As I begin to work on an end-of-the-semester group project for one of my classes with fellow Trinity student and HackCollege writer Shep, I decided it would be prudent to write out a few guidelines to make group projects as painless as possible. Love them or hate them, every college kid is going to have to deal with them at some point. The main goal of a group project is to expand on original ideas and observations and to collaborate them to create something much more successful than any one student could have produced. Unfortunately, sometimes group projects turn into unwelcome burdens where one or two people are left with the load while the other members slide by without caring too much.

While you can’t always pick with who you work with for a project, there are a few things that you can do for your project to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible.

Brainstorming is Key

As amazing as email and other forms of mediated communication are these days, there is just no substitution to a good, old-fashion brainstorming session to start off your group project. First off, this is a good strategy to become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of your group, especially if you don’t know the members of your group. Listen to how your group members talk about the project to figure out how serious they are about it. Someone may take charge immediately, and sometimes it’s okay to let them. Just make sure you’re paying attention to what they’re saying to make sure they actually know what they’re talking about. Don’t be afraid to speak out in the brainstorming sessions if someone starts to take too much of a lead. Similarly, be aware if a member seems to be bored or doesn’t volunteer many ideas. It will help your group when it comes time to divide up responsibilities to know who is a good member and who isn’t.

Brainstorming is just a good way to start off any project. It helps members become comfortable with each other and tossing ideas at each other will help you all come up with the best one. Doing this in person is most effective and is well worth an hour or two out of your day to get your project off to a good start.

Also, do this early! Starting early on anything is the best thing that you can do to get your project off on the right foot. It allows you much more cushion room to throw around ideas and to make mistakes. the earlier you start on a project, the less stress you’ll have to deal with closer to the deadline.

Dividing and Doing the Work

How your group divides the work will obviously depend on the project itself, but it’s generally a good rule of thumb to keep things pretty even. However, since you’ve gathered information about your group members from your wonderful brainstorming session, use this information to help decide which member is in charge of which part. If there is a particularly light section of the work, assign it to the member of the group who seemed the least interested or helpful during the brainstorming. This may seem like letting them get away with an easy part, and it is. But let’s face it. You project and grade will come out better if you assign members like this with a less important part than if you try to force them to take on a larger and more important section.

It is very important to make the division of work very clear and that you assign each part to each person. If the group is not clear on which parts which people are doing, there is going to be confusion on what each person is going to do and some part of the project will be left out. Additionally, a clear division of work leads to a clearer sense of organization. When presenting your project or even just turning it in, it will be much easier for the professor to determine how your project flows together. If certain parts of the presentation blur together, it will seem much less organized.

It also goes without saying that it’s vital for you to actually do your part. You do not want to be that member of the group who everyone hates because you haven’t done your part. Yes, we will hate and resent you and we will blame every shortcoming of the project on you. It is true. So don’t be that group member. Do your shit. If you think that you’re going to have trouble finishing up your part of the project, start early. If you still don’t think you’re going to be able to finish your part even if you’ve started early, contact your group members immediately. Don’t call them the night of and say, “Oh, by the way I can’t finish.” Hopefully you will be able to shuffle around some responsibilities so that everything still gets done.

Regular Communication

I can’t emphasize enough how important regular communication is to a group project. It is after all a group project, so this should go without saying. However, sometimes people suck. Make it a point to contact your group members fairly regularly. Keep up an email thread between them, giving them updates on what you’ve been doing for your part. Let them know when you’re headed to the library to do some research and see if anyone wants to go with you to work. Regular communication helps everyone know what is going on with the project at all times and can help detect problems in the project itself and with the group dynamic early on. If one group member isn’t responding to emails, it’s probably a sign that they’re also not working on their portion of the project. Jump on these problems immediately so they can be solved before the night the project is due.

Regular communication can also help you weed out problems in your own portion of the project. Ask them for advice for sources and materials, for how they started their analysis, etc. Use Google Docs to help you coordinate communication in a group to make things smoother. While group projects divide up the work among several people, you cannot keep direct control over all parts of the project and make sure that everything is coming along as it should. Communicating with your group members frequently will lessen the stress and make sure your project will be done in time.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with group projects? Let us know in the comments!