a lot of work to do effectively.

      Reply
  44. March

    There’s a time and a place for group work. I found it worked in my senior engineering undergrad classes, but there was a surprising amount of problems. For example, in my class we were allowed to choose our own groups. Since almost every single class had a group project, those groups would work together for almost every class out of convenience (and friends picking friends for groups). In my final semester, almost every single one of our projects was related in some way to our final capstone: if our capstone was on designing teapot factories, the project in one class might be about the ethics of our factory design, another might be about refining ceramic for the teapots, etc.

    It’s all well and good for the most part – since it meant we had to research fewer overall things and helped us write our final report. Our capstone was spread over Term A and Term B, so during Term B we’d frequently rewrite sections from Term A to make them stronger. Myself and one person would write everything from scratch, but the other two members of our group would copy and paste a section (on OHS, so it was a required section for multiple classes) from our old report into relevant reports in the various final semester. That’s bad enough, given that the writing wasn’t as good as it could have been.

    What made it worse is that I wrote the original section, and they used it even in classes and reports I wasn’t in, with no credit to me. I only found out when I was editing our capstone and found the same paragraphs on OHS two sections apart, and then started seeing it in our other reports too. When I called them out on it, they were shockingly blase about the whole thing.

    In short, group work can work, but only if everyone actively tries to make it work. We had to prepare group contracts for credit. They would make us state our individual strengths and weaknesses, what each of us would do for the project (Jane might do teapot simulation while Mary does the economics, for example), how we would come to decisions, what our process if we couldn’t reach a consensus would be, how to handle members not contributing, etc.. It did help, because we had a prearranged framework for issues that might arise.

    Treat each other with respect, too. One of my group members was incredibly blunt and it made it much harder for me to work with her, and since you say that you don’t know how to be diplomatic, that could be a problem for you, as well. What we would often do is decide who wrote what sections of our reports, and at the end we would sit down as a group and read the entire thing together, discussing each section and improving it. Sometimes a section might not need many edits, other times we almost rewrote the whole thing. It’s time consuming, but for a group project in school, it made our reports much stronger.

    Reply
  45. Good Afternoon!

    The best group project I had was with an adjunct teacher than ran the class like a semester long interview. She dressed and acted the part and expected the same from us. It was wonderful.

    Our group project requires us to sit as a group and set up a list of expectation and consequences for not following through. It was up to us how to handle it. It was sealed in an envelope and only opened if the group requested.

    Ours said You must attend all meetings. You must meet all deadlines. You must keep in contact ASAP if unforeseen circumstances arise. You must contribute fully.

    If not you receive an F.

    Super harsh, but it was perfect for us. A randomly assigned group with 1, very type A that dos the editing and formatting to accommodate that. And no slackers.

    Still a lame project, but we all were pleased with how well we worked and had no complaints at our year end review. (Seriously, this lady went all out!)

    Reply
  46. Pennalynn Lott

    I am going to find a way to anonymously send this to my school’s dean. EVERY FREAKING CLASS in my degree program (save for the pure math classes) has several group projects. And they come with the same admonition: “This is because in The Real World all work gets done in teams!” Which, no, it doesn’t, and certainly not with the redundant skill set and lack of true consequences that Alison mentioned.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      The closest I see to teams around me is people who have coworkers. But the coworkers are doing the same thing OR vastly unrelated, independent task.

      Reply
  47. Mental Health Day

    I totally feel you OP.

    For starters, I would say just relax a bit. I found the group work at the graduate level to be significantly less painful/more productive than at the undergraduate level. There is a reason the bar is generally a bit higher for entrance to graduate programs than undergraduate. People are, as a population, usually older, more experienced, and more motivated than undergrads. I found the group slackers to be much, much less of a problem at the graduate level.

    That said, having too many bossy knowitalls can be more of a problem at the graduate level. Some of your groups are going to suck and you’ll just have to muddle through as best you can. However, if this is a program where you largely move through as a cohort, you will get to know the work styles/ethics of the other students pretty quickly. Form alliances with other like minded people. I was fortunate enough to work on some pretty complex research projects in grad school and for the most part they were good experiences. Plus I made some great friends out of it. By year 2 of your program, the problem children will be pretty well exposed and nobody will want to work with them.

    Group work can be largely a positive experience, but as others have mentioned, it really isn’t reflective of the workplace because the incentives are entirely different. It is a technique that is very overused by lazy instructors that don’t want to have to grade as many assignments. However, it is also a technique used by fantastic instructors that actually know how to plan these types of assignments. Just relax, choose your group mates wisely where possible, don’t get too hung up on the result when it’s the learning process that is important, and keep in mind that nobody (almost) is going to give a damn about your grad school grades once you finish the degree. Focus on making sure you get what you need out of a group project.

