Group assignments teach students far more than simply what they glean from the research they conduct and the project they complete. Astute students will also learn important lessons about communicating clearly, establishing plans and schedules, and collaborating in a proactive and positive manner. They may also hone their leadership skills along the way.

Students taking online courses gain the additional benefit of learning to work with others in technology-mediated settings. They’ll find that the skills that they gain from collaborating online will prove highly useful, especially if they take positions within today’s multi-locational companies and organizations, which rely heavily on web conferencing, video calls, instant messaging, and other online communications tools that connect people across the nation (and world).

In E-Learning Companion: A Student’s Guide to Online Success, Fourth Edition, Ryan Watkins and Michael Corry give students advice that can be applied to virtual teams in the workplace, as well as in the online course. They write:

  • Don’t expect the team to function perfectly the first day.
  • Be clear about team roles, responsibilities, and tasks.
  • Use technology to help stay organized (shared calendars, file sharing, etc.).
  • Agree on rules and norms for communicating and completing tasks.
  • Try to make social connections with team members. (p. 182)

In addition, Watkins and Corry offer students a set of guiding principles that help them successfully complete online group work. We’ve summarized the key points for students below. If you don’t already have a set of group-work practices in place, consider how you can adapt these guidelines and apply them to your assignments:

Before the Project Begins:

  • Ensure that you have read all of the information the instructor has provided, and that you are clear on all aspects of the project (including due dates, deliverables, policies, and grading standards).
  • Get to know fellow group members. Share your basic schedule (so that they know when you’re available), and let them know how they can get a hold of you. If you have a preference regarding the roles and responsibilities you’d like to take on in the group, share that as well—but be prepared to discuss those with your teammates.
  • Gather your fellow group members’ contact information. Store this information in a safe place that you can access even if your technology fails.
  • Decide how and when you will communicate with one another. Establish meeting times and determine what modes of communication you will use (e.g. online collaboration software, instant messaging, e-mail). Also, select a group leader (or, determine that leadership roles will rotate on a meeting-by-meeting basis).
  • Determine and agree upon the roles for which each group member will be responsible (e.g., who will schedule the meetings; who will take notes; who will format and proofread the documents; who will communicate with the instructor; etc.).
  • Also determine the specific tasks each person will “own.” (For example: all team members should contribute to a final presentation or paper, but one team member should be responsible for submitting the final copy to the instructor.)
  • Commit to regular meeting attendance, clear communication, keeping to your schedule, and all other actions that enable you to fulfill your end of the project.
    Agree to the software and file formats you will use for the project; this helps ensure consistency and reduces the opportunity for technical glitches.

During the Project:

  • Take full responsibility for the specific tasks you’ve agreed to complete.
  • Continue to fulfill the roles you’ve agreed upon at the start of the project (e.g. note taker, meeting organizer, point of contact with the instructor).
  • Communicate in a clear and positive manner that encourages collaboration rather than conflict or competition.
  • Maintain a shared calendar that helps your entire team see important meeting times and due dates. (Many programs and apps are available online.)
  • Don’t be too demanding of your teammates, but don’t be so lax that you allow important milestones and due dates to pass.
  • Store files and communications in an easy-to-find folder dedicated to the project.
  • Protect your work by backing up the files on a regular basis.
  • Before submitting work or sending notes to the instructor, ensure that each group member takes the time to review the document and agree to its content.
  • Try not to take any one comment too personally. Recall that you don’t have the luxury of watching body language or hearing vocal inflections, so you may be misinterpreting the tone with which someone intended to send their message. (That said, avoid easily misinterpreted modes of communication such as sarcasm.)
  • Keep track of all the resources you use for your research (whether print or online), and be sure you cite them properly.
  • Continue to communicate in the ways and times you determined at the onset of your project. Also remember to let the designated leader lead; don’t take over the “stage” if it isn’t your turn to do so.
  • Maintain a shareable online log of your group’s progress. Take note of when you’ve completed the various steps needed to finish your project (e.g., met as a team, shared your research with one another, submitted work to the instructor, etc.).

After the Project is Complete:

  • It’s good practice to send a quick note of “thanks” to your teammates once you have finished the assignment. This helps “close the loop” while simultaneously keeping an open door for future positive interactions (after all, you’re likely to encounter some of these same students in future courses).
  • Keep electronic copies of your final documents. (This is especially helpful if you’re required to complete an ePortfolio at the end of your program.)
  • Review the entire process. Take note of any “best practices” you observed, and consider how you can handle challenges and obstacles differently in the future. (Watkins and Corry, pp. 180-183)

Reference: Watkins, Ryan and Corry, Michael. 2014. E-Learning Companion: A Student’s Guide to Online Success. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

What benefits do you believe students gain from group assignments? What challenges must they overcome in order to be successful? What tools and techniques do you use to facilitate student collaboration in the online environment? Share your ideas and experiences belowb.