Group Work. Article by IfL Centre for Learning Development, The University of Hull
This leaflet will consider:
A) What is meant by group work and what are the characteristics of a group
B) The benefits of group work i.e. why work in a group
C) Possible problems and how to overcome them
D) Future applications of skills acquired
A) What is a group and what is meant by group work?
A group is clearly more than just a collection of people. Amongst the entries in The Oxford
Paperback English Dictionary is the following:
“A number of people or things gathered, placed, or classed together for some purpose”.
When we think about working in a group, the key words are “for some purpose”. Group working is
a situation where there is a common purpose(s), a shared aim(s).
You might like to think about the various groups of which you have been a member and identify their
shared aim or aims.
Group behaviour must achieve two major objectives:
• Group maintenance
• Task orientation (purpose)
Group maintenance implies building and maintaining relationships between group members,
ensuring that all feel valued and valuable. In informal groups, such as 2 or 3 friends working
together on homework, this is not a major issue. In a more formal situation, a conscious effort
needs to be made for cohesion to be maintained and any conflicts which develop to be managed
and resolved within the group.
Task orientation means that each member of the more formal group will have a certain role to play
in reaching a common goal. These roles have to be distributed so that the goal is reached effectively
by contributions from all group members. Typically group behaviour will encompass the generation
of ideas; gathering, sharing and interpreting information; developing, testing or evaluating and
implementing solutions or an outcome, for example a joint presentation.
An informal group might, however, have much more general aims, for example working together on
homework or revising for an exam. Such a group may divide up tasks and share them amongst
members or may primarily be formed simply for mutual support and encouragement.
The time spent on these aspects will vary. At first, as a general rule, more time will have to be
devoted to group maintenance. Then once the group is firmly established, with roles and individual
responsibilities assigned, the task will be the central focus.
Roles in a “formal”group
What would you consider are the main roles in a group? What functions would each perform? Draw
upon your own and second-hand experience.
It’s likely that you would have thought of the following in a formal context:
Facilitates the meeting.
Keeps the meeting on track.
Encourages everyone to contribute.
Summarises where the group is up to as it goes along.
Takes notes (minutes) of meetings, including actions to be taken and deadlines.
Writes up notes as soon as possible after the meeting and distributes them to the group
members - in print or by email.
If ground rules limit the time available for any individual to speak, the timekeeper checks to
ensure the limit is not exceeded. (See below)
Also keeps an eye on the overall time and prompts the Chair if necessary.
These roles may vary from meeting to meeting - the group may agree to share the load, giving each
member the experience of taking at least one of the roles. This looks good on a CV!!!
Less formal roles also develop over time and research has shown (Belbin, M. (1981) Management
Teams: Why they Succeed or Fail, London, Heinemann) that an effective group has members
playing the following, non-assigned roles:
• a leader, coordinating the group’s efforts and ensuring all opinions are heard and
considered ( the Chair in a formal group)
• a shaper, who pushes the group to achieve the task
• a plant, who comes up with creative and original ideas
• a critic, who dissects ideas and finds flaws in arguments
• a liaison person, who brings new ideas and contributions from outside the group and
stops the members being too inward looking
• a practical person, who creates manageable tasks from ideas
• a team worker, who is supportive of other group members and helps to maintain cohesion
• a finisher, who checks details and ensures deadlines are met
One person may carry out several of these roles at the same time. Do you recognise yourself or any
fellow students in these roles?
Group work, therefore, consists of establishing and maintaining a cohesive group and achieving a
common aim or aims.
B) What are the benefits of working with others?
What do you think are the benefits of working with others? Write a list and compare it with that
Tapping into a pool of wider experience
Learning to deal with challenge or criticism
Stimulating thinking and clarifying your own thoughts
Learning to be tolerant and to adjust your own approach/attitude
Helping to keep up morale e.g. all are experiencing the same problems i.e. mutual support - can
help each other through any difficulties
Creation of a network of individuals bringing talents, contacts, skills and experiences that one single
person would not possess
Particularly useful for complex problems, generating ideas, ideas sharing, reaching difficult decisions
Can increase commitment
Improvement of listening skills - hearing and understanding others' points of view
Improvement of speaking skills
Improvement of diplomacy / negotiation skills
Promotion of the “ownership” of a solution
“Listen with special attention to people whose views you disagree with. They can often do more
than anyone to help you to clarify your own.”
Rowntree, D. (1998) Learn How to Study - A Realistic Approach, Warner, London
C) Possible problems and suggestions for overcoming them
Problems often relate to “Group Maintenance”, especially if group membership has been imposed
and the members are not self-selected.
If you already have experience of group work, write a list of problems encountered with this
approach. Next to the list, write ways you overcame them or, on reflection, might have overcome
them! Check the lists below to see if there are points in common with your list and solutions.
• Lack of confidence speaking in a group
• Fixing times to meet
• Deciding how often to meet
• Finding an appropriate place to meet
• Some group members not pulling their weight
• Too much work involved
• Disagreement over how to proceed
• Quiet group members
• Dominating group members
• Disruptive group members
• If you lack confidence, prepare well before you meet by thinking about the aims of the
meeting and doing any background reading. Decide what you would like to gain from the group
meeting. What questions would you like to have answered? You might like to write these down.
During the meeting, breathe slowly if you’re nervous. Take your time while speaking. Do make
eye contact with other group members. Be brief and clear. Don’t repeat yourself but
do use examples, if possible. Speak up, act confidently and smile! Afterwards congratulate
yourself and build on the experience.
