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Help struggling team members collaborate in group projects

Aiding weaker team members helps everyone and the team

Some students find it hard to work in teams. Other students dislike team work, but know what to do. The struggling team member in a group prove a challenge to the rest of the team. This type of student is a challenge to staff too. I’ve tried a number of approaches over the years.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The struggling student often turns up late to meetings, provides poor quality work, or no work. This slows down the team, who expected work of suitable quality to be done on time. As a result teams tend to give this person less work, and hope for the best.

This can be a slow spiral of doom. The team gives the person something to do. It is not done at the next meeting so more time passes. Now the person is given less to do, and the other team members have to decide whether to reduce the scope of their potential work, or to take on more work. None of these are good options, or outcomes.

Determining personal contributions in team collaborations

This slow spiral impact the team and personal contributions in the course mark for the students.

Our group projects always have a way for team members to report on each person’s contribution. If everyone does the same amount of work, then everyone receives the base mark of the project. This sometimes happens, and would be great to see all of the time.

More frequently we see a few people marked up by team members who feel these people did more than others. These students see their mark bumped up by 10% or maybe 15% as they did more than the others no the team.

Unfortunately we also see a few teams where someone isn’t contributing. In the worst case, this person’s mark is reduced by 90%. This meant they failed the course. This is not good at all.

Find a way to help people do the work

In the example above where the person failed, team members talked to the student to see what was holding them back. They pointed them to exercises to improve their skills, and asked them to complete simpler tasks too. None of these worked. The student continued to either not turn up, or turn up late to meetings. When they were there, they also sat quietly on their mobile, and didn’t contribute to discussions, or slept.

I talked to the student during a meeting with the team too. My goal to was find out what was holding the person back from contributing. The person gave me vague assurances that they’d do something. I also said they could get in touch to discuss anything too.

In the end, the student knew the options, and consequences of non-contribution. They still didn’t contribute. I also never found out exactly how we could’ve helped them either. I find that frustrating.

Make it easy for people to help each other

I am now trying a new approach to this challenge. I was discussing this with a team and realised that I’d never been as explicit as I needed to be with my suggestions on how they should pair on things. The key part that hadn’t sunk in was that they do the work at the same time together. They thought it meant they each do a part, and then combine their work. It should be easy for team members to help each other. Aiding team members should also help the team.

I now tell students to follow these steps to ensure people are contributing:

  1. If you’ve not been doing much other than turning up for meetings, or silently watching the Discord chat, then you should consider your situation. You are in danger of losing contribution marks for the course.
    • Explore what’s stopping you from taking part. Are you nervous that you might not know much, or forgot how to code in python?
    • If so, then have a word with a team member, and ask that person for help. Tell them your issue.
    • Ask to pair on a task together. By ‘pair’ I mean do the thing together at the same time. This way you can ask questions, you can do the work together and improve your skills. The other person learns how to share their skills, which is also useful.
  2. If you think the quality of your work needs to improve, then again speak to one team member to ask for help. Find out how you might make your work better.
  3. If you see a team member, who is quiet, or who needs to improve the quality of their contribution, then you can also speak to them on their own.
    • Tell them you see they’re quiet, and you want to know what’s going on.
    • Ask carefully, and considerately about the situation.
    • Ask if they feel they lack some skills, or if there is something else going on in their life, which is impacting their work here. Maybe their part-time job takes up too much energy, or maybe there is some health issue with them, or a family member. It could be any number of things.
    • Be curious, be kind, and ask how you might help. 
  4. Lastly, as always. my door is open. Email me, speak to me in a practical, or afterwards. I’m here to help. I want you to succeed.

This builds on the collaboration rules

The previous steps I used were ok, but were not as supportive of the team as this new approach. It’s too early to tell yet, but to me it should be more effective. This should make it so that aiding weaker team members helps everyone and the team.

The new approach fits in with the collaboration rules too. This is a good sign. This approach aids team cohesion, and builds empathy within the team. It also speeds up feedback to individuals, and supports them gaining confidence and learning too. Altogether this should be an improvement for everyone in the team.

This post is part of a project pulling together my materials and ideas about Teaching Team Collaboration: the Human-Side of Software Development for software development to students. If you’d like to be notified of future posts, then please sign up for more using the adjacent form.

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