    Reply
  48. Biff

    In general, whatever lifelong academics say about the working world should be taken with quite a bit of salt.

    Reply
    1. Agnes

      How about this? Employers can stop complaining that college doesn’t give students the soft skills they need in the work world, and accept that some on the job training is necessary. A lot of this is market-driven.
      Also, plenty of work teams have their slackers (see: the entire AAM archive.)

      Reply
  49. Stephanie

    My senior engineering capstone project group was fine. I mean, we had our issues like all groups, but we were able to work through things without a lot of disasters.

    I think what helped was that at the beginning of the year, we had to fill out info sheets that listed our interests, our grades in certain classes, any special skillsets (like programming languages, machine shop work, writing/editing), and rankings of the particular projects–the professors pitched us preselected projects after a couple of disastrous student-chosen projects. I think that helped avoid some of the pitfalls.

    I took an engineering undergrad class last semester at my local university (while I was working) and those group projects were kind of disasters. The first one, we had the Type A overachiever take over everything…and she did it kind of incorrectly (we didn’t establish a key foundation piece) and subsequently freaked out. I remember after we got our grade, she freaked out like “I DO NOT GET Cs. I WILL DROP THIS CLASS IF I GET A C.” (I tried not to roll my eyes and tell her that industry has plenty of successful former C-average students.)

    The second one, despite my best efforts to get us on a project timeline…we just got behind and tried to do it all last-minute. I was working at the time and said multiple times I couldn’t do successive all-nighters to finish it…and that’s what ended up happening anyway (on their end). I said I would be the write-up/wrap-up person and they got everything to me at midnight when it was due at 10 am the following morning (this is for what would have been a 10-page paper). Considering I was just taking this as a post-bacc class and just needed a C to not have to pay my company back…I just gave up and turned it what I had completed by 10 am.

    What was good was that the professor did implement 360 reviews (including a self-assessment) and I guess adjusted the grade accordingly. He also structured the final grade such that a bad grade on the group project wouldn’t fail you.

    Reply
    1. Expected to pay more than my fair share

      He also structured the final grade such that a bad grade on the group project wouldn’t fail you.

      My daughter’s college actually will fail you if do poor enough on the group project. And this is in a required general education requirement class.

      Reply
  50. sarakg

    I just finished a coding ‘bootcamp’ program. Our capstone project was an actual real-world project for a non-profit, and it was our only real group project. Despite being the one who did the bulk of the work (we never would have finished otherwise, we’d still be figuring out how to divide it up), it still turned out to be really valuable. There are some key workflow aspects to multiple people coding on the same project, and as much as they taught us about them in our coursework, it wasn’t until we actually had to do it that I fully understood things like resolving git merge conflicts and the like.

    Reply
  51. Mando Diao

    Oh god, group projects. Um….everyone send me your crap and I’ll proofread (ie entirely rewrite) it at the 11th hour. Or um, you can use my printer?

    I know a bunch of teachers and most of them openly admit that group projects are largely a ploy to relieve the backlog of grading work heading toward finals and standardized tests. There’s really no denying that they’re miserable for the good students, a free pass for the bad ones, and a lighter load for teachers. I never understood the blatant lie that it’s “just like the working world” because I have literally never had to meet up with my coworkers outside of work to write a report while two of them were off making out in someone’s parents’ bedroom.

    Reply
  52. Bob

    Somebody still needs to pick up the slack in a work project but it’s not hidden. A decent project manager will bring it up to the group and publicly ask who can help get a certain part back on track. However, the project manager will often also speak to that person’t manager and ask for an explanation. You might get away with it once but things change when a pattern is detected.

    But having said that, we all know people who last years or even decades and accomplish absolutely nothing so there are exceptions. Sadly, those people also tend to get the same raises and perks as every other employee. I can understand how some companies simply don’t fire anyone but at least reflect their effort when deciding raises and assigning interesting work.

    Reply
  53. AthenaC

    Oh man – so many interesting stories! Glad we all survived to tell the tale.

    Anyway, to add on to the differences between group work in school vs. at work, in my field (auditing at a large public accounting firm) we do group work almost exclusively. Keys for success are:

    – Person with the most experience leads the team, which includes progress benchmarks and some low-level directional judgment
    – People with less experience do what they are told and ask questions when they need help
    – Project leader asks people with even more experience for guidance when necessary

    I’m oversimplifying, but in general a hierarchy, accountability, and clearly-defined roles really helps. A lot.

