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EP 07: Group Work Benefits, Challenges, & Dynamics

Welcome back to Episode 7 of The Homework Help Show! In this episode, we switched gears and got into the nitty gritty academics. In this episode we discussed the benefits and challenges of group work, understanding group dynamics, and how to make groups function well. Our Host & Top Writer Cath Anne also provided suggestions for addressing common challenges for those group members that don’t participate or end up doing the least amount of work!

The Homework Help Show is our brand new show where we will teach, assist, and offer valuable insights on different topics related to students’ academic and personal lives. Want your questions answered? Ask your questions on social media using the hashtag #askHHG


Cath Anne: [00:00:05] My name is Cath Anne and I am the weekly host of “The Homework Help Learning Studio”. I missed everyone last week. We took a little break. It’s starting to get into the busy season, as all of you students probably know. So we took a little break from the stream last week but we are back live this week and this week we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite topics: group dynamics. (To Instagram Viewer): Coach Kaur thanks for joining so I’m just going to wait and see if anyone else jumps on here to join us.

Cath Anne: [00:00:58] So this week we thought because it’s starting to get into the busy midterm and exam season we would recognize that there are also group projects that happen at this time. Of course the group projects are probably one of the most dreaded things that happen in undergraduate and graduate degrees. That’s because it can be really difficult to work with other people. I thought that this topic would be really important and maybe interesting to talk about. We can discuss how to make those groups work. (To Instagram Viewer): Hi, The Neighborly Consultant. Nice to see you again. I’ll just wait and see if a couple more people jump on and then I’ll jump into the content for this week. This is one of my favorite topics because I think it’s really important to learn how we collaborate and work with other people. It’s really a skill that you can carry throughout you life. It’s not something that is specific to university.

[00:02:20] It is a skill to carry into you work, into non-profit organizations, into being a board member. It’s a really good skill to have. (To Instagram Viewer): What’s your experience Coach Kaur? Good experience, bad experience? What would you what would be a phrase to sum up your experience working in a group?

Instagram Viewer: [00:02:55] It’s frustrating if everyone isn’t on the same page.

Cath Anne: [00:03:01] Yes, I agree. It is just frustrating if everyone isn’t on the same page. However, there are some skills that we can work on. I mean they’re definitely not easy to implement, but there are some skills and strategies that we can use to navigate when we are not all on the same page. I actually just recently went to a session on this very thing. It was about how we should avoid groupthink. So that’s something that I’ll get a little bit more into later on in the session. Essentially it is this idea that because we have a desire to maintain harmony and compatibility within the group, we don’t challenge each other. That can actually lead to problems within the group because people are holding back what they actually want to say. Then the group doesn’t progress forward and there’s no change and no critical thinking happening. So that can be a real issue.

Cath Anne: [00:04:01] I hear what you’re saying when there are people that disagree. It can definitely be frustrating but if there is a facilitator in place to navigate that it can make a huge difference in group work.

Cath Anne: [00:04:14] Okay. So I guess I’ll just jump into some of the content that I wanted to get going this week.

Instagram Viewer: [00:04:29] Yeah, lots of people don’t pull their end of the weight, sometimes.

Cath Anne: [00:04:33] That’s absolutely true and something that is probably one of the main issues especially in undergraduate and graduate programs. We are all required to do group work. Like I said it is a it is a beneficial skill to learn but it can be really frustrating when someone in the group doesn’t pull their own weight. That’s something that I’ll be covering in this session as well.

Cath Anne: [00:04:57] Let’s jump in because those are two really good points and two things that I’m going to discuss. The first thing that I wanted to talk about just briefly is what is group work and why do professors get us to do it in undergraduate and graduate degrees? Of course group work is a combination of students that come together in order to do a project. I’m sure we’re all familiar with that and we all know that when the professor says this is going to be a group project everyone most people in the group or most people in the class become frustrated because it’s definitely not the easiest thing to do. But at the same time there are reasons that the professor is asking us to do group work. One of those reasons is because group work is truly a skill that you can carry into your life.