• Finding a time and place to meet may cause problems but if you arrange both well in
advance this may help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if needed in finding a venue. Ensure
everyone makes a note of the time and place and that you agree a means of contacting one
another (email?) if there is a last minute problem. Don’t be surprised if extra meetings are
needed just before a deadline…
The establishment of Ground Rules can help to avoid many of the remaining problems. They
can help meetings to run smoothly and ensure the necessary work is done. Agree them at the
first meeting but be prepared to adjust them, by mutual consent, if they don’t work!
Below is one possible set of Ground Rules for working in a group. Decide how they would help to
obviate some of the problems above.
GROUND RULES for WORKING IN A GROUP
Agree the agenda between you
Always attend meetings
Start and end meetings on time
Limit speaking time for individuals
No interrupting or disruptive behaviour
Encourage everyone to speak
No putting each other down – criticise the idea not the person
Divide up major tasks into sub-tasks and agree on allocation
Do the task / sub-task you agreed to do
Set realistic deadlines for tasks / sub-tasks and stick to them
Don’t get side tracked into socialising!
• If ground rules have been established and agreed, in theory there should be no dominating or
disruptive group members. If, however, such a problem occurs, the disruptive or dominating
member will need to be tactfully reminded of the rules, maybe by someone else asking for
clarification of the rules at the start of the meeting. It can then be stressed that anyone not adhering to them is letting down the entire group, including themselves, as the optimum
outcome will not be achieved. The focus of the problem is then on the task rather than the
individual. It may also help to voice worries, such as “I’m concerned that we won’t achieve our
objective unless we all contribute.”
It may help to consider the types of individuals who can cause disruption and possible action to
take. One writer identified the following potential disrupters and possible tactics for dealing with
The monopoliser- dominates discussions and has to say something about every issue.
• Nominate one person to interrupt the monopoliser by saying something like: “I’m
going to interrupt you there because other people haven’t had a chance to
• Divert attention away from the monopoliser: “That’s one suggestion; what
suggestions do others have?”
• Ask for a contribution from each individual in turn.
• Change the structure of the group (temporarily), maybe by forming several subgroups, where the effect of the monopoliser is reduced and can perhaps be confronted one-to-one
The silent one- never makes any contributions.
• The silent person may simply be shy, preoccupied, thinking deeply but not ready
to share the thoughts or just a quiet sort of person. Offer encouragement to bring
a silent member into the discussion but use your judgement as to whether this
may do more harm than good…It might be appropriate to suggest everyone
makes a contribution, even a minor one, in turn so that all have the chance to
contribute without having to force themselves into the discussion.
• If it is felt appropriate, it may well be a good idea to ask a “brooding” member
who is undermining the group just what the problem is.
The saboteur- who deliberately tries to sabotage the group’s work by their words or actions.
• Such a member needs to be challenged sooner, rather than later. Try to find out
their reasons for undermining the group: “You keep on criticising what we’re
trying to achieve. Does that mean you don’t agree with our aims?” Such a
confrontation may well be somewhat embarrassing and make the saboteur
become evasive but it may allow the group to clear the air and to make better
The habitual joker-
• The joker may need to be confronted by commenting on the effect of his/her
behaviour on the group’s work or discussion
• Alternatively it might help to say outright how you and others feel about such
• The know-it-all can be asked why the rest of the group seem unable to offer
anything new or interesting to him/her. Such a challenge will indicate that the
group feels its work is being adversely affected and does not like it.
• If you reach a dead-end, try a brainstorming session with everyone contributing ideas, even
eccentric ones! They may lead to fruitful new avenues to explore.
Activity* - Using negotiation skills to solve a problem
Scenario: 7 students are working on a group project. Student B has not produced a graph for the
group report as promised….
Suggestion 1: Keep the problem and people separate. This avoids being personal and focusing on
What questions could you ask about (a) the problem? (b) the person
Possible answers (a) What work is still outstanding? When is the deadline? What are the difficulties?
(b) How do we and B feel about it? (worried, guilty, angry, not bothered?)
Suggestion 2: Focus on interests rather than positions -
Which of the following questions would be appropriate?
What matters most to us? A good grade? Sharing the workload equally? Maintaining friendships?
If he doesn’t produce the graph, why should I do any more work on the project?
Suggestion 3: Generate a range of options before making decisions.
The options for the group may depend on the interests of the group members and the reasons for B
not producing the graph. What options could you envisage for the group to consider?
B does do it, even if it’s later than planned;
the others do it between them and the work is submitted without comment;
the others do it and it is submitted with a note to the effect that B has failed to produce the graph;
the report is submitted without the graph;
the issue is brought to the attention of a tutor
*adapted from Drew, S. and Bingham, R. (1997) The Student Skills Guide, Gower
D) Future applications of the skills acquired
The ability to work in a group or team is highly valued by employers. All the skills referred to above
in the “benefits” section- especially the abilities to value others’ viewpoints, cooperate effectively,
accept / give constructive criticism, negotiate and meet deadlines- are skills which can be
transferred to a wide range of contexts and work environments.
To have already gained experience in taking the chair / taking minutes will be seen positively, as will
the successful resolution of any problems which may have risen. Even negative experiences of
group work can be seen as beneficial, providing the ability to reflect is shown and it can be seen
that lessons have been learnt for the future!
© Copyright for this article belongs to IfL Centre for Learning Development, The University of Hull
This document was re-printed with the kind permission of the University of Hull. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.hull.ac.uk/studyadvice/resources/acadw/01pdfs/gropwork.pdf