    As a bonus, I actually have a GOOD group project story from college:

    At the beginning of the semester, we divided up into groups of three; we would stay in these groups to do three different group projects over the course of the semester. For the first project, we all talked and couldn’t figure out how to really divide up the work, so we all agreed to look at it independently and come together with our thoughts. Well, next time we got together, person A (not me!) said, “I started to figure things out and I just kept going and going and ended up just finishing the project! Here, let me walk you guys through it and if you both think it works this way, we’ll just put both of your names on it too and turn it in.”

    Second project we all knew a bit more about what we were doing and were able to divide work up equitably and submit a nice project.

    Third project person A (the one that did the entire first project) had some personal stuff going on so she was a bit out of commission. She asked us how we wanted to handle that, so I said, “Why don’t person B and I just do this one. We’ll run it by you before we put your name on it and turn it in, just like you did for us with the first project. How does that sound?” Person A was relieved and grateful.

    So among all three projects we all did about an equal amount of work. I thought we had a great system going!

    Reply
  54. Shortie

    I didn’t care much for group projects in undergrad because the end result was always far lower quality than it would have been if I were doing it on my own (perhaps because I was an older student, insanely detail-oriented, or both?). However, I dealt with it and found that most people contributed and did the best they could. Sometimes you’d have a slacker, but for the most part, people were conscientious, and I’d usually have a team member or two who were just as detailed as I was.

    In grad school, it was a lot better. The end result was still often lower quality than I would have liked, but I figured it was worth that to save so much time. People used their strengths well. For example, on one specific project, I recall we had a team member who clearly didn’t want to do much, but she came up with a creative idea that saved us some time and made our project “pop” a little more. It wasn’t incredible (I don’t want to make it sound like she swooped in and saved the day–she did not), but it did remind me that everyone contributes in different ways.

    Reply
    1. Anxa

      That’s my issue. In a group of four, the group project is rarely as good as the best three projects that would have come out of that group individually.

      Reply
  55. PeachTea

    This post is so very timely. I’m five months away from finishing my MBA and the group work has been absolute hell. I take the approach of volunteering to collect everyone’s sections and then put everything together in a coherent manner. That way, I’m in control of what the final piece looks like, and I can edit/finish the section if need be.

    The absolute WORST has been getting sections that have literally zero citations or have them listed at the end, but no in-text citations. Yea, I’m 100% not turning something in that could have me expelled for plagiarism because you’re too lazy not to cite correctly. Ahhh, group work. *Long Sigh*

    Reply
    1. KR

      I was the person who liked to pull everything in too! I like having that control and that way I can guarantee that it gets emailed on time.

      Reply
    2. Another MBA

      God plagiarism was such a huge problem in my MBA program. This was a particular problem with some of the international students. While international students where great for a different outlook on a problem, many of them came from places where plagiarism just wasn’t considered a big deal. I had to have several conversations with well meaning classmates about why they couldn’t take several paragraphs out of other articles even if they did cite their sources. I got into the habit of putting every group paper through a plagiarism checker and I almost always found something plagiarized.

      The worst was when this first happened and it caught me off guard the day before a paper was due. I had a pretty sickly drop in my stomach when I realized large chunks of our paper were taken from websites that sold sample essays.

      Reply
  56. KR

    One of the best group projects we did in college was good because we had people that “managed” the team. They were responsible for having the final word, assigning work and leading the group. The leader was also the person who would go to the teacher if someone wasn’t pulling their weight. And yes, I was the leader if you were wondering, but that wasn’t why it was awesome! (;

    Reply
  57. C Average

    I feel weird admitting this, but I don’t recall ever doing group projects in school. We did group in-class work–“You four sit together in a group and come up with answers to the discussion questions in the handout,” or “Pick a partner for today’s experiment involving Borax and fire”–but I never had to do any projects that involved anything approaching the kind of high-level collaborative work I’ve had to do in the workplace.

    I’m not sure why this was, though I have some theories. I went to school in a very small town in Idaho, and I think my teachers were about twenty years behind educational trends–which had both up sides and down sides! I was considered gifted (heh), but my school had no formal G&T program, so I was often put in a class or two with the grade ahead of me or simply given different assignments than the rest of the class, so I was often isolated from what my classmates were doing. And in college I took nerdy introvert-oriented classes where the homework consisted of long essays and reports interspersed with tests and quizzes.

    Based on the comments here, group projects sound horrible. And professionally speaking, I’ve found group work projects to be generally horrible, too, though no doubt necessary at times. I actually kind of wish I’d had some exposure to group work before I entered the workforce, because I seriously had no clue how to be a team player. And the learning curve in the corporate world was steep and pretty unforgiving; I think people cut me slack because they could tell I was working really hard and because I tried to be nice, but I am still not sure I know how to be an effective collaborator.