Cath Anne: [00:05:55] It’s a professional skill and a lot of times the professor wants to see how you are going to work with other people and how well you do in navigating the challenges that go along with group work. If you look at it that way can be a really beneficial approach to look at work as a learning opportunity or a chance for you to grow as a student and as a professional moving into the field. Of course when you’re in the throws of it it’s not necessarily easy to have that kind of overarching perspective but just kind of tuck away in the back of your mind that any group that you will learn something from any group you are a part of. I think that’s a really important message to carry forward. I know that it’s gotten me through many a great many project. When I was in social work school it was pretty much all essays and projects. I was fortunate enough to have kind of a cohort of other students that I worked with. But of course the professor would often try to challenge us and say, no you need to work with a group of people that you aren’t used to working with. That presents another level of challenges. But at the same time it’s something to grow with.

Cath Anne: [00:07:21] Another benefit of group work is that you can get to know other people and you get to know other people’s perspectives. Especially in bigger cities like Toronto, I know a lot of the viewers are from Toronto, there are going to be people who come from all different kinds of backgrounds and speak all kinds of different languages and have a different worldview. I really believe that by working in a group it can allow you to navigate those differences and try to understand where people are coming from. It gives you an opportunity to explore different cultures and diversity because that is reality. You know if you especially if you’re living in Canada we’re becoming an increasingly diverse locale. It is important to know how to work with a variety of people. So that’s another reason that group work can be really beneficial in developing your skills to work with all different kinds of people from all different walks of life and all different approaches on work. You know, not everyone is going to be a type A personality where they’re going to want to take on the bulk of the work. Not everyone is going to be a slacker. Most people are going to be in-between. So those are the people that you want to learn how to work with them because those are the people that you will be working with in your working environment.

Cath Anne: [00:08:48] This is a little spur of the moment comment, but I’ve been thinking about this too lately and I wanted to just share a little bit from my own experience. So I as I mentioned I am a social worker by profession and recently I was actually doing a bit of research around collaborative approaches and strategic approaches in the professional world. I was doing research specifically around healthcare. In these settings, social workers come with a certain perspective. Social workers have a social justice, human rights perspective where we are required to be an advocate for people who don’t have their voices heard. It can be difficult to work with say doctors and nurses and other health care professionals who have a totally different perspective. So, for example, doctors have a very treatment oriented medical perspective, whereas a social worker is coming with a social perspective. In this case it is really important to learn what your profession brings to the table. It is also important to learn how to not be silenced in a group. I think it’s really important to learn how to collaborate and communicate really strategically with other professionals in the field. So I guess I just wanted to kind of put that out there because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about quite often. I can understand how group work really translates into real life.

Cath Anne: [00:11:11] Of course as mentioned there are going to be challenges to working in a group with diversity and with different perspectives. As Coach Kaur said it’s difficult when everyone isn’t on the same page. We can also reframe that and suggest that it can be an opportunity for learning. Yes I know in reality that it is difficult to reframe that but at the same time it can really be an opportunity for learning.

Cath Anne: [00:11:44] Probably one of the biggest challenges of group work is that everyone has a different schedule. Particularly in the university and then in the professional world everyone has different things on the go. Further on into adulthood it just gets worse because people have families. People have different activities. Everyone has their different lives going on it can be really difficult to coordinate scheduling. So that can be a very mundane practical challenge of being in a group.

Cath Anne: [00:12:31] The classic challenge with group work is that there is the one person in the group who chooses not to engage and chooses not to participate or do any work. I know that we are all familiar with that person. To me that is very frustrating to have someone in the group like that. That is something that I’m specifically focused on just a little bit later in the talk but that can certainly be a challenge when you are trying to work in a group.

Cath Anne: [00:13:04] Another challenge can be group conflict so that can be, as Coach Kaur mentioned, everyone not being on the same page. Perhaps there is tension between one group member or the other. Maybe one group member doesn’t like the other group member. That can certainly be challenging but what I would suggest is that it’s good to get that conflict out on the table. So often because we are so driven to avoid conflict or avoid confrontation, we will just be complacent and we will not want to challenge the other group members. Really what has been suggested and I can put a reference to this in the in the comments, is that when we don’t recognize that conflict we are actually avoiding a chance for dialogue and avoiding an opportunity to explore the reasons why we are having the conflict. In turn we are not working towards change. When we avoid kind of addressing those underlying issues that can result in really problematic group formation. So although there is conflict I would suggest that we should get it out in the open and discuss it. Unless there’s an extenuating circumstance where it might harm someone to do so, I would suggest that it’s important to get those issues on the table, discuss them, and figure out what the problem is, address it and move forward.

