10 steps to surviving group projects

Love 'em or hate 'em, group projects are something you'll likely encounter in university. How you survive them depends on how you approach them.

Five university students gathered at a table looking at a laptop computer Photo: cottonbro studio

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of group projects probably makes you cringe. Call me a control freak but I don’t like any assignment where my grades rely on another person. But they’re unavoidable at times. While they may seem catastrophic, there are ways to lessen the stress.


Establish clear roles

One of the biggest sources of stress for me comes from not knowing what my role is in the project. The best way to beat this is to read over the assignment instructions with your group as soon as possible and decide who is going to complete what. It may sound so straightforward that it’s redundant, but I’ve been in so many groups where nobody communicates until it's far too late. If nobody can meet up in person—which I always think is best—then an email is definitely better than nothing and will achieve the same goal. If nobody is emailing, take the initiative. Reaching out can be scary but it’s worse to be unprepared.


Distribute tasks based on strengths

In the same spirit, the most (and best) work will be done if everyone is doing what they’re good at. For example, I’ve completed group projects with combined oral and written components. During your sit-down as discussed above, one of the best ways to establish roles is by going through each other's strengths and doling out tasks based on them. Guaranteed there will be people who are best at researching, writing, and speaking. Once the roles have been assigned, record who’s in charge of doing what. Paper trails are going to be your best friend in case someone flakes later.


Embrace technology

We’re lucky to have technology that allows us to work as a team even when we can’t be together physically. Entire companies have transformed their businesses to be remote recently. Following their lead as students with full schedules and active social lives, embrace using emails, shared Google docs, Microsoft Teams, and anything else that can be useful for you. There are a ton of websites and apps out there that will make your life easier in a group project. Do your research and work smarter, not harder.


Set progress check-ins

Setting progress check-ins accomplish two things: they give you and your group a timeline to work towards and they add subtle pressure onto the backs of people who may be less inclined to do the work. Look, as hard as it is to swallow sometimes, there will be people who simply don’t contribute as equally—or at all—as other people. However, for those who may just need an extra push, progress check-ins are a less-stressful way to hold everyone accountable. You never want to be the only person who has no work to show, so a set date where you show your progress encourages everyone to be prepared.


Quality control via reviewing each other's work

Along with the progress reports, make sure you’re all actively engaging in the overall work. It’s not your job to do anybody else’s work, but you’re dealing with a collective project—and thus a collective grade—so you need to ensure that what you’re submitting is agreeable to everyone. Make sure everyone is in active agreement—at least, for the most part—to the content the group is submitting. Your project will be more cohesive and produce better results with your professor when everyone reviews and gives their OK.


Be open to feedback

With quality control comes feedback, and you won’t be exempt from receiving comments you don’t necessarily agree with. Pride, for me, is a huge part of who I am—especially when it comes to my academic career—and sometimes criticism hits like a truck. In those moments, it’s best to take a step back and digest it a little later. If you review your work and think it’s best left how you’ve completed it, then keep it. But it’s worth allowing the feedback to settle because it's not an attack, it’s a chance to get even better.


Do a presentation run-through

Consider this like your final progress check. In all my most successful group projects, a presentation run through has been a life-saving addition to the checklist. Standing in front of a class is nerve-wracking on its own, so ensuring everyone knows when to talk and what to say eliminates unnecessary stress. The run-through doesn’t need to take a lot of time or need to be in person. In my last project, my group did it the night before on WhatsApp for 20 minutes. It really is that simple. The main goal is to get comfortable with everyone’s turn. Of course, not every project has a presentation component, but when they do this is probably my number one piece of advice.


Be flexible

As horrifying as it may be, there’s always a chance that all the effort and preparation you all put into your project might meet a roadblock during presentation or submission. Someone might get sick at the last minute, a peer could ask a question you didn’t prepare for, or you might stumble over your words. All in all, you will get through these moments. The best thing to do is take a breath and trust that whatever you can’t do, your group mates will cover—and vice-versa. This is what makes group projects amazing: you are not alone. The best thing to do when everything is going south is to band together.


Get in contact with your professor when needed

Hopefully it won’t come to this, but this is where a paper trail comes in. My mother believes in recording the details to everything so you have a reference to go back to. All those emails you sent asking people what their plans are for the project? All the check-ins where people might or might not have had anything to show for themselves? Use those when you go to your professor to explain that you did your part and kindly request that your grade not be impacted by the work of others. It’s not your job to complete an entire project with no help—plead your case! More than likely, your prof will agree with you.


Remember, it won’t last forever

Nothing lasts forever, especially the stress from a group project. There are so many more important, rewarding things in your life that deserve the attention and care that you’re giving to one small moment in time. Your partners might be impossible to work with, the work might not get done how you want it, and your grade might not be what you hoped, but outside the classroom there’s an entire world waiting for you. Celebrate the fact that you made it through and then forget about it because it’s not worth dwelling in at all. You’ve got this!