    One thing about real-world group projects, at least based on my experience, that probably distinguishes them from school projects, is that there are true and lasting consequences to doing a sloppy job. And I’m not talking about the boss’s disapproval or a bad review or unflattering email to your manager’s manager. I’m talking about dealing with a crappy work product, whether it’s a physical product that has to be recalled or a piece of software full of bugs that have to be fixed or an embarrassingly bad presentation that you have to deliver over and over again to people you respect. You have to LIVE with your crappy work product. That’s definitely a different kind of incentive to work hard.

    Reply
  58. The Carrie

    Group projects at work also happen during work! I hated trying to get everyone together to work on things – and then stressing out if not everyone responded. So stressful and not an accurate representation of real life at all!

    Reply
  59. Tertia

    99% of the faculty I know (including me) hated group work in school, but we’re continually told that choosing not to assign group work is tantamount to harming our students because
    a) most students learn best in groups, and
    b) students will need to work in groups in the real world.

    Reply
    1. Pennalynn Lott

      “Learn best in groups”. . . what the actual h*ll??

      I’ve had to politely extract myself from study groups because the only thing I’ve learned is how to Snapchat and gossip. Or I end up doing all the teaching, because no one else has bothered to read the textbook and take a first swipe at the homework. (Yes, I know that material sticks better if you teach it to someone else, but my time is very limited; and by the time I’ve learned it for myself, I need to move on to the next thing, not spend several hours teaching it to people who want everything spoon-fed to them).

      Reply
      1. Aurion

        This! Learning in groups is great if the students have already put forth the effort of trying to understand the material and have specific questions to ask. Expecting a fellow student to TA them and teach the entire lesson because they haven’t done any reading whatsoever is a gigantic waste of time.

        Reply
      2. Anxa

        So I am not that old, but I found myself near tears at one simulation conference. Everything was active and group based and at one point I just broke down near the end of day with a “but when do we get to start learning?”

        We had been, supposedly, the whole time.do students have the opportunity to just thing anymore?

        Reply
      3. Not So NewReader

        People working in groups can only rise to the level of the smartest person in the group. The problem comes in when you are stuck with the same five people all semester. You have to figure out how to rise above all the limits of your group. This is more like just studying psychology over and over again rather than learning any other subject.

        Reply
  60. Chickaletta

    While school group projects are nothing like work projects, they can be a lot like volunteer work in the real world. Fortunately, I think people who contribute fairly to school group projects also tend to be the type of people who volunteer for things as adults, so you usually get people who hold themselves accountable and contribute their share. But not always. I find myself occasionally in volunteer groups that have poor leadership, soft deadlines, lack of cohesiveness, or people who take over and don’t communicate. Also! If you have trouble letting go of control, or accepting other’s “contributions”, think long and hard whether marriage is right for you. I speak from experience. Just sayin’. :)

    Reply
  61. Seal

    I completed 2 masters degrees in 5 years while working full time and I can safely say that group projects are NOTHING like what you encounter in the working world. By far the worst was the 2 semester capstone project for my second masters, where 5 people had to create an enterprise solution for a local non-profit. Four of us knocked ourselves out for 2 semesters; the 5th person pretty much coasted and complained about having to work so hard. The best part is that every so often she’d try to take charge of the project because she thought that meant she didn’t have to do anything. Since she had no idea of what was going on, that never went well. Towards the end of the project I had to attend a conference for work, so I took my laptop with me and spent all my free time in my hotel room hacking away. I even went straight from the airport to a group meeting when I got back. Slacker woman apparently felt the need to one-up me by dashing off to a last-minute pool tournament in Las Vegas the following weekend (I wish I was making that up!). The kicker was that this was masters program in a highly ranked business school (but not an MBA), so we were told that business attire was expected for our final presentation. Four of us – men and women – wore business suits; she wore a sundress and cardigan and actually bragged about not dressing up. Needless to say, everyone blasted her on the group evaluation forms. Never could figure out how she got accepted into the program in the first place.

    Reply
  62. AnonyMiss

    I sooooo feel the letter-writer on the “snitching” part when it comes to team evaluations… because I swear some instructors use it in a snitch-y manner. I had one class project where we had to write evaluations on each other, share them publicly, but they did not count towards the evaluated person’s grade. In another class, they amounted for 1% of the grade – in which case, we all felt like “why even bother.”

    Maybe if professors would start using them as a true grading tool (for example, a multiplier for the main project)… but even still, I think a lot of people would feel like they don’t want poor Cersei to fail the class just because she was less than a team player.

