Being Proactive in Group Work

I find as a parent, student, and worker that the most difficult part of being productive in each aspect of life — without compromising quality — is time management. With that, I am hoping to share some insight and inspiration in hopes that it can benefit you in your studies.

In between semesters, I read the well-known book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where author Stephen Covey writes in regard to being proactive that “we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions….We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.”

This concept certainly relates to online studies. We could easily decide to wait until two days before the deadline to start writing a paper, knowing that we work our best when under pressure. But, what happens when something goes terribly wrong? Perhaps you have a family emergency, which your professor will likely understand. At the same time, it would be detrimental to add “make-up” work to your already full schedule.

Many of us have elected to take online courses and have succeeded within the online course structure because we are self-motivated — so, we do not run into the issue of proactively completing individual assignments. I would be willing to bet, however, that the majority of us are familiar with the free-rider effect in group work. This is when a group member expects others to essentially “pick up the slack” and, thus, offers minimal contributions.

Fortunately, I have a suggestion that will allow those of us who are proactive to take preventive measures to ensure accountability within the group structure. I have actually used the following tactic in the past and produced great results as well as a synergistic team environment.

The key is to correspond with your teammates early on—preferably in the days immediately following the assignment of teams. Send out an email to your team providing a bit of a personal and/or academic background about yourself and your expectations for the class in general and specific class projects. Most importantly, make it clear that equal participation is expected of all group members, yourself included, and that if any team members do not complete their assigned work, it will impact the entire team.

While tone is often lost in email correspondence, I feel this is where providing a bit of an introduction early in the class eliminates what could be perceived as a confrontational tone.

The way you choose to phrase the email is pivotal. I may, as a sample closing statement, write something along these lines: “Please understand, I only wish that all equally participate because it would be unfair for one or two of us to suffer in other courses or aspects of our lives because we are picking up the slack for others in this group.”

Leading with the word “please” is key to this statement, but it is also important to phrase it using inclusive words like “us” or “our” as a means to make everyone in the group feel as though you are “in it together,” so to speak. Using exclusive words can very easily alienate other group members and create friction.

Unfortunately, I offer these suggestions because of my previous experiences, as in two of the groups I worked with in the fall semester suffered because some of the team members expected a “free ride.” So, while others procrastinated with little or no motivation, I put in extra hours while also managing my personal life (which included a newborn child plus a 3-year old and a 60-hour-a-week job). This was rather difficult.

In the past, I had been more proactive in setting the tone for the group, but had done so in a way where it seemed, at least, that each group member was motivated to perform at their best so they could feel like an equal contributor. Not only did it make for a more relaxed yet productive team environment, but it produced far better results.

It is my hope that these suggestions produce similar synergy for fellow students in future group activities.