Group projects in college, especially in online classes, can be tricky to handle.  Learn the best tips for planning and executing remote group assignments.

How to Survive Group Projects in an Online Class

When students begin their first online classes, there are a lot of myths that need to be busted. For example, many students assume they'll be working primarily on their own to submit class assignments. When they discover a group project on the syllabus, they're often surprised.

Group work is just one way course designers and instructors can ensure the learning experience meets the quality standards for online education, especially the standards for active learning and student interaction.

Group assignments can prepare you for jobs after graduation, when working in a team is often essential for success.

Collaborative assignments not only let you get to know your classmates better, they also encourage the exchange of ideas and information. Each student brings a unique perspective and background to the work, allowing everyone to learn from one another.

Group assignments can also prepare you for jobs after graduation, when working in a team is often essential for success. LinkedIn's survey of the skills employers need most in 2020 includes five soft skills that can be developed and honed in online group assignments: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence.

Students who choose to enroll in online classes usually do so because they're already busy with work, families, and other commitments; therefore, your initial instinct might be to avoid classes with group assignments. But the reality is that these opportunities can be as rewarding as they are challenging.

Follow these seven steps to make the best use of your time and to get the most out of the online group experience.

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7 Steps for Success With Online Group Projects

Understand the Assignment Requirements

Will you be required to use specific tools? When is the project due? Can you get feedback on drafts before turning in the final product? A good group assignment is a well-organized assignment. Your professor should provide instructions and expectations for what is required.

Try to look for checklists, rubrics, schedules, and other details on your course site and in the syllabus. Once you've worked with your group members to locate all the available information, you can develop a list of questions your group has about the project to ask your instructor.


Manage Your Time Wisely

Assignment instructions may include detailed lists of steps and deadlines. If so, you're already ahead in terms of planning and time management.

But if the project leaves this planning up to each group, it's best to begin by breaking the work into shorter segments. Developing a list of milestones your group needs to reach, as well as a schedule of when each part of the project must be completed, will be helpful as you begin your work. Consider using the backward planning approach to ensure you start with your goals and course timeline in mind.

The University of Waterloo outlines seven possible group project roles: leader, organizer, editor, researcher, writer, troubleshooter, and presenter.

You should also work on identifying the specific roles needed to complete your assignment and determining which team members will be responsible for which positions. The University of Waterloo outlines seven possible group project roles: leader, organizer, editor, researcher, writer, troubleshooter, and presenter.

Depending on the size of your group and the length and type of assignment you're working on, you may assign several people to one role or have members assume multiple positions.

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Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Working effectively at a distance requires a concerted effort to communicate frequently and effectively. For projects that take place throughout the academic term, weekly meetings are highly recommended.

Your group should decide early on not only when you'll meet, but also how you'll meet. Web conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom are more popular than ever. Group texts and phone calls may also be helpful between scheduled meetings when there are questions or updates to share.

For projects that take place throughout the academic term, weekly meetings are highly recommended.

Additionally, you should think about where you'll work as a group. Selecting a shared workspace, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, is necessary to avoid confusion over which file is the latest version when you're working together. Your school may also grant students access to collaborative resources, such as Microsoft Teams or other tools.

If you find yourself struggling with a task or unsure how to proceed, ask for clarification. Start with your group members, but ask your professor to weigh in when needed. It can be all too easy to fall behind when a project stalls, particularly in a short academic term. Keep in mind that it's difficult to over-communicate when working on an online group assignment.


Learn to Manage Conflict

Many group assignments are completed without any issues or tensions among team members. Planning ahead and keeping communication open can help keep conflict at bay.

Unfortunately, problems may still arise, so do your part to foster an atmosphere of cooperation. Ultimately, you're all working toward the same goal — successful completion of the assignment — and everyone has something to offer.

While it's generally good to work on [conflict] as a team before contacting your instructor, don't wait too long to reach out.

An online course is a formal environment with the expectation of professional behavior. This means being accountable for task responsibilities, using appropriate language, maintaining a positive and encouraging attitude, and avoiding bullying and other actions that would undermine group progress.

Try to work out conflicts as quickly as possible whenever they arise. Is someone not contributing or constantly missing deadlines? Ask them about it. You never know what might be happening in their lives.

While it's generally good to work on these issues as a team before contacting your instructor, don't wait too long to reach out if you need mediation. Some professors rely on groups to carry out all parts of a project on their own, including conflict resolution, whereas others may want to meet with each group periodically for progress updates and to help with any issues that come up.


Set Realistic Expectations

The coronavirus pandemic is challenging all of our emotional and intellectual resources. Everyone is going to experience a bad day, or even a bad week, at some point in the course. It might be a classmate this week, and you the following week.

Knowing this, be patient with yourself and your peers. The project may not proceed exactly according to your plans and expectations, and some of your group members may be dealing with difficult life circumstances that you don't know about.

Be prepared to not only step in and help when you can, but also ask for help when needed.

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Consider Drafting a Group Contract

Some courses may require your group to complete and submit a formal contract that includes some basic planning and agreement from all group members about how they'll work together.

This document takes time to create, but that time can prevent a lot of headaches once your project is off and running. Even if you aren't required to draft a contract, consider making one anyway.

A group contract should ideally contain the following components:

  • Group Roster: Should include all group members' names, phone numbers, email addresses, and designated roles (e.g., leader, researcher, editor)
  • Member Skill Inventory: Areas of strengths in which each member thinks they can best contribute to the assignment
  • Ground Rules: Should outline expectations for participation and accountability, as well as the process for how decisions will be made, as developed by the group itself or provided by the professor
  • Communication Plan: How and when you will meet to discuss the assignment, and the tools you'll use to share and complete project tasks
  • Project Timeline: All assignment milestones and deadlines
  • Potential Challenges: A list of barriers you might encounter when completing your group assignment
  • Conflict Management Plan: Anticipated conflicts, with plans for how to proceed should they arise
  • Acknowledgment: An email confirmation or digital signature from each team member

This contract is merely a place to begin. You may decide as a group to make changes as needed based on how your work progresses. Your contract also acts as a handy point of reference should you have to deal with a conflict or other challenge.

The University of Washington's group contracts guide includes a helpful outline and examples for creating your own contract.


Embrace the Opportunities

As you participate in online group assignments, you'll develop papers, projects, and presentations that you can add to your portfolio to demonstrate how you function in a team environment. You'll also learn how to use a variety of tools to communicate and create at a distance.

Use the time you spend on group assignments to foster positive relationships with your classmates, especially if you're in a program that uses a cohort model (meaning you take classes with the same students and progress at the same pace). After all, you may end up working in the same industries after graduation.