Group assignments can show you how things work in the real world. However, there are many factors that go into making the group work together.

Most of us can’t get through college without experiencing a type of task that professors love to set — the group assignment.

At first sight, it seems like an easier way to get things done. After all, the work gets divided and so each of us has less to do…right? But it doesn’t always work quite that way. Before we know it, there are arguments over the allocation of responsibilities, varying perceptions of what is to be done and accusations of unequal contributions to the project.

Some people end up feeling like they are carrying the weight of the entire task while others feel a bit at sea, not knowing exactly what they need to do, and yet others are happy to sit back and watch the work get done — and driving everyone else crazy in the process.

Working in groups can be both a pleasure and a pain, but there’s logic and usefulness to doing it. If you get the dynamics right, it can be a lot of fun and very productive. Here’s how teachers (by and large) think about groups. They think students will learn from each other, and so they put together individuals with a range of skills and interests. It is a way to assign a task that might be too complex or detailed for an individual student to do on her/his own within the given time. They try to balance complementary abilities so that the task can get done with as much learning as possible. Of course, when the students form their own groups, this may not happen, and you may end up having many people with similar and overlapping skills. Often students end up working with their friends or people whom they are used to being around, and a lot of the ‘fringe benefits’ of group work are missed.

Working together

In many ways, group work is the closest one can get to a simulation of the ‘real world’ workplace, particularly if it is a group you have not put together yourself.

Teams in most organisations are heterogeneous, unbalanced and held together by a common goal rather than by personal relationships. You just have to learn to work together, like each other or not, and accomplish the task you’ve been given.

There are some things you have to accept when working in a group. For instance, that the work distribution may be seen as unequal, but everyone’s role is important and crucial.

That there are going to be moments when everyone thinks someone else is taking care of things — and therefore, there has to be a ‘someone’ who does take care of things. If you happen to be the one to notice the need for such a ‘someone’ then perhaps you are that person. You also have to expect the arguments and tensions that are normal to any group activity, that there are going to be moments where everyone seems to be in sync and others when each one is pulling in different directions.

The balance

The thing that keeps groups going is the fact that there is a common interest in getting a decent grade or good marks.

This is also (sometimes) a source of heartache for those who feel like they have done more than their fair share and it is not right that others, who have done less, share in the good grade to the same extent.

Some teachers have a way of balancing the marks for the end product with a weightage for individual contribution, but this is not common.

But it’s for precisely these reasons that group work is important — it operates like real life. Unless you work in an area where you have complete control of what you do and how you do it, and you do not need to depend on anything or anyone else (very rare indeed), all the issues outlined above would be just as valid.

The most valuable lessons to be drawn from group work lie in the process of doing it. These include: getting along with different kinds of people with different levels of investment in the job (some who care, some who don’t); negotiating between the different levels of understanding of what’s required; developing the ability to stay focused on the task and getting it done within a deadline and accepting that the rewards may not always be even or fair, but that the real payback is in having seen something to completion. When you look at it like this, the experience becomes a lot more meaningful, irrespective of the marks you get.

So the next time you are given a group assignment, try to think of it as an opportunity to gain a sense of how things work in the real world, with all its frustrations and joys!

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is the editor of Teacher Plus. Website: www.teacherplus.org. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com