Group projects are lesson in collaboration

November 20, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

There is an art to navigating a group, and it’s something we learn through practice.

We’ve become more aware of this in recent weeks as we’ve listened to our high school-age daughter discuss several collaborative learning projects. The process has been frustrating for her as she has tried to find a balance between control freak (doing all the work because she wants it done “right”) and doormat (doing all the work because the other group members know she will do their share).

A group project is about working together so each member gains new understandings about the material at hand. It’s the kind of skill future employers will look for – the ability to work as part of a team to solve a problem for which there may be no easy answer.

Working with others gives us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves – our strengths, weakness, and areas we can develop further. Yet working in a group can be challenging: Everyone brings different skills to the table, and we need to respect and honor those differences in working as a team to reach an end result.

Communication is key to group work, and we have shared the following tips with our daughter to help her better engage in the collaborative learning process.

Listen. Communication involves listening and responding. Be sure you have actually heard what the other person said before stating your point. We like this sentiment: You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak.

Be an active listener. Provide non-verbal responses, such as nodding or making eye contact, to let another group member know you have heard what is being said. You can also paraphrase what the speaker has said, which both validates their right to make a point and ensures you understand their perspective.

Be aware of your body language. Are you attentive and engaged in the conversation, or are you slouched in your chair, implying you are bored and disinterested? Body language can be a barrier to good communication, as a speaker can feel their ideas are being disrespected and invalidated.

Remember the art of compromise. Be accepting and understanding of other ideas and opinions, just as you want others to be accepting and understanding of yours. And remember, you may need to compromise in order to move the process forward. It’s not about proving you are right; it’s about working together to reach an acceptable outcome.

Be respectful. Sometimes a lack of participation isn’t a sign of laziness. Maybe there is something going on your peer’s life that is distracting him from the task at hand. If you feel comfortable, take time after a class, aside from other students, to say, “Hey, are you OK?” Perhaps you will better understand their lack of participation, and they will feel that someone cares.

Take an active part in the group. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts or explain why you feel the way you do. It can enrich the process and perhaps will help others see the issue in another light.

Engage others. Not everyone feels comfortable talking in a group. If someone is being left out or not contributing, try to engage them in an encouraging way. Ask, What do you think?

Establish ground rules. Set up expectations about the group at the start. For example, if you will need to meet outside of class, take time to establish a schedule and set up a mode of communication between meetings. Decide if there are other boundaries to be set – such as disallowing use of cell phones during work group sessions. You can also create different roles for each group member – select a note taker to keep track of conversation, a time-keeper to ensure the group finishes on time, etc.

Embrace (and enjoy!) the process. Working well in a group is all about learning good communication. Don’t see it as a task but as a learning experience.

The more our daughter is exposed to collaborative learning, the more adept she will become at it. Understanding how a group should function may help her to be part of one. We know it’s a skill that will serve her well in the future.


We turned for advice to the U.S. Department of State, whose “Diplomacy in Action” tagline caught our attention. The Department of State’s “Seven Norms of Collaborative Work” provides helpful guidelines for group work.

From the University of Pittsburgh: Small Groups

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