March 29th, 2018

Why Some Students Struggle with Group Work


Why Some Students Struggle with Group Work

Recently, in my first-year seminar class, I had an opportunity to re-think my use of group projects. I had set up the task perfectly, or so I thought. I’d anticipated all the typical group project challenges, designed solutions to those challenges, and convinced myself that the final group assignment would be smooth sailing. Except it wasn’t.

“I am seriously stressed out about this project,” Alison,* a panicky 18-year-old, told me one day after class. “My grade depending on the work of others? That’s going to bring on an anxiety attack. I’m going to need to increase my meds.”

I was floored. I was confident I had prepared my students to work well together. My seminar class is on Harry Potter; we’d formed semester-long groups based on the Hogwarts Houses in the first week of the semester. Students had three months establishing relationships, building trust, and collaborating on low-stakes tasks. As we approached this cumulative project, they should have felt very confident in their ability to succeed as a group.

I had designed for every pitfall I could think of. I applied Bruce Tuckman’s model for stages of group development: teams inevitably go through phases which he called Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing (and later added Adjourning). I structured time and activities to help each House progress through the earlier stages. By this point in the semester these groups were clearly in the performing stage. I also built ways to help my first-year students manage their time well. We spent in-class time to create those all-important relationships necessary for effective group work, and I provided detailed instructions, rubrics, and exemplars to support student understanding and success.

What I didn’t do was design for the unseen personal issues students bring with them into class. On the surface, Alison seemed to get along great with the other students in her House, Hufflepuff. They laughed and joked, held up their end of the bargain on various smaller assignments, and generally had ironed out all the kinks. Or so I thought.

Once the pressure was dialed up on the end-of-term project, Alison started spiraling. Despite my repeated attempts to reassure her of her peers’ reliability, she withdrew from group interaction into a self-protective shell. She stopped showing up to group meetings. She refused to respond to texts or calls. Needless to say, Alison did not do her share of the work.

Initially surprised by her sudden retreat, Alison’s team members quickly adjusted. By the time our students get to college, they’ve had years of experience dealing with the slacker in the group. The other group members simply reassessed the situation and moved on to complete the project without her. All that remained was to figure out how to grade Alison’s contribution, or lack thereof. Understandably, her peers had rated her poorly on this project. But I felt that the problem was as much my fault as hers, so I worked with Alison and allowed her to complete an alternative assignment.

The slacker may not always be a slacker

Recently, I came across an article by Margaret Finnegan, It’s good till it’s not. Finnegan (2017) argues that collaborative learning tasks may unfairly disadvantage students with below-the-surface challenges, such as anxiety, autism, or other issues that interfere with effective social interactions.

Finnegan posits that if students already struggle to engage with others, group tasks are fraught with danger. Such students are very likely to withdraw the same way Alison did. The other team members, as well as the instructor, will dismiss this behavior as typical of the freeloader, or slacker, in the group. There’s always one, right? But Finnegan’s point is that perceived freeloader behavior may be due to circumstances outside the student’s control, issues that are not visible, challenges that may not necessarily register on the radar of the disability office.

So, what should faculty members do? Get rid of group projects altogether?

I’ll be honest. I’m always tempted by this idea. Group projects are hard for both students and faculty. But I was recently reminded that working with “random people you don’t like”—as pointed out by a chemistry instructor on why he doesn’t let students self-select into groups with their friends—is part of the real world. I’m not doing my students any favors if I don’t help them learn to manage their issues in order to work well in teams. This is an important life skill for workplace success.

I now realize that there are ways to support our ‘neurodivergent’ students as Finnegan calls them, students who struggle with disorders or trauma that interfere with social interactions. What’s more, these supports help all our students be successful. In line with Universal Design for Learning principles, we can structure group tasks to allow students to engage and succeed, no matter their individual circumstances.

Designing group work for success

Here are some of my takeaways from Finnegan’s article. In addition to her excellent ideas, I’ve added a few of my own.

Focus on the process as well as the product. Finnegan writes, “training students to work in teams needs to be an important and measurable learning objective.” Scaffold opportunities for students to learn how to work with each other. Provide carefully structured interactions to help them develop a group contract, identify team roles, establish milestones, and agree on consequences for neglecting to complete individual responsibilities.

Importantly, include these tasks in the grading rubric (which you provide up front) so that students know they will be assessed on their performance in these areas. Equally importantly, decide in advance how you will respond when team processes breaks down. How can you step in to help students learn to navigate these challenges?

Plan sufficient time to figure out “how to be a team” as Finnegan puts it. If you really want students to learn how to work together, give them plenty of time to do so. Create purposeful groups early in the semester. Develop activities to help students get to know each other, have fun together, and establish a firm foundation for working well together when the assigned task becomes more challenging. We all know that in order to function effectively, teamwork requires relationship and trust. What we may not so readily acknowledge is the time it takes to build these things.

Help students self-reflect. Finnegan suggests that an important element of working with a team is to stop worrying so much about what others are doing or not doing: “… students need to learn how to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as team members,” she notes. Require self-assessments and reflections, such as personality tests or learning logs, if appropriate for your learning outcomes. Draw students’ attention to their individual development as team members. Encourage them to set goals around working in groups, and to create a plan to achieve those goals. Better yet, incorporate these reflections into your grading rubric. This will underscore the importance of learning to work collaboratively in addition to more content-specific learning.

We can help students learn to work well with others, even if they have anxiety, trauma, or any of a range of various disorders. I hope you’ll agree that this is an outcome well worth pursuing in order to equip our students for success in future endeavors.

*not her real name

Finnegan, M. (2017, August 1). It’s good till it’s not. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.

Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University’s e-Learning Center. She’s taught English and Educational Technology classes at NAU since 1996, specializing in online and blended courses.