We are all individuals. All of us know that it is quite difficult to come up to our own expectations. Quite often we fail due to inexperience, incompetence, laziness, unexpected events, procrastination, and many more non-ideal qualities we all carry inside us. Maybe there are a few out there who have it better in their lives, but I guess that the imperfect individuals constitute the vast majority. However, we all try to get better over time. This we call “life.”
So much about individuals. Unfortunately, our society has decided to favor a much more complex situation: groups of individuals.
It is difficult enough to get used to oneself, but getting used to the dynamics of groups of individuals is even more difficult. Still, we need to train it. This we all seem to agree upon.
At university, teachers quite often ask students to work in groups. In addition to new material which should be understood in some knowledge domain, we find group dynamics which quite often “terrorizes” the group members.
A non-functioning group can quite easily cost another year of studying. Isn’t this unfair? Should the university not try to avoid such unfair situations? After all, a year is a quite substantial part of a typical life time. Who pays for the extra costs?
Here is an original comment of a student who had it difficult in the practical of Rechnerorganisation during the last semester:
Außerdem bin ich das Konzept “Gruppenarbeit” hier endgültig leid geworden. Ja, wir müssen lernen in Teams zu arbeiten. Aber im zweiten Semester kennt man möglicherweise noch keine Leute, auf die man sich verlassen kann. In meinem Fall sah das so aus: Dreierteam, der eine hat mir nicht mal seine Martikelnummer zur Anmeldung des Teams geschickt, der andere hat mir einen Tag vor der Abgabe gesagt, dass er doch nichts gemacht hat. -> Ich hab alles alleine machen können. Bin fertig geworden, war jedoch viel mehr stress.
And here is another comment from another student in the same practical:
Es ist nicht klar, warum die 4. Aufgabe eine Gruppenaufgabe ist, wenn (theoretisch 😉 ) jeder alles machen soll – in der Praxis funktioniert das so nicht, da werden die Aufgaben natürlich aufgeteilt.
All of us know about these two situations. And many have similar experiences — negative experiences and hopefully also positive experiences. Nevertheless, we all seem to agree that experiencing group work is a necessary part on a student’s road to professionalism.
Let me try to make a checklist for successful group work:
(1) Decide whether you want to participate in a successful group in some course.
(2) If yes: Invest quality time to choose group members. If you are lucky, you already have good buddies for a group. Otherwise, you should search for potential candidates with all your social skills available.
(2a) If no: Just forget the course and drop it; maybe you are in better shape next time.
(3) Start searching and constructing a good group long before the course work actually starts. If you think that you are late for this semester: The next semester starts in a few months only; you can already try to find group members for the next semester.
(4) If you seem to not find able candidates for your group, you should consider to choose whatever is available. In this case, you have the opportunity to develop skills for creating a group atmosphere which smells like success. It might be tough, but you can develop substantial skills; you will find similar types of characters during all of your life. Thus, it is good to get to handle such situations early on.
(5) However, you should also be prepared for the worst, i.e. some group member or even members turn out to be unreliable. If this is the case, it is best to find out early in the project. And you should work with “redundancy”: Try to solve all the class projects yourself. Most if not all introductory classes during your bachelor studies have group tasks which can be solved by individual students also. As a side-effect, you learn the basics of your studies even better.
(6) In case of doubt, whether your group is stable for success, do like explained in point (5).
(7) In case of the uncertainty that some group member might drop the course, do like explained in point (5).
(8) In case of the possibility that some group member gets sick during the semester, do like explained in point (5).
(9) Since the possibility that a group member could get sick is larger than 0, always do as explained in point (5).
(10) Always do as explained in point (5).
So what is group work good for, if every group member according to this reasoning needs to do all work anyway?
See it like climbing some mountain: You want to do it in a group. It is more fun. You can talk about the activity. You can schedule regular meetings in order to get “Jause” with “Saft”. You can discuss difficult parts of climbing. One can show the other how she would tackle some problem. You can share experiences. If one loses motivation on the way up, the others can help to overcome this momentary lack of motivation. If one gets hurt, the others can help out. Learn about those who always complain. Learn about those who seem to be happy all the time, no matter what weather just is. Learn about those who easily give up upon the first difficulty arising. Learn about those who are “die-hards” and never give up. Use all this collected experience for understanding groups. Group work can be that easy, once all group members have chosen to climb a mountain together. In any case, you learn.
In this analogy there is obviously no place for the following scenario: One climbs the first part of the mountain. Another group member gets flown in with a helicopter and climbs the next part. And the third group member — again flown in with a helicopter—finally does the last part up to the top. Later, those who have not been on the top are checking out the photos from the top and claim to have been on the top themselves. What a lie!
Moreover, if one of the group members cannot fulfill her task, the whole group is doomed for failure. Have a look at statistics: Let’s assume that all individuals have a failure rate of 1 in 5. If you take 5 such individuals together in a group, each one doing 1 of 5 tasks, the combined average failure rate is 100%.
As soon as each group member solves a different set consisting of 3 of 5 tasks, the average failure rate for the group can be reduced considerably. Compute yourself.
I wish you all the best with choosing group members. Learn to develop skills for finding individuals for groups and for talking straight inside groups. Learn to use your individual strengths in an optimal way within a group. Once you have developed some skills, you can try out to distribute work among people.
I have had the luck to work in a successful group for decades now; I am really grateful for seemingly having had the skill to find and maintain such a preferable professional situation.