Cath Anne: [00:15:09] Another potential conflict within any group scenario is comprehension and understanding. So because we are such a diverse community these days there may be potentially a language barrier or there may be someone in the group who does not understand the content of the course. Those are really important things to address at the beginning of the group because moving forward you won’t be able to understand why that person isn’t participating or what the barrier is unless you address it upfront. In this case we’re being mindful of all of these issues. This can help you to avoid potential issues moving forward.

Cath Anne: [00:15:57] Let’s discuss a little bit about group dynamics and how groups form. This might be a little bit dry but I’ll try to speed it up a little bit but I think it’s really important to understand how groups form. What Group dynamics are the processes that occur between group members and the dynamics are affected by each member’s individual perspective.

Cath Anne: [00:16:46] When a group initially comes together that’s called the forming stage. We’re going to talk about forming, storming, norming, performing, and then closing. When a group initially forms it is a series of individuals that come together to form. With them they bring their own perspectives, beliefs, values. In this stage, the group is initially forming and each member is questioning who am I? What do I bring to the group? Who in the group do I feel most comfortable with? Why is it important for me to be a part of this group?

Cath Anne: [00:17:32] Even though we might not realize that that is what we’re going through when we first join a group. Those are all dynamics that happen within the group and those are all natural processes that we engage in.

Cath Anne: [00:17:47] Then the second phase is storming. Storming is when group members are trying to figure out where they fit. They might have a bit of conflict and they might try to understand what another person’s values are in order to equate that with our own values along with the reason they are in the group. There might be times when one person thinks they’re the leader of the group and another person thinks they’re the leader of the group. However, perhaps one person is more of a natural leader and they might take on the facilitation of the group. Though, there might be a little bit of conflict there. So those would be the issues that occur in the storming phase. The reason I’m kind of going through this is to help you understand that these are normal processes and these are things that happen to us as human beings when we are trying to form a group.

Cath Anne: [00:18:43] Then the norming stage is when the group is starting to form a cohesive bond. They’re starting to develop shared values and beliefs beginning to understand what their role is in the group. So they start to develop shared understandings of why they are engaged.

Cath Anne: [00:19:11] Performing then refers to getting the stuff done they need to get done. In terms of an undergraduate degree or a Master’s degree when you are in a group, performing might be developing your group presentation and then presenting it to the class.

Cath Anne: [00:19:36] Of course closing refers to the celebration that you have finished your group project. You’ve received that A+ and that is the end of the group and the closing.

Cath Anne: [00:19:46] So that’s a basic breakdown of how groups form and group dynamics.

Cath Anne: [00:19:51] Let’s talk a little bit about what makes a group function well. The first thing is group cohesion. Group cohesion refers to what I was discussing earlier which is the process of understanding the shared values and the intent of the group. So for example if Coach Kaur and I were in a group together with The Neighborly Consultant perhaps we would want to do a project on group dynamics so we would get together we’d form our group and then we would start to discuss what is the intent of our group and one of the shared values that we have towards this group project. So ultimately if it were just a group project for school you would likely want to get a good grade. You would want to present some valid information. You want to make sure that your project is accurately referenced and you want to be confident in the information you’re providing to the class. Those would be all shared values although we might not spell them out on a piece of paper before we begin.

Cath Anne: [00:21:50] I’ve been in groups before that have written down the actual values that frame a group. That could be a potential approach to developing cohesion to help everyone understand that we are on the same page in laying the groundwork for the group moving forward. Of course when you’re in a university program time might not allow for that especially when you are swamped with papers and exams and other projects as well but it could be a beneficial process.

Cath Anne: [00:22:43] I think I kind of skipped by this a little bit but one important tenet of group cohesion and making it work well is developing role identities. In particular you will want to identify someone who is going to take the lead in a group. I would suggest that you identify and target who you want to be the facilitator or the leader of the group because that will help set the tone for the rest of the group project.

