20 Tips On How To Work With Students Who Have a Hard Time Collaborating

February 1st, 2013 No Comments Features

Introvert student

There was nothing I hated worse in school then when the teacher announced, “The next assignment will be a group project.” The word group was a swear word in my book akin to a big fat F. Group projects meant arguments. Group projects meant a low grade.

As an adult I can see where my fears, insecurities, and personality set me up to hate collaboration. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my classmates; it was simply a matter of feeling out of control.

If you are a teacher, educator, or even parent that shies away from assignments that require collaborative effort, the following list will give you a few tools and tips to help students…just like me.

1. Create a Common Group Mission Or Goal

Before you let your students disperse into their groups, sit with each group and help them create a common mission or goal. Try to have it be a couple sentences or less. Use feedback from all of the students to create a cohesive statement that they all can agree on. Then have them sign it as a commitment to uphold the vision and mission of the group.

2. Personality Assessments

Students usually love personality assessments. It gives them a chance to understand themselves better, as well as their peers. You can use a Myers Brigg assessment, DISC, or even do the lighthearted, “Which animal are you?” test. You’ll be able to discuss typical clashes in certain personality types and this helps dispel some of the “personal” nature of conflict when it arises.

3. Identify Potential Conflicts

Following the above suggestion, when you have your class “sorted” according to personality, don’t make a group full of dominate leaders. You’ll have more information about each individual that can help you put together groups that have a diverse set of personalities.

4. Assign an Individual and Group Grade

For students who are uncomfortable with a “group” grade only, you might find him/her exhibiting controlling or avoidant behaviors. If you offer the group an individual grade and a group grade, it can take off some of the pressure and you might see those behaviors diminish.

[Editor’s note: Also check out our article on lighting social engagement afire.]

5. Take Into Account The Collaborative Effort When Grading

Group collaboration is as important as the project itself. Part of the grade should reflect how well the team worked together. Students who know you are grading them on group dynamics will see that cooperation is just as fundamental as the outcome. It shifts their focus from being goal-oriented to relationship-oriented.

6. Be Available For Feedback

Make yourself available to your groups. This is especially crucial for a member that might not feel safe. You must in some ways put on the “psychologist” hat and help guide your students through the process.

7. Observe Each Group

Group work should not just be done at home or after school. Create space in your schedule for your groups to work in the classroom so you can observe. This way when students come to you with problems or questions, you’ll already have a pulse on what is going well and where the conflicts might be.

8. Assign Roles

Perhaps you want the group to assign roles on their own. This is fine, but it is important to educate your students about group roles first. Art therapist Carly Sullens writes (with a bit of levity) about all the different group roles there are. She identifies the leader, follower, gatekeeper, aggressor, deserter, dominator, recognition seeker, tension reliever, supporter, energizer, opinion giver, information seeker, clown, and the sniper. Obviously some of these are negative and you don’t want to assign a negative role! But you can help them to see who might be the best leader, information gatherer, technical specialist, etc. Keep in mind different projects require different roles.

9. Create Projects Designed For Group Collaboration

Group dynamics won’t work well if the project isn’t designed for collaboration. Make sure your assignment fits with a group. Projects that have multiple layers of presentation, research, and execution. Never assign a paper to a group. It’s too linear and sets the group up to depend on one or two people.

10. Understand The Development of a Group

An article from Planotes outlines the development of a cohesive group. There are four stages:

  • Forming: The group has not worked together yet, it is simply a handful of individuals that have their own opinions and experiences.
  • Storming: This is the difficult part of group formation. Here people challenge each other as the group struggles to identify roles and come up with a cohesive mission. Some conflict is to be expected and should not be looked at as a failure of the group.
  • Norming: Things settle down. Group protocol and roles are established. If the group is bigger, sub groups will have formed.
  • Performing: At this point, a team can come together and perform tasks. They are cohesive and united.

If your students are afraid of conflict, it will help them to know that conflict is part of the development of a group and they don’t need to shy away from it.

