Student research projects: learning to work together in groups

Helene Dyrhauge |

Group work can be very fruitful and engaging but there can be conflicts, disagreements and disengagement. Roskilde University students have to write six group projects during their BA degree, and will most likely experience group conflicts. It is, therefore, important to give the students the tools to manage group work.

It can be difficult for a supervisor to identify problems with group dynamics, especially when the group is not replying to emails nor turning up to meetings or only part of the group turning up for supervision. Whilst lack of communication also happens with supervision of one person, it is much easier to see that the student is struggling, whereas it is more difficult to identify what is going on with a group of three to six students. Thus, we have workshops, which focus on project work and group dynamics, thereby giving the students the tools to overcome inter-personal differences.

The workshops are taught in collaboration with the student guidance office. The student guidance office helps students overcoming group conflicts and in general advises the students on their study options. Lecturers and supervisors are not trained in conflict mediation and often advice the students to contact the student guidance office for help. Thus, the collaboration with the student guidance office enables us to highlight both academic and inter-personal dilemmas that might exist when you do group work.

In the first semester, the workshop introduces Belbin’s nine team roles, which gives the students insights into the roles they can have in groups and how these might change from group to group. In the second semester, the students have a workshop on how to manage group conflicts, where we draw on Belbin’s team roles and the students’ own experiences from their first semester group project.  Both first and second semester workshops discuss group contracts, which are agreements between the group members on how to work together. Group contracts can be written, verbal and they are sometimes very detailed (include social time together). The overall aim of the group contract is to manage expectations.

Group conflicts often arise either due to academically disagreement about the direction of the project, which leads to group split, or personal conflict, where one person in the group is seen as not contributing towards the shared project. Academic disagreements tend to lead to amicable splits. The personal conflicts are more difficult.  Often, a person is ‘kicked out’ or excluded from because the other group members think the person has not contributed to the project. The lack of contribution to the group project can be due to personal issues, e.g. health or family problems, or because the person is not meeting academic expectations. Most groups will solve the issues themselves without asking for help from the supervisor or the student guidance office.

Sometimes the relations within a group is beyond repair, then, the group can ask for formal permission from the team coordinator or director of study to split up. As a team coordinator for the BA International Social Science programme, I cannot fix things, but I can try to make sure the students depart on good terms, so they can face each other again in class the next day. There have been cases in the past, where a group has ‘kicked a student out’ and subsequently told everyone in the class about how ‘stupid’ or ‘difficult’ the person is, which has prevented the student from finding a new group. Ultimately this backstabbing can affect the student’s reputation throughout his/her studies.

Over the past two years, I have focused on preventing ‘bad break ups’ by talking to the students about group work during fresher’s week, project group formation and the students have worked on group dynamics in the workshops. Here I have emphasised that throughout our career we will all experience good and bad working relations. We do not always decide whom to work with, yet we still have to deliver a project and it is, therefore, important to manage expectations and keep a professional working relation. Overall, I have seen an improvement in how the students work together, they have become more aware of managing their projects, managing expectations, understanding the different group roles and how you switch between the roles thereby creating a good working environment in their group research projects.