    Reply
  63. RO

    I ended up making the most of group projects as all of the courses in my graduate school program were heavy on real-life pro-bono consulting work for some local organizations. One of my professors required you write a journal on how the group managed that week including how you as an individual were useful or added on to the dysfunction of the group. If there were any problems you were to solve them within the group and this has made me more aware of how my actions may impact others i.e. some people may thing I am overbearing so I generally ask my teams if they have an idea of how they want to proceed before telling them how I want them to proceed.

    Reply
  64. JHS

    In college we once had a group project that was explicitly structured like a workplace: there was a project manager, every member of the team had to have assigned roles, we had to give feedback to the lecturer on these roles, we had to produce a website, and those of us with distance learners had to have them involved in the final presentation (I was very smug when everyone else just read out their distance learners’ parts, where I had gotten mine to record an introduction that we played). It was the group project from hell. I had one person who was very talented at design and website building and who came up with a great idea, but was really hard to get along with. Another person did the bare minimum and ended up contributing very little. My last group member was asked (with notice) to turn up for the last day we were working on it, and just said no. We got a great mark on the final project, which looked amazing, and the person who did the bare minimum managed to make it clear in the presentation that they had no idea what he was talking about, but it was ridiculously stressful (think working almost overnight because we were ambitious but our laptops were basic). And while the point was to make it like a workplace project, like Alison said, accountability was an issue. As project manager, my role was defined as the one who got the team working, kept them on schedule, handled conflicts, and made sure the product was delivered, so I felt I couldn’t go to the lecturer and tell her about the troubles I was having (though this was reinforced by not having to work with any of them again, and the fact that the website looked amazing, so it was mostly just me being driven mad). In a workplace, I imagine I could go to a manager for advice for those kinds of problems. Not to mention that, because I was another student, I had no real authority, so when one team member mucked up referencing (for no good reason because that was not their job to do), I couldn’t actually do anything about it…

    Reply
  65. The Rizz

    I’m going to echo a few other commenters and point out that OP is going into a business program where group work often takes the form of real life consulting projects and the like. The main difference may be that there is no specific project manager unless the team chooses one, but some classes required a project manager be designated.

    Reply
  66. Maria

    Or, professors SAY it’s to emulate the Real World, when they really just want fewer assignments to grade.

    Reply
  67. Not So NewReader

    Thank you for this post, Alison. Hopefully we can change the college world at some point by getting people talking.

    I know I did not shell out 10s of thousands of dollar to sit around in a group and say, “Where is Johnny” or “Sally, why didn’t you finish X?”. And that is mostly what we did.

    Reply
    1. Agnes

      Again, I’ll make the point that a lot of times this is in response to employers who, when asked what they want from college graduates, say, “ability to work in groups”, although for all the reasons Alison mentions, it’s hard to design an exercise that truly simulates group work in the workplace.

      Reply
      1. ceiswyn

        And thus, students are frustrated because they have to waste their time faffing around pointlessly and painfully, and employers still don’t get people with the skills they’re looking for. Everybody loses!

        What I don’t understand is why universities think that just assigning people to work in groups is the same as teaching group work. It’s like trying to teach people to read by locking them in a library. I’ve done a lot of group projects, and none of them have ever included tips on project management, negotiation, task analysis or other vital skills; it’s pure trial and error. Useless.

        I think it also doesn’t help that the skills required to work with other people on a day-to-day basis and the skills required to work with other people as part of large projects are fundamentally different. And employers tend not to mention which ones they want, and universities don’t ask.

        Reply
        1. LizEnFrance

          “I’ve done a lot of group projects, and none of them have ever included tips on project management, negotiation, task analysis or other vital skills.”

          And the solution is pretty simple: All universities have to do is insert each of those elements you just named into their programs. I think we spent the first week of the program focusing exclusively on that stuff before the actual classes started. Easier said than done, I know, but that’s how you do it.

          Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        Then have everyone take a mandatory course about how to work in groups and be done with it. What schools are failing to realize is that people are not learning the subject material itself. And we see the fallout from that here when people write in saying, “I feel like a fraud, I don’t know what I am doing, I am in over my head” and so on. You may have a great grasp of how to work in groups but if you have nothing to contribute to the group process that is a deal breaker. You just lost your job. I think that colleges woefully underestimate how much time is wasted trying to get a group to function on the most basic/remedial level. The subject material is totally lost in the process.

