How to Survive Group Projects Without Anxiety

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Group projects. The words alone are enough to send shivers of anxiety down any college student’s spine. Everyone has war stories of that one project gone wrong.

You know the one. You did the work of four people and seethed through the early morning hours until it was complete. You were genuinely surprised that the hatred in your eyes didn’t strike your other group members dead on presentation day.

But sadly, group projects aren’t going away any time soon. They’re pretty common in the workforce too, so learning how to handle them like a pro is a skill worth learning. But why exactly are group projects so often disastrous?

“One error I see students making a lot is picking a group that honors their friendships over their working style,” said Jacquelyn Guthrie, the Associate Director of UW-Madison’s Honors College. If you’re a type-A personality and your best friend is the kind of person who crams a project last minute, chances are the two of you are going to have a horrible time working together. Instead, seek out someone with a similar work ethic and style of getting things done. “It’ll save you from so many problems later,” Guthrie said.

Another major problem that usually comes up is the delegation of work amongst the team members. Karen Redfield, Academic Advisor to UW-Madison’s English department, had some advice. “Have an honest conversation about each group member’s strengths and interests before dividing up the work. Are a few people willing to do the oral presentation, while some people would be uncomfortable doing that? Is someone a strong and efficient writer?” Expressing genuine interest in what your group members would like to do is important for fostering some team goodwill right off the bat. Plus, people are far more likely to actually do their work well (or at all) if it’s in a medium that they’re most comfortable with.

It also might help to have a clear, honest discussion about grade expectations. Make sure everyone knows you’re getting that A or else. One way to make sure everyone stays on the ball? “Timelines,” Redfield said. “Write up a clear list of people, what they have agreed to do, and a timeline of when things are due. Break the project into small pieces, but keep a realistic timeline. Do you need to meet in person or can things be done electronically?” Keeping track of timelines also helps if you start having issues with someone not doing their fair share.

Perhaps the most common issue with group projects is when one person isn’t pulling their weight. “If there’s a group member that isn’t participating, do a mini-intervention and say ‘We’re all going to get a grade for this. We don’t think it’s fair that we’re all carrying your weight. We need you,’” said Julie D’Acci, a professor at UW-Madison. Always try to work out the issue with your group member first. They may not even be aware that they’re dropping the ball, and a reminder from the rest of their teammates may be exactly what they need.

However, if they’re still not doing their part, or they respond belligerently, it may be time to call in the big guns. It’s office hours time, baby. “If you have clear tasks for each member and a clear timeline, it will be easier to discuss your concerns with the professor,” Redfield said. “Keep this discussion professional, centered on the project and the work left undone.” The key here is going to talk to your professor before the project is over. That way, it gives the professor time to reach out to the slacking student in question and tell them to really kick it into gear, and it reflects better on you for being responsible enough to bring your concerns to the professor before the last minute in a mature fashion.

Any time different personalities are thrown together to make something, the results can range from awesome to apocalyptic. In order to make sure your next group project doesn’t rank around ‘Armageddon’ on the success spectrum, take a proactive approach and lay out a clear schedule of tasks and times for you and the other group members to follow so that you don’t run into any major confusion or frustration down the road.

Though perhaps not the sexiest advice in the world, it’s tried and true. Plus, if everything still goes wrong after that, you can rest assured that the roast you’re holding for your group members in their evaluations is completely warranted.

Senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying English with a creative writing emphasis. Lover of movie scores, thunderstorms, and superheroes. And dogs.

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