Working in a collaborative environment simply means working with other people toward some common goal. Often times in an academic environment you will be asked to “partner up” or “get with some classmates” and be assigned something to do. Sometimes it will be short lived (one class) with a very loose decision process on who is doing what while other times it will be a very formal arrangement with contracts and assignments that last the entire semester. If there is not a grade involved it becomes a low stake environment and people generally can get through the assignments with little concerns or problems. However, once a grade is involved, collaboration becomes something very different and the focus of group members takes on a whole different light on how they function together. Hopefully when we finish this section, you will have a better idea of how to work together in a group environment.

Or you could end up as the folks in the following video:


The What-Why-How of Collaboration

Why do we have to do it or what’s in it for me? 
Social Skills-The Art of Getting Along or Learning how to play nicely with others is not only important here at the learning institution-but it plays a role in just about everything you do outside these sheltered walls as well. You won’t always be able to text or email people, of course you will deny it but many of the same rules apply whether it’s electronic or face to face. It’s probably harder in the electronic medium because you cannot see expressions of agreement or disagreement. So let’s face the basic truths: Your personality is different than someone else…so now we have the potential for disagreement or conflict. We do not want to go to fisticuffs but rather we want to find a reasonable way to deal with disagreement.  One of the way we learn these skills is through working in that group environment and avoiding conflict through respect and compromise of other opinions.
Diversity-three heads are actually better than one.
Think about it…if you are in a group of three people, does it not help with problem solving if each person contributes to finding a solution? I know some of you might disagree and want to just solve it yourself because you do not trust anyone else…buy we need to get over that fear and look at this as an “opportunity” to excel in. Diversity or Differences make for a better learning environment. Why? If each person looks at a problem differently, you will probably get more choices of a solution then if everyone looked at it the same way.
Other classes do it too.
You cannot run…and you cannot hide from working with a group. Furthermore it’s not just in English classes but all over the place pretty much and in every major. Some instructors will have you in a group ALL semester long. While other may do it very little. It all depends on the instructional methodology of the individual. But regardless you need to be prepared for some form of group interaction.
Real Life Situations-It’s called teamwork.
When you do leave the halls of academia…working in a group environment will probably be more prevalent because simply-that is how things get done. Of course there may be some exceptions, but they are rare because generally speaking you are always part of some greater organization. The “Team” concept of doing things as some form of a unit is a universal concept so the more you learn to work within the environment of a team, the easier your introduction into the real world will be. If you still are shaking your head no, then take it to another level, marriage and raising a family. Is that not teamwork? Think about it.

Understanding Group Dynamics

Group Forming-A process or a toss of a coin? There will be situations where an instructor will say something like: “Grab a partner or get with another student…” These are defined as low stakes group work, it’s usually a situation where details about the group members may not be that important to the desired outcome. However for long term group work many other factors are considered such as work experience, age, interests, previous grades…etc. The reasoning here is that “diversity” word again. In most cases the more diverse the group the stronger the outcomes. What unique aspects does a young person bring to a group? What does an older person bring? Differing social or ethnic situations?  Military service? This list of things that make people think differently can go on and on. For example, take the classic example of a group of athletes working together? Do you think that the outcome will be diverse? They are just a bunch of jocks. Well the answer is it depends on many other factors that need to be considered. Instructors develop unique ways to assemble groups-many use a questionnaire so it’s important to answer honestly so you are placed in the appropriate group.
Contracts-Deadlines-Responsibilities: The Details.For those longer term projects, you should have a plan of who is doing what and when it will be done. The best way to approach this is to develop a contract that each member agrees with—and signs. You may also want to develop check points, times when progress will be reviewed, to ensure people are headed in the right direction. The amount of detail is dependent on what the group feels comfortable with but practice and experience has shown that the more detail the better. Some other areas addressed in the contract are meeting times, places, contingency plans for if a member drops out, group meeting with instructor, self-evaluation of progress…etc.
What if John or Jane does not want to play?There will be times when a member of the group is simply not responsive for a number of reasons and the group feels it can be a problem to achieving the goal. The first step is establishing a documented line of communication consisting of the group concerns to the member with a copy to the instructor. Emails should reference the contracts or agreement, the specific problem, and what the rest of the group feels should be done to correct the concern. If after a few attempts to resolve nothing happens, the group should meet with the instructor to decide what to do next. Some possible items include mitigation of the issue or removing the member from the group. What is of vital importance here is timing. Waiting to long can be disastrous for the group so start communicating a problem as early as possible.