Cath Anne: [00:23:34] I would suggest using the term facilitator especially if someone is good at kind of identifying people’s strengths that can be a really powerful way to make sure that the group runs smoothly especially if the person has an overall perspective on group dynamics and how the group should function. Identifying a leader is a very important prospect. You will also want to identify other people. Maybe there’s a quieter person in the group who likes to take notes that can give them a role. Identifying and breaking down specific roles within the group can help to make your group function really well.

Cath Anne: [00:24:25] I wanted to tell a quick story about my experience in university. There was a woman who I went to school with and she was excellent at picking her groups. She would target people specifically in class. She would watch them as they answered questions and she really picked the core members of the group who she knew had certain strengths that she wanted to work with. Ultimately she was a leader in the group because she identified everyone who had strengths that complemented her strengths. So that was a really valuable strategy on her part to form groups. She always ended up getting an A+. So although you don’t have to be as strategic as my friend (fortunately I was able to be in her group), I would suggest that you’d be somewhat strategic about whom you pick in your group. Sometimes it won’t be you won’t be able to do that because the prof will say that you must work with people you’ve never worked with before. Sometimes you might feel bad and you might want to include someone who doesn’t always have an opportunity to participate in a strong group. However, if you’re being strategic and you really care about your grades I would highly recommend seeking out those people who you think you can collaborate with if you do have that opportunity.

Cath Anne: [00:26:06] I wanted to provide a brief overview of some other tenets of group work that will make groups function properly. I wanted to provide a few suggestions of what can help you function while in a group.

Cath Anne: [00:26:29] Active listening in other words, being attentive to your other group members and not being on your phone. You might even suggest putting phones away during group meetings so that everyone is being really attentive because in order to work together in a group it’s really important that you pay attention to each other and to what the other person is saying. So you really want to be attentive to people’s behavior in order to understand what they feel about the group and how their role is playing out in the group. You want to establish your common goal as you mentioned. You’ll want to assign roles and create a timeline. Creating a timeline helps you guide the process. It’s just like writing an outline when you’re writing a paper. You’ll want to have a breakdown of your goals and what when each goal will be due. As well as a goal of when you want the project finished.

Cath Anne: [00:27:44] Also, you want to divide and conquer as I mentioned. You’re going to want to target everyone’s strengths. This will be an approach that the leader should take on and to delegate. Maybe someone is really strong in researching. Maybe there are two people in the group who are really strong in and researching. You’ll want to delegate those tasks to those people who are really strong. Maybe someone is really good at note taking or making power points that will be your job for him or her. So really harness people’s strengths and then divide and conquer so that everyone feels like they have a voice in the group. It is important that everyone feels like they have a task that they’re strong at and that they’re not struggling to do so. That is kind of the crux of group work is to make sure that everyone is able to do their task and feel confident about it.

Cath Anne: [00:28:47] I wanted to discuss a little bit about groupthink. Groupthink refers to the process through which we are so dedicated to maintaining harmony and cohesion in the group that we almost become afraid of conflict. This fear of conflict or fear of dysfunction results in us being unable to make decisions. This somewhat refers to board of director meetings or community boards.

Cath Anne: [00:30:15] I’ve been in many groups where everyone is so afraid to challenge each other that the group never moves forward so it’s really important to be wary of groupthink and make sure that you’re not just agreeing on the basis of not rocking the boat. I’m not suggesting that everyone should be arguing all the time but if there is some underlying tension that should be addressed in order to move forward with the group process it is important to address it. When those issues go unaddressed then that can lead to problems in the group. Also people might, if those things are not addressed, feel hurt. It’s just good to step back and check yourself and make sure that you’re not isolating people or that you’re not too afraid to rock the boat that people aren’t being heard.

Cath Anne: [00:31:26] Finally, these are a few practical things to consider. You’re going to want to make sure that you exchange contact information amongst each other so that you’re able to contact each other. I really like being able to text my group mates. Some people prefer Facebook; whatever it is the most appropriate method of communication.

