Day 5 - Problems with Collaboration Published 2006-12-18 under ,

In graduate school, I acquired some of the most important knowledge of my degree program in my very first semester. The lessons I learned revolved around a course that stressed group projects for all of its assessments. I found myself in a group of very qualified individuals but each with completely different personalities and motives. Cutting to the chase, collaboration is not easy. Here are some of the problems we encountered and discussion on how to resolve each one.

Clear Understanding of Project Goals/Objectives

Sounds obvious, but before starting a project it is important to have a clear understanding of what is expected. In the final project of the class, we were to write a paper on the effects of e-commerce on the transportation system for another professor in the Information Science department. Before starting the project, we should have asked who is the audience (transportation experts?), what is the professor going to be doing with this paper (submitting it for peer review), what type of article is this to be (scholarly, trade, popular, or general interest?). Instead, we each had our own idea of what the project was all about and it was not until just before the article was due that we realized that our ideas conflicted.

One of the first things students should be required to do when starting a project is to outline their perception of the project goals and objectives. This outline should be one of the project deliverables and should be reviewed by teachers, at the beginning, to be sure the students do not have some terrible misunderstanding of the project's objectives, and at the end of the project to help evaluate how well the group met the objectives that they defined. Two groups can have vastly different objectives for the same project with both being equally valid. For example, teacher of a U.S. History class might assign a collaborative project to create the students' own Bill of Rights. One group might outline their objectives to produce a document that updates the Bill of Rights into more accessible language more relevant to today's concerns. Another group may describe their objectives as crafting a document that reflects the issues of teenagers.

Clear Understanding of Members' Goals/Objectives

In collaborative projects, group members often have varying personal objectives, some of which may even conflict with each other. My project group consisted of a student who had just graduated from an undergraduate program (limited life/professional experience), a PhD candidate who had to get at least an A- in the class, and myself, a maturing educator who thought going back to school would be "fun". Each of us approached the transportation assignment described above with completely different objectives. Our young college grad viewed the project simply as something that the professor assigned and her objective was to give the professor whatever he wanted. The PhD candidate saw this as an opportunity to get her name on a published paper and impress a professor that she wanted as her thesis advisor. I just thought that exploring how e-commerce affects transportation sounded interesting.

As a result of the differing objectives (and because we had not discussed nor agreed upon our approach to the assignment) we each tackled the research differently. The recent grad required specific directions on what to research, the PhD wanted us to adhere to suggestions (including sources) from the advising professor and I was content to read summative articles on the subject from periodicals.

Had we had a discussion of our personal objectives before starting to work on the project, the end product as well as the learning process would have been much more successful. In our case, it would have been better for me to produce an initial review of the topic from which we could have created an outline and approached the advising professor for feedback. From there, research from peer-reviewed materials could begin with the recent grad being given specific research tasks. The initial draft of the document could be tasked to the PhD student who had the most experience in crafting the content into text appropriate for a journal.

Division of Labor

As mentioned above, it is important to spend time considering how to divide the tasks of a project among the groups members. Too often the division of labor follows the approach we took; topics are assigned to group members for research and one person is nominated as the person who puts it all together. This approach is really an attempt to minimize the interaction among members - not really a collaborative approach. In our project, we did not share the research until a few days before the due date when it was discovered that one of the group members had not completed her assigned task due to a family emergency. We got the paper completed but the process (division of labor) by which it was done was completely obfuscated to outsiders.

It is so much easier today to task a project so that members are constantly reviewing other members' work, improving upon it and learning from it. The days of segmenting a project into task to be done in isolation are over. Instead, students should be encouraged to take an iterative approach to working on a project. Research is recorded on a more accessible medium (e.g. wiki or writeboard) where team members can review each other's work. This approach makes it easier to identify problems earlier and make decisions to redirect the focus of research when it becomes apparent that it is going in the wrong direction. But the most important aspect to this approach is that students are involved in more than their little part. They are gaining a better understanding of all of the research, not just their own.

Waiting Until the Deadline ...

"Don't wait until the night before the assignment is due to get started!" - The mantra of teachers everywhere. With today's technology, teachers have the ability to monitor group work and see the process in action. While this is not good news for procrastinators, it makes the collaboration more accessible to both participants and observers.

In our transportation project, we could have eliminated most of the headaches if we could have seen (monitored) the work as it progressed. Similarly, my approach to the writing of the final document could have been stopped before I got too far. Instead, we had to completely rewrite the paper (requiring an extension).

It is important for teachers to include milestones and process requirement into their grading rubric. In the past, this was limited to such things as submission of notecards and rough drafts. Now, teachers can monitor the process in (almost) real time. They can see the interactions, contributions, confrontations, and resolutions of all members. With this emphasis on the process over the final product, students cannot wait until the last minute to do their work.


One of the most challenging aspects of collaboration is criticism. It is important for team members to interact, evaluate each others work, discuss possible improvements, and resolve differences of opinion. For our group, criticism almost lead to the project's failure and permanently hurt feelings. I won't speak for the others, but I know I can still improve my receptiveness to others' point of view. By receptiveness, I am speaking of the skill to discuss a topic passionately but not take it personally when others disagree. This is not an easy skill to learn but it is certainly a valuable one. We need to give students more opportunity for peer review and for learning how to both give and take criticism. Collaborative learning is a wonderful tool in this process.


We do our students a disservice when we assign group work without teaching them first how to collaborate. Just as students need direction to improve their study skills, so too do they need help learning the skills required to work as a group. Next time you assign a collaborative project, consider the issues discussed above and consider ways you can direct your students to be more successful in the collaborative process than we were.

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