        Reply
  68. Suzanne

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this!! When my kids were in school and had untold numbers of group projects, I told them this all the time until I began to think I was daft. They hated group projects. My son had one that they had to do at school during lunch and right after classes because one kid was on house arrest and couldn’t go any where but school and home.
    I often told them that a) teachers’ real world is different than the business real world, so while they may be fine people, they really did not understand how many jobs were structured and b) groups in the classroom were made of people of all levels. In the “real world” you aren’t going to be on a project that includes the CEO, groundskeeper, accountant, receptionist, and janitor, which is essentially the kind of group many of their teachers must have envisioned.

    So, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the assurance that all those years my children were in school, I was not simply howling at the moon!

    Reply
  69. Ghost Town

    Group projects in k-12 and then undergrad were awful. I don’t remember many (or any) for my literature MA. I did have group work heavy classes for my graduate certificate in higher education and student affairs (and in online classes!). Honestly, those online graduate education group work projects were my best experiences with the phenomena. Everyone knew we were approaching things differently;’ with different backgrounds, available time, and various time zones. Everyone actually communicated and did what they said they would. Each group did need a leader to assign work.

    Anyway, my point is that hopefully in a business graduate program, since you have people paying their own way for a graduate degree, they are more invested in actually participating and doing their bit to learn and succeed. Although, some of the MBA commenters here leave me less than optimistic about that.

    Good luck.

    Reply
    1. LizEnFrance

      I definitely had a few people in my cohort who were like “whatever, I’m just here to do the bare minimum and spend as much time as possible at the beach,” but most of us were really invested in the program. The more I consider it, the more I think the diversity of my MBA cohort was a huge factor in the success of group work in preparing us for real-world situations. We all knew going in that we were vastly different in many ways. If it had been a more homogeneous group, there would have been a lot more time for petty personal conflicts to get out of hand, I bet.

      Reply
  70. Master's Student

    I so wish this post had come two months ago (or last September really). I’m a master’s student, and during the course of both semesters, we were forced to do three major group projects that highly impacted our grades. In an industry where working in teams is paramount (and, let’s be honest, that is every industry), the course leaders were adamant that the projects resembled CLOSELY what we’d be doing “in the real world.” Spoiler alert, they weren’t. At the end of all of these projects, we were required to fill out a Google form for every one of our group members to sign off on their work before our projects could be graded, and I think there was also the option for us to read what this feedback was. As these things go, we were lumped into groups randomly and during my first semester, the group situation ended up being so toxic and chaotic, that there was online harassment, name-calling, iciness and multiple attempts from course leaders to mediate. Lucky for us, our group was dissolved for the next semester’s project and we were allowed to choose our own and pick a topic (which obviously is how the “real working world” functions). At the end of the ordeal, to add salt to the wound, we had to write a self-reflective essay that cited our journal entries (because of course we had to keep journals of how we worked together during the semester) and what we learned about ourselves that we could bring to the industry. Most of us BS’d our essays and still received low grades because we were graded with higher expectations than what the assignment called for, and needless to say we (or at least myself) did not apply any of these skills to the real working world and found ourselves actually ill-equipped for it despite what a master’s course should prepare us for.

    TL; DR: Please stop with the group work in higher education with the excuse that it’s preparing students for the real working world. It’s condescending and, for what it tries to achieve, essentially a waste of time (and precious tuition money).

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  71. Nonnie

    I just wanted to poke my head in and say that my graduate program (MPA) was really focused on group work and it turned out great. There was both a very structured, formal process and some informal ones. Each semester we had a required class (considered the bulk of that semester’s work). The class objective was to complete a major project assigned to us that included all of the a) through e) points that Allison mentioned (someone was appointed “manager” for the group, they met with the professor weekly, we broke down the project steps into the 12 weeks of school, we assigned each person one of those 12 tasks, we had weekly required group meetings to discuss progress on the project and make sure the last person did their assignment, etc.).

    Simultaneously in our other classes, we were thrown/forced into groups to finish each week’s assignment. We were a small cohort so the informal groups helped with bonding (as did the school-sponsored happy hours) and made the formal group work much easier. So yes, group work that prepares you for the real work can be done in school, but I strongly second Allison’s points from a) through e)!

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  72. Emma

    I had two group projects from hell when I was studying business. I mean, most group projects were hellish but these two in particular stood out.
    The first was where one of the group members actually told us she was only in school to get pregnant and find a husband and had no interest in the work. She did get pregnant before the end of first year and dropped out but not before she made that project stupidly hard to get done.
    The second was a marketing project where you had to go through specific steps from identifying a need or market gap and designing a fictional product to fill it. The group decided on a product they thought was neat and when I pointed out that they were not going to be able to go backwards and create any kind of credible need for this thing they just started scheduling group meetings for when I had other classes. A word to the teacher about being basically cut out resulted in nothing at all happening and then I got a low mark for not contributing.
    I HATE group projects. They’re only there so profs can mark 10 projects instead of 40, any other “reason” is just an excuse.

