Ask a Professor: How to Succeed on a Group Project

College students often dread group projects. A professor shares tips on how to avoid common group project issues and get the most out of these assignments.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published May 2, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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Ask a Professor: How to Succeed on a Group Project
Image Credit: David Espejo / Moment / Getty Images


As an undergraduate, I loathed group projects. They all followed a similar pattern: We'd find a time to meet, struggle to divide up the work, and inevitably realize at the last minute that one group member didn't pull their weight.

Those frantic scrambles to pull together the project at the last minute made an impression. And so as a professor, I largely avoided assigning group projects.

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But group work has some major advantages. Students can strengthen their communication skills and learn from one another. The collaborative process of a group project also translates to many real-world work environments — there's a reason business schools love group projects.

Still, many students hate group projects. In a 2018 Life Sciences Education study on group work in science classes, one participant complained about spending an hour doing group work "when [they] could just finish it in 10 minutes."

Other participants disclosed their contempt for having to redo incomplete work, group members overriding everyone else, and tensions within the group.

How can you survive group projects in college — and ultimately succeed? It starts with knowing the most common group project issues and planning ahead to avoid them.

How to Avoid Common Group Project Issues: 6 Tips

Are you the person in class who always grumbles "I hate group projects" when you see the syllabus? A group project doesn't have to be torture — and it won't ruin your grade — as long as you avoid common group project issues.

1. Review the Assignment

Start your group project right by taking time to review the assignment.

What exactly does the professor want your group to do? Are you presenting your project in class or handing in a report? What steps will you need to take to complete the assignment? Do you have a week or a semester to complete the project?

Understanding the assignment will help you structure the work and avoid problems like missing a crucial step.

Break apart the requirements into easy-to-follow steps and create a plan to complete each one. Once you understand precisely what needs to happen, you can start dividing up the work.

2. Assign Roles in a Group Project

In successful groups, the members divide up the work evenly. But that doesn't necessarily mean each person writes one page of the final report.

The exact roles depend on the project. If your assignment involves a class presentation, it makes sense to assign a presenter. In most projects, you'll need a leader, researchers, writers, and an editor.

Larger groups can also benefit from an organizer who schedules meetings and keeps sessions on task.

Members often take on multiple roles, brainstorming during one session, conducting research before the next meeting, and then writing up results. However, taking on clear roles serves several purposes.

First, it gives each member responsibilities and tasks.

Second, the roles can prevent issues. The editor, for example, can catch incomplete work and send it back to the researchers and writers before the deadline.

Finally, roles make it clear to the professor what each member contributed, which matters for assignments in which group members receive individual grades.

3. Choose a Group Project Leader

Every role in the group is important, but choosing the right group project leader can make or break your project.

The leader will stay on top of the timeline and keep members on task. They'll also ensure that everyone pulls their weight and that the project meets the assignment requirements. All of this makes choosing the right leader key for the entire group's success.

What qualities should the leader possess? Strong organizational skills, decisiveness, and good time management, to name a few.

When assigning roles, and especially when choosing a leader, it's a good idea to let members volunteer. Randomly designating roles can mean not taking advantage of people's strengths. It can also saddle your team with an uninterested leader.

4. Create a Group Project Contract

A group project contract lays out the responsibilities of each group member and the consequences for failing to meet them. The contract can also summarize the expectations for meetings and the process for resolving conflicts.

What kinds of consequences should the contract include? Some contracts detail a process to expel members. Others may outline lighter requirements, like "Buy everyone coffee if you miss a class without communication with group members."

Sometimes professors hand out a group project contract. In other cases, groups may need to create their own. The University of California, Irvine, has a helpful sample group contract you can use as a model. The University of Waterloo also provides group contract templates.

5. Understand the Grading System

Will your group receive one grade or will each member receive an individual grade? Will the professor grade solely on the final report or presentation? Will peer evaluations shape grades at all?

Understanding the grading process for group projects can help you avoid stress. Many students dread group projects because they worry about members slacking off.

In the 2018 Life Sciences Education study, more than half of the participants emphasized individual accountability in their peer evaluations. Grading systems that include peer reviews and individual grades can relieve some of that pressure.

If it's unclear how the group project will be graded, ask your professor. Going into the assignment knowing how you'll be assessed can play a critical role in your success.

6. Follow a Timeline

During the first meeting with your group, come up with a timeline to complete the work. This should include clear deadlines for each step of the process. Make sure you stick to the timeline, too.

Even more critically, build flexibility into your timeline. Instead of telling everyone to email their parts of the project to the editor the night before it's due, shift the deadline earlier. That will give the editor time to compile the work and identify any missing parts. The editor can then send incomplete work back to members rather than scrambling to finish it alone.

It's also good to schedule a final meeting a day or two before the deadline to review the project or presentation. Use the session to check every part of your work. And practice the presentation so members can give feedback.

Extra time at the end of a group project often translates to a higher grade.

The Pros and Cons of Group Projects

There are many pros and cons of group projects. Teamwork encourages students to learn from one another. It also emphasizes creativity and communication.

What's more, group projects connect classmates.

"It was like a nice little support system," said one participant in the 2018 Life Sciences Education study. "You didn't feel like you were alone in the class."

By minimizing the cons of group projects, you can get more out of them. If you start your project with a clear division of responsibilities, a timeline, and a contract, you're more likely to succeed together.

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