13 Challenges of Group Work in Assessments (& How to Approach Them)

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Love it or hate it, working in groups is going to be part of your life as a student. This is true at all levels of education, all the way from children just starting out at school, to university level study. Of course, this method of working comes with pros and cons. While the cons, such as differing opinions in the group, can be irritating to work through in normal situations, this can become more of an issue if the group work is being assessed.

While you can control your own revision for an individual exam, you can’t do that for every member of your group, and it can make the issues with group work seem really unfair. However, group work isn’t all bad – good teamwork and communication skills can make group projects really enjoyable.

This article will talk about all of the most common issues people face in group work, as well as advice on dealing effectively with these problems, so you can get the most out of your assessed group projects.

1. Unequal contribution

An important potential issue when group work is being used in assessment is that not everyone contributes an equal amount of work. It’s definitely unfair for one or two people to do all the work, while others do almost nothing, and still, everyone gets the same grade.

Even if it’s less extreme than this, it can be a problem. It may be that you each do a section of the project, but there is some natural difference in the effort each person puts in. Once again, as it is a group project, everyone will still likely get the same grade.

Alternatively, it may be that some members of the group are not contributing many ideas in discussions or brainstorming sessions. There are lots of forms that unequal contribution can take!

The best solution to this actually lies in the planning stages of the project. If you assign roles to each person, each with an equal workload, it will be a lot easier to make sure everyone is contributing an equal amount.

Of course, this still requires everyone to complete their part to a suitable standard, and we’ll talk about this more later in the article. However, planning and assigning roles is a great start to avoid problems with unequal contribution.

You may feel that, during the project, you feel that someone isn’t contributing enough. Perhaps they are quiet in group discussions or are missing deadlines.

The first thing to do here is work out if there is a reason why. For example, they might simply be shy and not used to talking in groups, so aren’t contributing as many ideas.

This article from the University of Queensland has lots of information about resolving problems in group work, including unequal contribution.

2. Skill gap

One thing that can lead to the feeling of unequal contribution in group projects is a difference in skill levels within the group. Some people may be more knowledgeable in that particular subject than others or have more experience with things like presentations.

If you are a little out of your depth in a certain project, it can feel like you have to do more work to reach the same standard as others in your group. Equally, if you are more experienced, it may feel like other members of the group aren’t able to contribute as much as you can.

One of the best ways to deal with this problem is to consider people’s skill set when splitting up the work. The more advanced members of the group can take on trickier parts of the project, or assign roles based on what individual members are best at.

Hopefully, this should mean everyone is doing an equal amount of work in relation to their skills, as well as improving the project overall as the different skills of the group combine.

It’s also great to keep in mind that differences in skills can actually be a real benefit of group work! It’s the perfect opportunity to learn from your peers and share skills, ideas and more.

3. Allocating roles

Of course, there is often a need to split work up, and doing this properly can really benefit the project. However, the actual process of delegating roles can be a source of difficulty in group work.

We’ve mentioned that it’s important to split work evenly, so all members of the group contribute their share. However, it can be hard to decide what ‘equally’ means. You could divide up the main project into subtopics, for instance, although some of these may be larger and require much more work than others.

Additionally, it might be that lots of members of the group want to do one section, and no-one wants to do another bit. How do you decide who gets first choice?

A common way of sorting things like this out is to choose a leader near the start of the project. This should be someone who everyone in the group trusts. They can then take some responsibility for deciding who does what in the group, based on things like skill sets and who works well together.

The downside to this is that leadership brings about another set of problems. How do you decide who the leader is? What if you don’t agree with something the leader decides on? Doesn’t this place more of a workload on whoever is leading the group?

Ultimately, although it can be useful to have a leader at certain points to direct the group, everyone should still be involved in decision making. This should reduce many of these potential issues. It shouldn’t be the case that one person is choosing everything the group does!

4. Co-ordinating group sessions

This one is more of a logistical problem. If you are doing group work, particularly for older students at sixth form or university level, you might have to arrange sessions and team meetings yourselves.

This isn’t a problem if you have schedules classes to work on the project, as you are all there, and the time and date have been set. However, if you have to organise this yourselves, it can be really hard to find a time and place that suits everyone!

For a place to go, a great idea is your school or university library. They should have group study areas, or rooms you can book, for exactly this purpose.

The time is obviously a little trickier, as everyone has different schedules. One thing you can do for a longer-term project is set the same time every week to meet up. This means that people know in advance when you will be working on the project and can keep those dates free.

5. Conflict

This is one of the main problems people worry about when it comes to group work: conflict or arguments between members of the group. People can disagree over a whole range of things in group work.

There are small things to argue about like poster design choices or what time is best to meet up. However, bigger issues arise, like how much work everyone is contributing, challenging leadership, or even trying to forcibly control the group.

To help avoid conflict like this, it’s good to have an atmosphere in the group where everyone feels that they can discuss parts of the project. There are always going to be potential sources of conflict in a group.

If the group as a whole is able to discuss these problems and develop logical, fair solutions, you should find it easier to avoid arguments over them.

This usually works better than, for example, having one person make all the decisions. Although this may seem like an easy option, and we’ve discussed that having a leader can be useful for allocating work, there still needs to be a sense of discussion in the group.