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  73. MommaTRex

    Real world = Hurray! Group project! We can split up some work so no one is overloaded and we can get people with the right expertise to do the part they are best at! Marcia will develop test scripts because she knows the process like the back of her hand and has seen all the unusual situations that pop up. Jan will run most of the scripts because she is a whiz at data entry. Cindy will develop the reports because she is an expert in this particular computer language. Greg will develop end user documentation because his writing skills are fantastic. Peter will install the hardware and software because that’s his domain. Bobby will be the project manager because he is great at keeping people on track and finding resources. Oliver will sharpen pencils and make coffee! (OK, so there is often one Oliver on a team in the real world).

    School world = Please let me get a team who gives a $#!*. Please let me get a team who gives a $#!*. And maybe a team with some diverse skills? Dang. My team is four people who love speaking in front of groups. That team is four people who love taking notes and organizing. And that other team is four people who like to make visuals for presentations. *sigh* Please let me get a team who gives a $#!*. Please let me get a team who gives a $#!*.

    Reply
    1. MommaTRex

      Real world, part 2 = Alice is also an expert in this particular computer language, but since we’ve got Cindy already on that piece, we don’t really need Alice as a formal member of the team. But Alice will be able to pick up any of Cindy’s slack in her regular duties, and can be a sounding board for Cindy if she needs help with any problems she runs into. Oh, and we might have a similar project that will be ramping up as this one is winding down. We’ll slate Alice in for that project! Yay! Proper resources and diversity of talent!

      Reply
  74. bopper

    I think it is also important to have a mechanism to “fire” someone if they are not pulling their weight. Obviously the professor should be on board with that.

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  75. LizEnFrance

    It sounds like I got lucky when I chose my MBA program. My cohort was very internationally diverse (35+ nationalities in a class of 85), ranged in age from 22 to 55, included people from a wide range of business, educational and cultural backgrounds, and put a LOT of emphasis on group work. Each group had at most one or two native speakers of English, so that was an added wrinkle. I swear they did everything in their power to engineer each group for maximum conflict potential. I was really impressed that nobody murdered any of their group members, because I know all of us were tempted sometimes!

    Learning how to work with other people who had radically different skill sets and whose personalities sometimes clashed with mine was one of the most valuable things the program taught me. I think a large part of why it worked was the intense focus on peer evaluation and feedback. After every small-group rotation, each group member had to rate all their other group members in dozens of areas, and we wrapped up with a 2-hour meeting facilitated by an HR/teamwork expert. Those meetings could be painful, but they really helped us understand what went well, what went poorly, and how each of us contributed to all of those things. And yes, feedback participation was graded individually — you would get penalized for not putting enough thought into your ratings! So we’d get grades for our group work in our classes, but then we’d do a post-mortem on all of those different projects outside the context of macroeconomics or accounting or whatever. Like OP, I’m a recovering perfectionist who used to loathe group work — but I got better at it. I still prefer to work solo, but that’s not always up to me.

    tl;dr it is entirely possible to set things up so that group work in business school closely resembles group work in the real world, but it sounds like most schools don’t do that.

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  76. Glouby

    I’m a a bit of a cog in the machine of higher ed, but the nice thing is that I mainly teach first-year students. I used to have a really hard time with it, because I could assume nothing about what they could/couldn’t do, but now I really love working with these (mainly bright and hard-working) young people, BECAUSE I know that I can assume nothing.

    If I want them to do class work in groups, I need to teach them how to work in groups. If I want them to give constructive feedback to one another, I need to teach them how to give feedback. If I want them to work independently, I need to cultivate their problem-solving skills and ability to sit with the discomfort of the confusion that comes when you’re learning something challenging and real.

    And no, I don’t do graded group projects though – no interest in grading the same or fielding the resulting grade complaints.

    Reply
    1. LizEnFrance

      Yes, exactly! I think it worked well in my program because the people teaching us “soft skills” and teamwork and interpersonal yadda yadda yadda were different from the people teaching actual business classes in which we did group assignments. They were kind of on parallel tracks. And professors had a lot of latitude in how they chose to grade us — some courses were all individual work, some were all group work, but most were a mix. That inconsistency could be crazy-making at times, but it made me more adaptable and helped me figure out how to deal with rapid changes.

      I bet you are a wonderful teacher — it sounds like you are very devoted to setting your students up for success!

      Reply
      1. Glouby

        Thank you!