Potential Dangers

Forget the past and bring the right mindset with you.Your experience with group work in the past may have been disastrous but that does not mean it will be the same again. Be open minded to working with new and possibly very different people. You will quickly learn that one bad experience does not mean that this one will be the same way. Many students state that they are just shy and quiet. Well here is a chance to break out of that shell. If you openly explain that to the other members you may learn that for some of them it’s the same way. Together you can use this learning moment to also work on social skills and developing new friendships as well. However, there are three main types of personalities that can cause issues with a successful group environment that will be discussed further.
Hitchhikers: Just along for the ride.In that group dynamic we have a few personalities that could be a problem. One of them is called a Hitchhiker. As the names implies, in the group they just want to catch a ride along the way to complete the assignment. They will just go along with what everyone is doing contributing very little in terms of new or original thought. Once identified they can be managed but if there are too many hitchhikers in one group that can turn into a problem pretty quickly. So we want to limit the number and for those that are in the group, a way to deal is through the concept of mirroring the same behavior back at them
Couch Potatoes: Let those that care about their grades worry about it.The Couch potato is another type of personality that can cause issues. This is the person who sits back hoping that someone who has more of a concern for the grade the group gets will pick up their slack. These personalities literally do very little work because they know that John or Jane cares a lot more about their GPA then they do.  So they sit back on the proverbial couch and watch the world go by. As with the hitchhiker, these too can be managed if there is a limited number in the group. As with the hitchhiker, mirroring or reflecting the same type of behavior at the couch potato can potentially help the problem.
I can do it all myself person: I don’t care about the other members-only me.Then we have the opposite type personality that believes that they need (or want) any help from anyone and that believe that they can do it all by themselves. Sometimes referred to as the type “A” personality. These people are loved by hitchhikers and couch potatoes because they give them exactly what they want: an escape from doing any or little work.
Avoiding a dysfunctional group: The first step in avoiding a group that is not as functional as it should be is self-identifying. Your instructor will ask you, probably through a questionnaire of some sort, to self-identify if you fall into any of these categories. The main goal is to ensure that one type of personality does not overpower the group. This self-identification is not designed to punish anyone-it’s a system to ensure that the groups are balanced so they can function as best as they can. So when the form asks you questions, answer them as truthfully as possible. Now, should you end up in a group and after a while it becomes apparent that there are some conflicting personalities it is best to raise the problem to the group so everyone knows and can discuss a potential problem and a solution before things go too far.

How You Can Use Collaborative Work to Your Advantage.

Make your life easier: Who would not want to be in a position where things actually get easier? Juggling college class assignments are hard enough but if you are in a good group this can actually make your job easier leading to more time for other projects or doing those other kind of things that make college life interesting.
The Possibility of Better Grades: So we have been talking about a lot of the benefits that comes from working in a group environment that thrives on diversity of personalities, work ethics…etc. This diversity in a group generally provides a more developed research platform which results in a more thorough discussion of an issue. This naturally suggests that the group will achieve a better grade because of this critical thinking and analysis. So who would not want a better grade?
Learning Responsibility and Commitment: Working in a collaborative environment teaches responsibility not just in completing your own work but also being a part of the team effort. People are counting on you to help by pulling your share of the work and helping everyone to get a better grade. This forms a commitment or bond between the members of the group knowing that each person will pull their own weight to successfully compete the assignment. You learn trust and reliance which are skills you can use in other classes as well as on the job.

What You Should Do if You Have Problems in your Group.

Who are you going to call?

So there you are thinking about all the positives of doing collaborative work with fellow students and then you have a problem: What do you do if John or Jane just isn’t doing what they are supposed to? The first thing you need to do is have a discussion with John or Jane and see what is up. Maybe it’s something simple that can be resolved through discussion and get everyone back on the path. If that does not correct the concern, then it’s time to involve the instructor. It’s very important that this occurs early on in the project timeline because if you wait too long, it will be too late to take any form of corrective behavior and John or Jane will sail through leaving the rest of the group trying to salvage the assignment.


So after that initial conversation if the problem still exists you need to get the instructor involved. You can involve the instructor in a couple of ways. The easiest is where the group starts an email conversation with the student about the problem and includes the instructor in the loop as to the problem and progress to fix. Another way is to have the group sit down with the instructor and have a face to face discussion. This session allows the group to discuss the problem and what actions have been taken to resolve. Everyone gets to tell their side of the story. Either of these methods keeps the instructor aware of the problem so they can decide if they need to step in and make changes.

Safe Communication

As you can see, communication is key to success working in a collaborative environment. Whether it is between students or instructor it is vitally important to maintain lines of good communication. Most students in a group setting, may swap information to enable communication. For some it is an email address, a phone number…etc. It’s important to note that you should only share what contact information you feel comfortable with. If your not comfortable sharing information, try and find a way to still be able to stay in touch with group members. Perhaps using your school email address vice your personal email address might be a alternative. Some groups set up chat rooms or other group type settings and use those for their main form of communication.


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers; Anthony Ruggiero; and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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