Cath Anne: [00:31:52] Book as study space. Make sure that you have an appropriate space where you can all talk and come together. You’re not just going to want to be in the hallway at the school. There are lots of rooms that are available for booking in the library. Make sure you make use of those because sometimes you can book them for hours at a time just spend a Saturday there and do the whole group project right in that space.

Cath Anne: [00:32:18] It’s best to use those spaces that are on campus in order to avoid using someone’s home because those can be that can be a little bit more distracting. The study rooms at the universities are usually really beneficial and helpful because they are not full of distractions.

Cath Anne: [00:32:46] Also find the best means of communication. By that I mean document sharing. So you might want to use Google Docs or you might want to use Dropbox or Trello. There are lots of options out there that you can use. I prefer Google Docs. It’s easy for everyone to access. Make sure that everyone is able to access Google Docs. I know that I’ve been in groups before where people don’t understand how to access the drive or Google Drive and then that prevents people from engaging. They feel embarrassed and then that prevents them from actually participating in the group. So you really want to make sure that all those kinds of little things are addressed and that you’re not assuming that someone is just not wanting to do the work when it’s actually they don’t understand the technology that you’re using. It’s really important that all of those things are addressed.

Cath Anne: [00:33:46] Let’s now discuss the dreaded non-participant in the group the person who everyone knows is super frustrating to work with because they don’t want to participate and they don’t seem to share their weight in the group. And so we wanted to give you a few strategies around how to navigate that.

Cath Anne: [00:34:10] As I mentioned this can be navigated or dealt with in a proactive way by giving that person a specific role. Maybe it’s not an extensive role, maybe it is simply to take notes at meetings and provide them to other people. Maybe it is to give a bullet point break down of some research they’ve done. Make sure that you speak with that person and find out what their strength is and then delegate that role to them. This will be the leader’s role to take on the delegation of these jobs within the group. So if you are concerned about someone not doing enough work perhaps you don’t realize but maybe you’re the leader and maybe you should take on the role of delegating roles because that is a really important job to have. If there’s no one stepping up to the plate in terms of being a leader, perhaps it is you that should take on that role. Groups function a lot more smoothly when they do have a go to person or facilitator. So yes, you want to make sure that that person is feeling supported. There are also people who get really overwhelmed in groups. So a group project can seem very overwhelming to some people and if it’s just a lot of information and a lot of talking it can tend to go over some people’s heads. So make sure that they have something very specific to work on and they know what their job is and that they’re feeling supported.

Cath Anne: [00:36:00] Then also you want to address any little issues as I mentioned. So if they don’t know how to use the technology or if English is not their first language make sure that you’re addressing all of those issues out front in order to make sure that they are feeling supported. If they are not participating it does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to or that they are being lazy. It could just be a matter of they don’t understand what the point of the group is or they don’t understand what the group is working towards. So that would be a really important job of a leader to take on supporting that person. This might involve taking that person aside and trying to understand why they’re not participating. So it is a person who just seems like are being a little bit lazy or they don’t want to work. It might be the role of the leader to take them aside and say, “Hey, what’s going on why are you doing this?” It might be uncomfortable and put you in a strange position but at the same time maybe there’s something going on at home. Perhaps they’re super busy with a full time job and many other courses.

Cath Anne: [00:37:31] It’s really important to address these things upfront in order to avoid any underlying tension because if the other members of the group realize that one person is not pulling their weight then there is ultimately going to be tension. Again that’s the role of leader to take them aside and address that.

Cath Anne: [00:37:53] Another really tangible strategy that you can use for addressing this issue is to institute mini deadlines. Sometimes for people a whole airline or group project airline line can be really daunting. So if you institute mini deadlines it can help people navigate their goals. If you have a month to work on a project, maybe each week there is a small deadline, they have to get a certain amount of work into the leader or the editor of the group. That can really help to move the work along and give people a little bit more structure because sometimes an open-ended deadline can be very overwhelming. Ultimately if the person does not seem to want to engage and you’ve tried all of these other strategies you may have to email the professor. However, think of emailing the professor as being in a job and going to your supervisor. You’re going to want to do this very strategically because the professor has set up this group project in order to see how you will work in a group environment and that is a part of your grade. So you want to be very strategic about when and how you approach the professor.