        The structure of your program sounds really great – I think the importance of being able to adapt to different needs/contexts, as well as the feeling of being tilted off-center when you’re switching contexts a lot is definitely something I can feature more in my teaching. Thanks for that perspective!

        Reply
  77. Glouby

    On a previous AAM piece, “How to Coach and Employee on Soft Skills,” I appreciated a comment made by a user called Libervermis (bookworm! haha). I shall take the liberty of quoting it below:

    “Libervermis
    January 14, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    I teach college, and I’ve been bringing in more explicit soft-skill practice with my students because many really struggle with these intangibles of communication, eye contact, working with people they don’t like, working in groups generally, problem solving before coming to me, etc. Also looping the instructor in on something before it becomes a crisis.

    Academia has its own set of norms that don’t always align with those in the professional world, but whenever I can I try to pattern my policies off the kinds of things that will be expected of my students in the workplace, and tell them so. I hope it helps, and am always looking for new ideas – soft skills don’t come super naturally to me, so I know the kind of work it takes to develop them but also that they can be developed.”

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  78. SenatorJPO

    I emailed this article to former professors, but they had nothing to say — predictably so, as more and more voices are raising the chorus of higher education skepticism!

    I also left voice messages drawing their attention to it a few days later, but by now their apathy (from when I was in school) has assuredly turned to antipathy, which “serves them right” for blocking me from internships that -could have launched- my professional career!

    A few years earlier, I had written a LinkedIn Pulse article elaborating on how the disjunctions, now acknowledged via Ask-a-Manager’s observations, have played out in my post-college job search.

    It’s great to see people being skeptical of certain claims higher educators, and their marketing staff, make.

    Sadly, the youth are not so easily finding this alternative, college-skeptic narrative. That’s where I’ve come in, begrudgingly after finding — over the span of years — that my chances of gaining a wage premium from my college degrees are proven, time and time again, to be nil.

    Hiring managers have not deigned me responsible or coordinated enough to work in a professional capacity, i.e. in an office…

    …Despite my communications of how I coordinated two part-time student jobs while finishing graduate school full-time…

    …Despite telling tales of how I organized group work in school and led by compromise…

    …And despite my recent ascendance to self-directed, volunteer disseminator of information critical to the putative “value” of higher education institutions — especially of the oft-trusted universities that bear the very name of the state in which they operate!

    I was never hired for any “group work” beyond (first) Pizza Hut waiter (as a direct hire) and (then) palletizer (as an indefinite-contract worker through a temp agency).

    Of course, this means there’s neither seniority nor office-related skills training from that foray into work.

    This disappointment has motivated me, and untallied others in similar positions, to successfully lobby the Wisconsin legislature into removing $250 million from the UW System’s biennial budget (in 2015) and weakening tenure protections for faculty (in 2016).

    2017 shall hold even more legislative “surprises” for my alma mater university system.

    Employers should take note that if I’m -this effective- as an isolated influence outside any paying power structure (without the name recognition of a lobbying group, think tank, etc.), then believe -how effective- I would be with the appropriate organizational resources!

    Of course, hiring managers will instead see this resourcefulness as a “threat” to their vested interests, so they will endeavor to keep me either jobless or stuck in some peon job with no authority (not even “office operations associate,” clerk, or other communications-gatekeeping role).

    Call me “the realist’s Horatio Alger,” as sometimes limitations imposed by others (“can’t do [this]; can’t do [that]; can’t do [anything in our organization]”) cannot be overcome.

    Keep spreading the news: Higher educational attainment might not be a means of socioeconomic for you — even if you’ve been raised to believe, body and soul, that it is!

    That is, a person with a thousand credentials can remain perceived as unemployable for all but the lowliest, unskilled labor. It is better we are honest with such folks, before they spend time, tears, and tuition (the three “t”s) on education-as-career-advancement.

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  79. Professor Ronny

    I teach business at a large state school, both undergraduate and graduate and I have a group project in every course. Students often tell me they enjoy the project more than anything else in the course. (Not sure what that says about my lectures.)

    Students need to learn to work in teams even if a group project is not exactly like working on a team in business. Imagine how much harder it would be to work on a team with a new coworker who had never worked on a team before, never been accountable to a fellow worker for their performance, and never had to deal with difficult personalities.

    No, group projects in school are not exactly like teams in business. No, no group project is perfect, including mine. Yes, good students end up doing more work than average or poor students; although, that is true for papers, homework, and exams as well. It is easy to knock group projects but I challenge anyone to come up with a better approach to getting the students used to working in groups and working on a long-term project. If there is a better way, I would love to adopt it.

    Reply

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