Taking the ***groan!*** out of Group Work in Graduate School | Edcor

Taking the ***groan!*** out of Group Work in Graduate School

By Dr. Carla Patalano, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Professor and Program Chair, Master of Business Administration and Master of Human Resource Management

Group projects are pervasive in many graduate business programs, so regardless of the specific degree pursued, it’s likely students will be required to participate in group-led projects. When searching for a graduate program, prospective students should ask questions about group work and the role it plays in the program. This enables them to find a program where group work isn’t just something left up to chance, where the structure and support to make group work successful is provided.

Every semester at the end of classes I review Course Evaluation Surveys for all courses in the two Graduate Programs I oversee, the MBA and the Master of Science in Human Resources Management (MHRM). Both of these programs are heavily group-project based. In the HR program in particular, there is one student who always points out in her evaluation “how unnecessary” the group projects are. I have to smile and shake my head – – as a former HR Executive I know that to be effective, HR practitioners must be able to work extremely well in group, peer-to-peer settings. Nearly everything that HR accomplishes is a result of cross-functional teams that “work with and through others” to solve problems. Many would argue that this is a critical 21st Century Skill that isn’t just applicable to HR, but applies across a variety of fields, jobs and industries.

Few people come by these skills naturally – they have to be learned and practiced. What better place to practice your collaboration skills than in school, where the only risk is a grade? Despite this, many students who start out in these programs dread group projects. Why is that?

We know that behavior is largely a factor of two key components: the individual and the environment. Typically we can’t change the individual. As a student, that means being assigned to a group with existing personalities, skill levels, experiences, etc. The environment that the group works in, however, can be changed, and quite easily and it’s here that we teach students to focus their efforts.

With each new group assignment, students are adding to their group-project management skills. At the end of these programs, we assess the degree to which students have mastered them and there is a marked, statistically significant (positive) difference in their performance on five key performance indicators. But more interesting is that those same students who expressed hesitancy to undertake group projects, self-report that they are more much more comfortable taking on team projects and are confident in their abilities to overcome the obstacles that every team faces at some point.

So how do they do it? I’ll share a couple of examples that help illustrate an approach that we find effective.

Changing the environment is largely accomplished by group structures and processes, which we teach. One example of a best practice in group work involves creating written, agreed-upon expectations, often referred to as Group Charters, Contracts or Project Plans. These cover what and when tasks will be done, who will be responsible for them, and how group members will collaborate to complete them. Defining these “process elements” frees the members of the group up to do the actual work and the transparency they foster enables the group members to hold one another accountable.

My students are in fully online courses, so to collaborate, they designate in the Charter that they will “meet” synchronously each week, using webinar technology where they screen-share and work together in real time. This allows them to record the meeting, serving two purposes: ensuring everyone has access to what transpired even if they couldn’t attend, and creating a formal record of what was agreed upon. As the instructor, I encourage them to invite me to attend their meeting if necessary, or share their recording with me.

The Charter also establishes the expectations around communication during the project. Being specific about what the expected response-time is to an email or message is critical, as one student’s definition of “reply in a reasonable time-period” is likely different from another’s. Finally, groups are empowered to define in the Charter the standards by which they would remove a group member, or assess a grading penalty, if s/he doesn’t perform their share of the work.

If you are a graduate student looking at programs, ask them to describe the structural process elements and tools that are in place to make group work successful or if you are “on your own” to figure out how to make your group projects work. Some possible questions include:

• Do courses regularly allow for peer assessment, to verify the extent to which all members of the group are contributing?
• Is there a requirement that the groups have project charters/group contracts, etc.?
• What kinds of tools are groups provided with to meet and collaborate around the work required?
• Is there a way of measuring individual group member performance that ultimately forms some portion of their grade?
• Are large group assignments “chunked” into smaller pieces with due dates spread out over time, to provide milestones and allow the group to adjust their approach as they receive feedback from the instructor?
• What is the maximum size for groups? (Anything more than four creates logistical roadblocks and facilitates social loafing.)

If the Admissions Representative can’t answer these questions, speak with an Academic Chair or Program Director. But even if they can, you speaking with current students or recent graduates is a great way to determine if what is in place actually works. Regardless of what the answers are, having the information beforehand allows you to go into group work with your realistic expectations.

About the Author
At New England College of Business, Dr. Patalano leads up a team of faculty and professionals and is responsible for curriculum design, student and budget management, as well as faculty hiring and assessment. Dr. Patalano teaches courses on employee and labor relations, strategic leadership and management, recruitment and selection, and the MBA capstone course.

In addition to her teaching at NECB, Dr. Patalano has also taught as an adjunct faculty at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston University, and Suffolk University. She operates her own consulting firm and is a regular speaker on human resources topics such as managing millennials and the application of web technology to human resources. She additionally publishes and contributes to the press and has appeared in magazines as, HR Executive, Banker and Tradesman, and Chief Learning Officer blog.