Otherwise, there is likely to be conflict whenever someone disagrees with the leader, and less time is spent focussing on the actual project.

This article from Iowa State University talks more about common group work challenges, including conflict within the group.

6. Differences in opinion

This issue is often talked about in relation to conflict in the group, but it can actually occur even when all the team members get along well.

Naturally, there will be a range of views held by people in a group. If half the group has a different opinion to the other half about a part of the project, but the group as a whole needs to agree, it can be hard to know how to deal with these differing opinions.

In this situation, it’s often helpful to vote on what to do. Even if there is a split, going with the option that gets the most votes is normally the fairest way of doing things.

Before you vote, try to have some discussion. It might be that when one opinion on what the group should do is fully explained, it makes more sense, and people change their minds.

7. Majority thinking

This potential problem with group work is almost opposite to dealing with differing opinions. It’s to do with how people in a group may naturally tend to agree with the opinion the majority of the group seem to have.

We all do this – it’s normal to not want to feel like the odd one out. However, it can mean that individual views may get lost. Someone who has a really good, unique idea may not suggest it, because the rest of the group agree with each other about something else.

It’s important to communicate well with your group, and make sure everyone feels like they can express their opinions. Even if you don’t use all of them in the final project, it’s good to have an atmosphere where lots of ideas are expressed, then narrowed down.

8. Poor communication

That being said, communication can also be a difficulty in group work! When you work on a project alone, there is much less need for good communication. You yourself know what you need to do, when it needs to be done by, and so on.

However, in a group, all of this information needs to be communicated to other members. A lack of communication can lead to conflict, for example, if a bit of the project doesn’t end up getting done because everyone thought someone else was responsible for it.

Planning the project carefully can help with communication. For instance, if you have planned out what everyone needs to do by next time, you can start the next session by going around every member of the group for a debrief on their progress.

This automatically means you are communicating with the rest of the group about what you are doing and planning how it all fits together.

For more advice and information on communication skills, check out this article from haiilo.com.

9. Accountability

For an individual project, all the work is yours. However, for a group project, the workload is split, and this can make people feel less individually responsible for the outcome of the project.

People might, for example, be tempted to work less hard than they would for an individual piece of work, assuming that other people will make up the difference.

Alternatively, one section being done badly can reflect on the whole group – everyone is held accountable, even if only a few members were directly involved in that part.

It’s important to find a balance between holding each other accountable for completing work, without being too confrontational or starting a conflict. It can help to set up progress checks with the whole group.

This makes sure everyone is staying on track, rather than finding out near the end of your project time that some people are much further behind.

10. Staying on task

This is arguably the nicest problem with group working! When you are working with peers, particularly friends, it can be easy to get distracted from the task and start chatting instead.

Of course, it’s fine to take breaks when you are working – in fact, it’s a necessary part of the process. However, if you find this happens often and you don’t end up getting enough work done, you might want to put some strategies in place.

Individual focus methods often work in groups too. For example, you may be familiar with the Pomodoro method.

You work for a set time – usually 25 minutes – then take a short break, often 5 minutes. Every four cycles, you take a longer break, maybe for half an hour.

You could try using the Pomodoro method for your group. For 25 minutes, you either cannot talk while you work on your own bit of the project, or if you are working in small teams, you can only talk about things related to the project.

For more information about the Pomodoro method, you can check out this article from todoist.com.

11. Missing deadlines

Planning and setting deadlines for yourselves is almost always part of group work. Of course, various circumstances may mean some people don’t get their work finished in the planned time.

This doesn’t matter as much when it is an individual project, as you can talk to the teachers if there are specific reasons. However, in a team, one person missing a deadline affects the whole group.

It may make it harder to do other parts of the project that rely on the uncompleted section or lower the quality of the overall project just because of one person’s work.

To deal with this, you can agree that people will let the group know if they are struggling to meet a deadline, rather than simply not completing the work without anyone knowing. This way, the group can readjust the timescales slightly, or offer to help with the workload if needed.

This does work best if there is a legitimate reason for missing deadlines. It shouldn’t mean people just choose not to do their share of work because someone else can help them if they’re late!

12. Staying focussed on the project aim

In individual work, you know what needs to be done, and you are the only one keeping track of the to-do list. However, this gets trickier in a group project.

There are often lots of different strands to the workload, with different people working on them at different times. It can be harder to keep track of what still needs to be done.

We’ve mentioned how important planning is in group work, and this is true again here. Try to keep a group checklist, and note down who is responsible for each, and when it needs to be done by.

There are lots of productivity methods to help with planning big projects. For example, the Gantt chart is commonly used for longer-term projects – you can read more about it here from the Association of Project Management.

13. Differing aims

When working towards an exam, every student has their own goals. Some want the top grades, others just want to pass, others may be aiming to do better than they did last time. The same is true of group work.

This can be an issue in the group if some members want the project to be the best quality it can be, and others are just looking to do well enough to pass.

Several other sections we have discussed come into this. For instance, you can apply the same techniques to dealing with a skill gap, by allocating different sections based on what is appropriate for that person.

Hopefully this article has given you a thorough guide to the problems you might have with group projects and ways to make sure you can work through them together. For even more on this topic, you can check out this article from Indeed.

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