How to Survive (and Thrive!) in Group Projects | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
MSW/MPH Student Emma Swinford
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How to Survive (and Thrive!) in Group Projects

​In many ways, the fields of public health and social work are based in relationships. We are champions of interdisciplinary initiatives and cooperative work and understand that it will take teams of committed individuals and organizations to confront the social and public health challenges our society faces. As students, we celebrate this culture of collaboration and teamwork—that is, until we open our syllabus and see "group project."

 At the Brown School, group projects are at the foundation of much of the educational curricula. Anyone who has been part of a group project knows it offers distinct benefits and presents unique challenges. There are questions of coordinating schedules, agreeing on a direction for the project, navigating different work styles, and dividing tasks equitably. 

When I was assigned my first group project, my mind was immediately transported back to my undergrad days. I recalled the disagreements about how to interpret an assignment, the consistently absent group members, and the late night scrambles to blend five distinct writing styles into one cohesive paper. Of course, learning to function in a team environment, synthesize different pieces of information into a consistent end product, and incorporate varied perspectives into our work are valuable professional skills, but looking at my syllabi, I was dubious.

Regardless of the situation or environment, it is no small thing to step away from your own work habits and headspace to fully embrace the experience of creating something alongside others. Despite the fact that many students come to study social work or public health with the expectation that they will be working in close partnership with others, challenges still pop up when we work closely with others who may have different research interests or thoughts on how a project should go. For all of their ups and downs, group projects can be fun, enlightening, and often creative space in which I find my friends and classmates offering bits of themselves in ways that surprise, delight, confuse, and impress. 

So, what are the best ways to approach a group project? How can we cultivate environments of mutual respect, productivity, and joy? How can we approach conflict with a strengths-based perspective? Here are some quick tips:

1. Know yourself

Spend some time considering the roles you tend to adopt in group environments. Do you tend to take the lead, enforce rules, listen more than talk? Do you view conflict as something to be avoided or as an opportunity to explore options and come to a consensus and build ideas together? How do you prefer to receive or give feedback? What are your priorities and what will you need to feel like the project is a job well done?

2. Recognize the quiet strengths of others and express gratitude

We all have different skill sets. Remembering to acknowledge the work that often gets overlooked when there's a large final project in mind can go a long way to reinforce strong group dynamics. Is someone great at facilitating group conversations? Thank them. Does someone always reserve a study room so your group has a space to meet? Thank them. Did someone offer to do the formatting for your reference section? Definitely thank them. 

3. Make Good use of Group Time

Discuss what your goals are for in-person meetings and accomplish as much as possible outside of group time. Respect each other's time and try to strike a balance that includes productivity and humanity. If your group agrees to meet for 30 minutes, don't let it balloon into 2 hours unless there's good reason.

4. Bring Snacks

I consider this to be solid, all-around life advice.