Though many university courses involve student group work, students often find them frustrating, even when learning takes place on campus, where face-to-face meetings are possible. The purely online learning environments that come with remote study can make them even more difficult. However, overcoming these challenges can multiply the learning benefits of group assignments, and act as an efficient dress rehearsal for entering a radically decentralised post-pandemic workforce after graduation.
In this article, I summarise the learning benefits and technical challenges of student group work, from a psychological, organisational and technical perspective. I then outline some organisational techniques and digital collaborative tools for successful student group work. Among these is the Lateral platform, helping students centralise, scan through and extract useful information nuggets from collections of books, papers and research articles.
Benefits of group project work
The benefits of student group work are several. First, working in groups is realistic preparation for many careers, where graduates will become part of a larger team where collaboration is crucial to achieve goals. Along the way, you will also likely learn about collaborative tools like Trello, Google Docs and Google Sheets, Airtable, etc.
In this setting, you will also learn so-called “soft skills” like time management, good leadership and followership practices, communicating clearly and considerately, dealing with interpersonal conflict, project planning and management, effectively allocating the right tasks to the right people, coping with inevitable unexpected setbacks, and becoming used to the fact that the direction of a project may naturally change over time, as new information emerges that suggests your first plan needs to be modified.
You will also practice the valuable skills of “learning by teaching”, and learning by asking questions of peers with complementary knowledge and skill sets. When groups work together successfully, students will also get to experience the feeling of the “whole being greater than the sum of the parts”, where the project achieves a much higher quality than any one person could have delivered. Moreover, since such projects are a combination of individual ideas, you will practice the skill of evaluating suggestions on their merits. Part of this process is delivering constructive criticism, and deciding which ideas to use and which to discard. Working intensively with others may also lead to new friendships in the long run.
Drawbacks of group work
There are also various downsides to group work. These fall into organisational, interpersonal, and “information and idea management in a group” categories.
Any task involving a group of two or more people involves time coordination and organisational costs, as one needs to schedule, run and document meetings to make decisions, evaluate progress and coordinate delivering the final product. A common trap is to fail to allow enough time to glue each student’s piece of the project together before submission.
Information management in groups
Another trap is to fail to find a coherent direction through lack of leadership or a coherent central theme, which is sometimes the result of trying to accommodate too many incompatible contributions, in order not to offend the people who have suggested them.
There are also various psychosocial factors to consider — how do people tend to act and reason in groups, as opposed to when alone? Some examples of negative group dynamics are obvious: Interpersonal conflict can arise when two people have competing, mutually incompatible visions for the project, for example. For a second obvious example,
consider the “freeloader”, the team member who consciously decides to contribute little or nothing, leaving others to pick up the slack. Related but more subtle is the phenomenon of social loafing, in which group members feel a reduced sense of accountability, hence reduced sense of motivation. This effect is more pronounced in larger groups, where individuals can more easily become “anonymous”.
This phenomenon of individual team members “checking out” leaves the remaining members with a conundrum: Do you simply complete your share of the task and accept the low standards, or do you assume responsibility for tasks left unfinished by less productive team members, in order to get good grades? A second “subtle” psychosocial dynamic is that of “groupthink”, wherein team members tend to align their views to be diplomatic, or to secure social acceptance, rather than because they agree with the dominant view. This can have the effect that good, but unusual ideas are suppressed because they are at conflict with the dominant view.
However, this anonymising effect is not all bad: The increased remoteness brought about by the pandemic can aid in giving individuals a stronger sense of self and increased ability to represent non-standard ideas, as the social costs are lower. There is some evidence that introverts are more comfortable speaking up in remote classrooms, for example.
Winning tools and strategies
There are a variety of methods students can use to overcome the drawbacks of remote learning group work, and to squeeze the most benefit out of the opportunities it provides. I divide these into “techniques” and “tools”.
Consider appointing a “project manager” to the group, who is responsible for coordination. You can pick the best person for the job according to their past experience and strengths. The project manager holds each member accountable, and can act as a liaison between the students and the supervisor, to clarify any open questions and organise delivery of the project. If possible, choose to work in a smaller group — 3-5 people is ideal. If your group is unavoidably larger, consider splitting it into smaller subgroups of 3-5 people, each responsible for a self-contained chunk of work. If students in the course live in different countries, consider selecting groups according to common time zones, to reduce coordination friction. A common beginner mistake is to underestimate how hard it is to “glue” the final assignment together into a coherent whole. To avoid this issue, plan in a few days at the end just for this purpose — ideally 10% of the time allocated for the whole project. To mitigate freeloading and social loafing, consider agreeing on conduct rules at the beginning of the project, with consequences. An extreme but effective example is to require each member to be present at all meetings, at the risk of exclusion from the group.
There are several digital tools to help coordinate remote teams. Getting really comfortable with these tools will make you more employable, as teams also use them in the workforce. Google Docs and Google sheets are familiar, but very powerful examples. Note: Inspecting a Google document edit history is a great way to see who has contributed what to a project. Some other good tools to use are Trello, for task management, Basecamp and Microsoft Teams for heavy-duty project management, and Evernote, to collect all your notes.
Try out Lateral
Each of the above tools excels at what it does. Trello has efficient kanban and checklist features, for example, and Evernote is great for collecting and resurfacing personal notes. However, none of these tools enables efficient, conceptual search of papers, books and articles relevant to your research project. In particular, although each has a keyword search feature, this feature always suffers from the “paraphrasing problem” — retrieving information by traditional keyword search fails if your query term is close, but not identical. Searching for “intelligence” won’t return any results, e.g., if the sentence you’re looking for instead talks about “cognitive performance”. In contrast, the Lateral app not only helps you quickly centralise, collate and extract value from the research articles, papers and books you’ll need to reference to complete academic projects, but also uses clever machine learning to solve the paraphrasing problem, enabling a more conceptual search. This means not only that everything is in one place, but that all extracted information is easily retrievable by all group members. Sign up today!