Group Assignment? How to avoid disaster and collaborate successfully.

Posted August 27, 2014

By Dr. Don Forsyth


Professors often ask students to work on projects and activities in groups. These learning groups can yield remarkable educational benefits, but their value depends on how well the group manages its work and its relationships. Consider, for example, these two students’ experiences in groups.


Ava is upset as she listens to her professor make a nightmare of an assignment: a 5-student group project comparing the James-Lange theory of emotions to the Cannon-Bard theory. She doesn’t like working in groups, but she manages to get everyone’s name and emails as class ends. That night she sends them all messages and sets up a meeting for the next day. Sadly, only two other people show up, but together they talk about the project some—although they also discuss how unfair group projects are. They decide to split the paper up into parts, and assign each part to one member. Ava emails everyone their assignment, and all agree to do their work. As the deadline looms, 3 turn in drafts, one turns in part of a draft, and the fifth member explains he has been ill and did not get to it. Ava downloads the various parts and turns them into a paper, but she has to pull an all-nighter to get it done. The professor gives the paper a C-, and threatens to turn the group into the honor council since portions are plagiarized.

Consider the 4 pillars of the Theory of Group Development to make your group-work experience more like Ethan's
[Image: COD Newsroom - CC BY]


Ethan is worried when his professor explains the assignment: a 10 page group paper about the psychological effects of playing violent video games. He has been in groups before, and in one class he nearly failed because the group got an F on their project. But, at the group’s first meeting, held immediately after class, he is relieved when the students quickly settle on a time for a more extended meeting. At that meeting they discuss the project, and ideas flow because everyone read the portions of the chapter that apply to their topic before the meeting. One member volunteers to set up a Google Docs page to facilitate their work, and over the next several weeks the members stay in email contact and busily revise the online document. They finish the project two days before it is due, and one project member has it reviewed and edited by a consultant at the writing center. They make the final changes, the professor gives the paper an A, and the group celebrates that evening after class.

Ava and her fellow members learned only one thing from their experience: avoid working in groups. But Ethan’s group learned something about the topic they studied and how to work successfully in collaborative groups. Next time one of your professors assigns a group project, what can you do to make sure your group is more like Ethan’s than Ava’s?

Many factors combine to influence group performance, but Tuckman’s (1965) theory of group development highlights four: planning (forming), dealing with conflict (storming), setting standards (norming), and teamwork (performing).

1. Forming 

Groups do not become instantly effective teams—they must spend time as members identify goals and develop interdependencies. In study after study, researchers have found that groups that spend time during the forming stage identifying their goal and planning their process outperform other groups, First, they get clear, as a group, on what the group must deliver at the end of the project: Is it a paper, will you be taking quizzes as a group, answering problem sheets together, doing a PowerPoint presentation? Second, they identify the steps the group will take to reach its goal. The plan can change along the way, but having a goal is of little benefit if your group does not know what steps to reach the goal.

2. Storming 

Working with others is not always a smooth, harmonious process. Members often disagree each other—over their procedures, who gets to be in charge, who is right, who is wrong—but these conflicts must be handled skillfully if your group is to prosper. It is not conflict, but the poor management of conflict, that leads to problems. When researchers have studied student learning groups, they found that too many spend more time trying to resolve conflict instead of just getting down to work. The #1 goal of a learning group is to learn, not to become fast friends. Cohesive groups are not necessarily more effective groups, but effective groups tend to become more cohesive over time.

3. Norming 

All groups develop informal rules that guide member’s behaviors—norms—but not all norms facilitate group productivity. One of the key differences between a group and a team is a team is collaboratively structured—members know their roles and responsibilities and they recognize that the group’s overall performance is determined by their personal contribution to the group. Successful groups do not tolerate people who do their own thing: the slackers, control freaks, partiers, and so on. They define expectations and monitor members’ behavior, being careful to not wait too long before intervening to clarify the group’s standards.

4. Performing

With goals, procedures, and norms in place, the members are ready to go to work on the project. But highly effective groups do not do their work individually. They continue to collaborate across the duration of the work phase—in short, they use teamwork to reach their goals. They resist the temptation to break the project down into parts and assign the parts to members. Instead, they work as a team, communicating ideas, offering support and suggestions, and helping each other learn the material the group is reviewing. During the performing phase the group also carefully monitors its time and its methods. Groups, even more so than individuals, have a difficult time calibrating the time they will need to do their work (the planning fallacy). Effective groups often appoint one person who is the time-keeper—always responsible for reminding the members of deadlines.

So, why did Ava’s group founder, whereas Ethan’ prospered? Ava’s group failed to harness the power of their five minds, and so the result was less—far less—than the sum of the parts. Ethan’s group formed, stormed, normed, and performed its way to success, confirming the adage, “none of us is smart as all of us.”


Donelson R. Forsyth, a social and personality psychologist, holds the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. A fellow of the American Psychological Association, he researches and writes about ethics, groups, and related topics. Dr. Forsyth is the author of the Noba module "The Psychology of Groups"