Common Group Work Challenges and Solutions

A group of students participating in a class discussion

Group work necessitates emotional intelligence and other skills such as communication, time management, conflict resolution, and recognition of team member differences. A successful group project will provide a framework to ensure students are properly equipped with these skills.  

Scheduling Conflicts

Scheduling conflicts often create roadblocks to getting started or continuing with projects. Group members may feel others aren’t compromising or taking each other’s situations into consideration. Use the suggestions below to help students communicate effectively and avoid scheduling conflicts. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Request students share their availability prior to group formation so that students with similar schedules can be grouped together. 
  • Provide access to virtual meeting spaces in a web conferencing platform (e.g., MS Teams, Webex, Zoom). 
  • Require that students take turns picking the venue and time of the meeting. 
  • Encourage students to be understanding of others’ schedules and responsibilities. 
  • Point students to online collaboration tools that facilitate working asynchronously. 

Group Conflict

Conflict is natural and sometimes necessary for effective group work. Sometimes it may escalate and make it difficult for members to focus on the project. Use the solutions below to help avoid and resolve conflict during group activities. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Provide the time and opportunities for students to build communication, time management, and conflict resolution skills within the classroom setting. 
  • Help students to stay focused on the work to be accomplished and to not let personal feelings impact their work in the group by ensuring expectations are clearly defined at the beginning of the project.
  • Use office hours to help students find common ground between two ideas to reach reconciliation. 
  • Encourage students to address conflicts directly and respectfully. 
  • There are instances that, for the well-being of the students, you may need to reform groups. 

Uneven Contributions (Loafing/Overachieving)

Uneven student contribution occurs when some group members don’t (or aren’t perceived to) contribute equally to the group project. Often, this results in tension within the group and feels unfair to group members. There are multiple methods of managing an uneven work distribution, as described below. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Set clear guidelines and work expectations at the beginning of the group project. 
  • Clearly define and assign the group roles and responsibilities so that each person will contribute equally. 
  • Increase individual accountability by combining group assessments with individual assessments.  
  • Provide a mechanism for teams to dismiss a member. Be sure to have a contingency plan for the dismissed student. 
  • Encourage students to speak directly, but respectfully, to the person who is contributing unequally. 
  • Ask students to do an anonymous mid-project evaluation of each other's contributions and performance to assess the group process and monitor dynamics. This can be facilitated through an anonymous peer review using rubrics. 
  • Provide multiple in-class “checkpoints” to assess group processes and monitor dynamics. 

Conflicting Expectations

Conflicting expectations arise when group activities are loosely defined. For example, some group members may strive for perfection, while others simply want to pass. Other opportunities for discord arise when discussing deadlines. Some people begin projects in well advance, while others procrastinate. Both examples create tension because the group isn’t working toward the same goal or deadline. The opportunities below will help you frame the group work to ensure a cohesive experience. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Early communication is key to ensure everyone agrees on common goals. Require teams to determine how they will communicate (e.g., Canvas Inbox, MS Teams). 
  • Help students to keep goals realistic by breaking the project down to smaller tasks. 
  • In class, give students the opportunity to create a timeline so the group can keep to an agreed-upon plan for completing the project. 
  • Ask students to complete a Plus/Delta survey to assess what’s going well and what changes could be made to help the group align their expectations. 
  • Rotate responsibilities to provide all group members the opportunity to excel. 

Getting Stuck

All the challenges thus far have focused on conflict. What happens when the group is cohesive but still unable to make progress? Sometimes they get stuck or hit a mental roadblock. This lack of progress can be discouraging and lead to procrastination or avoidance. Read the techniques below to help students find the path forward. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Precede group brainstorming with a period of individual brainstorming. 
  • Create structured opportunities at the halfway point of projects to allow students to reevaluate and revise their strategies and approaches. 
  • Assign roles to reduce conformity (devil’s advocate, doubter, the fool). 
  • Require group members to reflect on and highlight their contributions in a self-evaluation.  
  • Build in mechanisms for students to work through projects analytically using the groups’ combined and diverse knowledge and experience. 

Groupthink

As groups navigate the many types of conflict, some students may begin to feel frustrated or unheard. In these instances, there is a tendency for individuals to agree with others to avoid conflict. This is especially problematic as it stifles creativity and constructive evaluation of alternative ideas. Fortunately, groupthink can be prevented through a little intentionality. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • Provide an archive of past projects for students to browse. Be sure to follow FERPA guidelines by removing all identifying information such as names and pictures, and deleting author metadata from the document. 
  • Break the project down to smaller pieces to prevent overwhelming students. 
  • Share sources of inspiration for the project. 
  • Include reflection assignments in which each group answers:
    1. What is our next task?
    2. Who should do it? 
  • Review the assignment expectations and goals during class 
  • Hold a whole-class or group-specific brainstorming session where ideas are discussed. 
  • Demonstrate how to create a mind map to link common ideas and trains of thought. 
  • Provide time during student office hours to guide groups that may be stuck. 

Isolation of a Group Member

The last challenge we’ll look at can start as an effort to increase the diversity of each group, minimizing the likelihood of students falling into the groupthink mentality. However, research and experience tell us that being the “only” in a group can be isolating. Consider the pre-project solutions below to avoid the isolation of a group member and use the mid-project corrections if a student comes to you with a concern. 

  • Pre-project solutions
  • Mid-project solutions
  • If there is a limited number of visibly diverse students, endeavor to keep these underrepresented students together to limit isolation (Bailey, 2020). 
  • Establish expectations that require equal contribution and interaction. 
  • Ask the class to take a few minutes to write about what helps and hinders their group work experience. Review their comments, share the findings with the class, and provide strategies to address their concerns.  
  • Re-assign the student to another group.  
  • Review the roles, responsibilities, and expectations with the class.