11. Make Sure The Group Size Is Appropriate

Smaller groups ensure that all members have a crucial role. It usually means that every member will have a chance to speak. Try to make the group as small as it can be and maintain efficiency. Groups with more than 10 people cause a scenario where the quiet members don’t talk much and three or four leaders emerge. It takes some work and effort to make sure all group members are interacting with one another.

12. Confirm That Each Group Member Has a Task That He/She Is Happy with

Once the group has formed, created a mission statement and/or goal, and has divided up the tasks, check in with each member to see how content they are with their role. If there is dissent so early on, it’s best to help them re-delegate tasks so things are more equal.

13. Deal With Problems Privately and Individually

Some members of a group will not speak up unless they are safely away from their fellow teammates. Individual feedback is helpful during conflict. While group skills can be taught and demonstrated as a whole, if there are any issues, try to deal with them privately.

14. Build Compassion

If the group dynamic lacks compassion, relationships will suffer. Each member should have compassion for the roles and tasks assigned of the other teammates. Compassion fosters an attitude of gratitude- and it is more likely that group members will appreciate each other’s work. To help foster compassion, orchestrate a time of self-disclosure and sharing. Vulnerability is another crucial key to develop a trusting working relationship. If it is a long-term project, maybe you can have members switch roles for a day to quote “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

15. Design a Rule That Keeps One Person From Dominating The Conversation

When you have a group with a couple of talkers, set up a rule where each member must speak once before someone can jump in a second time. The rule continues around and around, forcing the quieter ones to speak up, and the loudmouths…to shut up!

16. Practice Group Dynamics When The Stakes Aren’t High

Those who struggle in groups may have fears about how the outcome of the project will affect his/her grade. If you are having trouble with your students working in groups, give them a chance to practice group work without the worry of a grade at the end of it. This will lower that “performance” pressure and give the group a chance to focus on the relationships and dynamic.

17. Ask For Confirmation When Identifying Difficult Behaviors

Before you single someone out who has been labeled “difficult”, it is crucial that you ask for confirmation first. Steve Zuieback, owner of Synetics LLC, gives a practical example of how to identify problems and get group agreement. It is called the Crumple and Toss.

Each group member writes down on a paper the problems they are experiencing in the group. It is anonymous. When they are done, everyone crumples up their papers and throws them into the middle of the pile. One by one, each person picks a random paper and reads it out loud. At the end, members try to pick out a “theme” that encompasses the conflict and then agree on what the problem is.

18. Pick The Leader Carefully

A leader can make or break a group. Sometimes it is in the best interest of the group that you pick out the leader. If you’ve done personality assessments, you’ll have a few more clues about who will excel at management, delegation, and execution. Alongside the leader, pick someone as an assistant leader. This person should excel not at getting things done per say, but as someone who is a good listener. He/she can help the leader when the group feels like it isn’t being heard. Leaders are notoriously good at getting things done, but not always good at building relationships. The assistant leader helps tremendously in this regard.

19. Don’t Be Content To Modify Behavior; Search For The Deeper Meaning

Even after all your efforts, there still may be students that just don’t work well in groups. Rather than just trying to modify behavior, see if there aren’t underlying issues going on like depression, anxiety, or learning disabilities.

20. After The Project Is Over, Conduct Group Analysis Work To Help With Future Collaboration

Once the grades are handed out and the project is over, solicit feedback from each member and from the group. Even if you’ve done it several times during the course of the project, hindsight always provides a bit different perspective. Disgruntled members might have a change of heart when they see the final outcome and how everyone worked together. It’s important to get this feedback for the next assignment. It will be at that point that you can say, “Yes, but remember how please you were with…?”

Group work can be tremendously rewarding, but make no mistake about it, it is difficult! By educating yourself on group dynamics, you will be better prepared to oversee groups and handle difficult students.


Julie DeNeen has her bachelor's degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Haven. She spent several years working for a local Connecticut school at the district level, implementing new technologies to help students and teachers in the classroom. She also taught workshops to teachers about the importance of digital student management software, designed to keep students, parents, and teachers connected to the learning process.

You can find out more about her @jdeneen4 and Google+.

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