Cath Anne: [00:39:47] Likely when you do approach your professor they will ask if you have tried the strategies we discussed. You’ll want to make sure that you’ve taken those steps first. You also don’t want to throw the group member under the bus, you might just want to lightly suggest to the professor that they’re not pulling their weight and that you have tried every other strategy but this group just does not seem to be working. Then hopefully the prof will be able to intervene and support the student to be able to pull their weight. Definitely try all the other strategies first before going to the prof. There’s nothing wrong with going to the professor for a little bit of extra support particularly in really challenging situations that can’t be negotiated with these other strategies.

Cath Anne: [00:40:52] Then of course the other person in the group who is difficult to work with is the know-it-all or the person who thinks that they have all the answers. Often this will be the person who butts heads with the leader because they think that they should be the leader. All the same kinds of strategies will work for this person. So offering them a really legitimate kind of important role in the group will hopefully appease them and make them feel that they are valued member of the group. Offering them support in that way is really important as well.

Cath Anne: [00:41:34] So and then as I mentioned is really important if you are the leader of the group or the facilitator to initiate dialogue. If there is a person who’s kind of dominating the group but not really an effective way maybe ask the other members of the group how they feel about how the group is going and hopefully the person who is being very dominant will take some perspective from that and understand that maybe they should take a step back and help the group to function appropriately.

Cath Anne: [00:42:08] Then if none of those strategies work of course you can take them aside and have a discussion with them, same as the non-participant. Then speak to the professor as the final step. Also I find that the person who is dominant in the group can put a negative spin on the group very easily so if you are the facilitator or even a group member make sure you’re staying positive. Group dynamics can go awry really quickly if the group is being negative and taking on a negative tone. So stay positive in the group, set the tone of positivity, and that you’re working towards goals because nothing’s going to function if you’re being negative.

Cath Anne: [00:42:55] That doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. So just keep that in mind don’t avoid conflict. Make sure there is dialogue but also keep positive so also understanding if you are the facilitator. Understand that there is no value in being the smartest person in the room. Everyone in the group brings different strengths, different perspectives and its strength is in being able to understand that and being able to dialogue with each other. Take strength in the diversity and the different perspectives and go from there.

Cath Anne: [00:43:41] You’re not going to be the smartest person in the room and there is no strength in that. There’s no value in what you’re bringing to the table by trying to be that person.

Cath Anne: [00:43:53] Then one final tip is to make sure you start early. So for group projects they usually give you a month or month and a half or so to work on them. Make sure you’re jumping in and starting right away. Schedule your group meetings because if there are any issues that come up with the group that will give you time to navigate those issues and to form and become a really solid group.

Cath Anne: [00:44:28] I think that was all I had this week. To sum it up: make sure that you’re dialoguing; don’t avoid conflict. Keep in mind to play to everyone’s strengths. Identify a leader and stay positive towards goals. Set deadlines. Group projects can be really beneficial and really enjoyable if you do them right and there’s no reason they should be dreaded. It is difficult to work with other people and it is a lot easier to work alone sometimes. But if a group works well it can be amazing and it can actually be a lot of fun.

Cath Anne: [00:45:14] I hope this was helpful. I know that was a lot of content but I really hope this was helpful. I think group work is really engaging and really dynamic and important skill to learn.

Cath Anne: [00:45:31] So thanks for joining me on “Homework Help Global’s Learning Studio”. Thank you so much for joining me. And if you want to join us again we’re here on Instagram, we’re on Facebook Live. We are also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, YouTube Medium. We stream this program on SoundCloud, Anchor, iTunes Apple Podcast, Google Play Music. All you have to do is type in Homework Help Global and you should be able to find. We will be streaming live every Tuesday evening at 2:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. And I think next week we’re going to do another academic focus. But if there are any other suggestions for topics please feel free to DM on Instagram or message us on Facebook. You can use the hashtag #askHHG on Twitter and hit us up and let us know what you would like to see on the live stream. I’m really enjoying talking to you guys every week. So let me know when you want to talk about and I hope you have a great weekend. Have a good night.