The group project. Aka the reason why your grade plummeted from a respectable, sturdy 87 to a humiliating, anxiety-inducing 78. What other than the group project assignment can elicit statements floating around Tumblr and Yik Yak like, “When I die, I want my group members to lower me into my grave, so that they can let me down one last time?”
Although once presented as an opportunity to build community, communication and constructive criticism, the group project ironically induces unnecessary stress in college students. What’s worse, every group project seems more blood boiling and nauseating than the last. We all have our own group project horror stories; I remember slaving away countless mornings until 3 a.m. because no one bothered to do their share in a project worth half our final grade. With this bad rep, why do group projects stand the test of time?
Florida State University senior Jared Armstrong was a sophomore when he was assigned a group project for a literature course. “We…each had to pick a couple of poems about whatever we wanted and then find a way to link them all together,” he said. Just days before the presentation due date, Armstrong’s group gathered to discuss their selection of poems and then create a PowerPoint Presentation. “We all picked regular poems about nature or friendship or love or whatever—except for one particular girl who picked these very vulgar sex poems. We were all a bit thrown off and obviously didn’t want to do that, but she still insisted that we all re-select our poems to match hers.”
That’s when Armstrong and the other group members began to feel uncomfortable. “She started getting mad—one of the other guys in the group even argued with her. After a few minutes of this, she exploded, ranting about how poetry should always be about sex because sex is beautiful, after which she proceeded to take off her shirt—no bra, of course—and asked if anyone wanted to see how beautiful sex and poetry could be together,” he said. According to Armstrong, “nobody was down” for that particular scenario; he said that the owner of the apartment immediately kicked her out and emailed the professor, resulting in an extension on the project.
While not many group project stories live up to that spectacle, FSU sophomore Leighanne Rowland certainly has a story of her own. “One girl was only there for the first meeting, and didn’t contribute to any part of the project. We kept texting her since our workload was super unfair—it was a huge project and we were getting screwed over. In the end, she flat-out told us that she was at a wedding in the Bahamas and couldn’t help,” Rowland said. “The other guy was just high all the time, so me and one other guy did the entire project ourselves, and only put our names on it.”
For those who look forward to putting a close-to-perfect GPA on a grad school application, an unlucky roll of the dice can lead to a project with members who just won’t pull their weight. “I was pissed at how much more effort it took me, and I didn’t get the grade I should have gotten,” said Rowland. “I mean, yeah, the purpose of group projects is to gain communication skills and learn how to work with others. But there are other ways of doing that without jeopardizing your grade.” Rowland pointed out the real concern here—the resulting grade and how it affects our final GPA.
Despite the mounting evidence against the dreaded group project, FSU communications professor Larry Bodkin said, “Most employers believe that the creative synergy caused by group work is essential to success. Therefore, being able to work effectively in groups is a vital and employable skill.” He argued that despite its downfalls, group projects do have merits that are overlooked due to GPA concerns. “Since group work is a real world skill, I use group projects to help prepare my students for these working challenges.”
Put simply, group projects aren’t manufactured settings intended to guide the development of communication skills—rather, they reflect the real world. The people you work with in these projects are the same people you’ll encounter in the workplace.
Are you frustrated with the guy who won’t answer his emails to pick a meeting time? How about the girl whose blank stares and unhelpful comments lengthen your meeting times by 30 minutes? These types of people will show up at your real job one day. Your final project grade will reflect not only how competent you are in the subject matter, but also how well you can overcome these obstacles.
Instead of banging your head against the wall, use your frustrations as a mechanism for success. Realize people will be frustrating in any context, and if it’s not your grade on the line, it will be your job. “There is no magical spell you can cast to make a group function perfectly, just as it is in the real world,” Bodkin said. Maybe, the point isn’t to learn how to communicate effectively, but rather to deal with the harsh reality that some people will never cooperate.
You’ll have to pick up the slack for a coworker who just can’t pull his weight at work. You might even have to critique a coworker about the quality of his work. In the end, the workplace is just as infuriating and nauseating as group projects. However, Bodkin did have a suggestion for limiting some of these frustrations. “Clear, up-front objectives and individual responsibilities set by the group helps to focus the group and hold everyone accountable.”
Patience, my friends, it’s not all downhill from here. When you learn how to deal with these frustrations, you’ll transcend the difficulties that arise within your future career with ease and view the hard workers with more appreciation and respect than ever before. And you know why? Because you had that group project in college.