Getting the Group out of Group Project
August 27, 2008 12:17 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to approach a professor about going solo on a group project?

Group projects scare me. Partly because I'm a productive procrastinator and don't like to do things way early, which is when a lot of people want stuff unofficially turned in. Partly because I tend to get a bit paranoid about other people pulling their weight (although not to a level that would be diagnosable as a psychological problem as far as I can tell).

I know I'm stereotyping here, but the idea of working with freshmen/sophomores (I'm a senior) that I don't know on something that is almost 20% (75 out of 400 points) of my grade scares the piss out of me.

The assignment for my Intro to Archaeology (taken for a social science requirement) is broken down as follows:

1 - 25 points for straight data input on two cemeteries.
2 - 10 points for some basic statistical analysis.
3 - 8 points for graphs based on #2
4 - 25 points for a 3-3.5 page paper interpreting the data
5 - 7 points for how well I worked with the group.

None of that seems like it would be too much trouble to do on my own. There are just a few things that make me wonder if it's worth it.

A) New professor at my school, although it sounds like she's taught other places before. So I can't ask anyone how she is.

B) What would I ask her to do with those 7 points for playing nicely with others? They can't be split evenly between the other categories. So would asking if I can just have those 7 points be appropriate since I would be doing 100% of the work anyway?

C) We're picking groups on Friday (the 2nd time the class meets), so I won't have any time to really get to know anybody in the class to alleviate my fears.

I've already checked, there aren't any other classes that would fit into my schedule that look even the slightest bit interesting. So switching to something else isn't really an option.

The best thing I can think of to do is to contract the class as honors and have my special extra work be that I have to do the project by myself. No mention of how I feel about group projects needs to be made if I do it this way if you ask me.

Is that a valid option? How would you feel as a professor if someone asked you if you could do this?
posted by theichibun to Education (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Every professor who's ever assigned group projects has seen at least one student in every class with your list of concerns. When she made the assignment, she was anticipating the exact objections you posed, and has a valid, well-thought out response for each of them. She assigned the group project because she has, at least in her mind, valid, well thought-out pedagogical reasons for doing so. So don't expect a lot of sympathy.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2008 [6 favorites]

It's highly unlikely that she'll grant your request based on some vague fear you have. Would you be able to get out of doing presentations in a speech class? College is not just about learning archaelogy (or whatever). It's also about learning how not to procrastinate and how to work in teams. It's almost certain that your group will be primarily composed of procrastinators (this has been my experience through my undergrad and graduate education) - especially since this is an intro class that most take to fulfill a requirement. If you're a procrastinator but you're afraid of others not pulling their weight, isn't this a bit hypocritical? Also, how have you gotten to be a senior without having worked in a group?

I would not ask the professor. You run the risk of being graded more harshly just for having asked for special treatment that you don't deserve. Suck it up and pick the older members of the class for your group members.
posted by desjardins at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2008

so when you get a real job, will you ask your boss the same question?

i'm guessing that, unless you have a valid reason, the prof is going to say no. your reasons cited above are not valid. a valid reason might be a contagious disease, or being bedridden, not 'i don't like working with people.' you learn a lot of things in college; i suggest that you make learning how to participate in a small group one of yours this semester.
posted by lester at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2008

Have to agree with the others. Group projects are not assigned because there is too much work for one person to do. Learning to work with others is pretty essential. Expect a mix of good and bad group members. I can't believe you got all the way to your senior year without working on a group project.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2008

So would asking if I can just have those 7 points be appropriate since I would be doing 100% of the work anyway?

Or do you get 0 points because you're explicitly not working well with others?
posted by inigo2 at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with what everyone else said. Look at this as another challenge to tackle that will make you a better person. That's part of the point of going to college in the first place, right?

Also, know that a large part of the point of group work is to get people like you to help students who otherwise wouldn't be able to do the work. The point is for you to share your skills and knowledge with others, not sit in the corner and earn your A by yourself.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:42 PM on August 27, 2008

Every professor I know (and I work at a University) assigns group projects for the reason that ShootTheMoon says. Part of the educational experience is learning how to work with others on big projects.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2008

I'm a productive procrastinator and don't like to do things way early

Group projects are partly designed to crush foolhardy behavior like this, which will undoubtedly fuck you over in the workplace.
posted by mkultra at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

In my subject (engineering) part of the purpose of assigning group work is to deliver experience working as part of a team, which is obviously something engineers are likely to have to do in their careers.

If that is the educational objective of the work, they are unlikely to let you 'go it alone'.

OTOH I've had classes where group work was a mechanism to get a better final product (i.e. a more in-depth presentation); or to get better use of finite lab resources; or to force us students to help/instruct one another; or to reduce the amount of marking to do.

It all depends on why the academic decided to make the work group work. It can't hurt to ask the academic if you can work alone

[...] something that is almost 20% (75 out of 400 points) of my grade scares the piss out of me.

You mean 20% of the grade for one class for one year of your degree; and it's hardly likely you'll actually get zero marks no matter how bad your group.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:47 PM on August 27, 2008

As a recent grad going through job interviews right now, I'm finding my time working on teams to be a very valuable talking point. Not just, "I'm a great teammate," but, "Here's a story about a big mistake my group made and what I learned from it." Nearly any job you get after college is going to involve working on teams. Get the experience now.

Besides, I've never seen a group fail a project. I'm sure it's possible, but in 4 years of college, no one has ever let it. Momentarily assuming that your group is terrible and you do nothing about it, let's say you get the lowest grade in the class on the project, which may be a 70%. Counting for 75/400 points, that means that if you kept a 100% on everything else, you'd get a 94% overall. A or A-. Assuming your group almost fails.

But I think you can easily make this group project work well. For one, I think the freshman/sophomores would look up to you. Not necessarily being in awe of your presence, but they'll probably assume that you're a lot more experienced and have much higher standards. You can kind of use that to pull them into doing a good job. I wouldn't actually use the snotty tone I'm about to, but you can sort of do a, "That type of work might pass for a sophomore, but as a senior, I could never get away with that!" sort of thing, and keep them up to your standards.

As someone who also borders on paranoid about who I'm going to get "stuck with" in a group, I've found that no one ever argues if I "offer" to proofread everything at the end, which gives me license to ensure that everything is done to my standards. Of course you still have to do the same amount of work, but it's a handy excuse to get a final look at the project without saying, "I bet you guys all suck." (But, for what it's worth, I found that, by sophomore year, I and most of my peers were old pros at working well on teams.)

What would I ask her to do with those 7 points for playing nicely with others?

Maybe I'm just mean, but if I were your professor, you'd get 0/7 for "works well with others" when you opt out of a group. However, people do opt out of groups every now and then. This isn't the type of advice I like to give, but if you're going to insist on not being in a group, I'd lie: "I don't trust other people" to me indicates that you, more than others, need the experience of working with a group. "I have a crazy schedule and don't think I'd be able to meet with other students, and I'd hate to drag them down... This way I can do the project on my own time..."

But my overall advice is still to just do the group project. You can easily ensure that the group does well. It'll be a good experience for you, and you might be able to teach a thing or two to the underclassmen.
posted by fogster at 12:48 PM on August 27, 2008

Suck it up. 20% of your final grade is NOT that much at all, and while working in a group can be frustrating, you just have to do it.

Lets look at the project:

1 - 25 points for straight data input on two cemeteries.

Your group will help with this one. Unless they're truly braindead, they can't screw it up.

2 - 10 points for some basic statistical analysis.

At worst, you can double check all of the work yourself. Still easier than doing it on your own.

3 - 8 points for graphs based on #2

Again, a quick double check will confirm that they're up to whatever your standard is.

4 - 25 points for a 3-3.5 page paper interpreting the data

A 3-3 1/2 page paper is absolutely trivial, but the more eyes that are on a paper like this the more things they see.

5 - 7 points for how well I worked with the group.

That's a free 5-7 points if you do work and aren't a jerk.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2008

Part of what you're learning in a group project is the 'dealing with others' part. Yep, some people won't be pulling their own weight. Others will be hard to work with. Depending where you go to school, there may even be language issues to contend with. Your prof knows these are all potential problems, and should be able to help you work through them.

This is a skill you need for the real world. Suck it up now, because it doesn't get any easier. Better to only have 20% of your mark on the line than your job and hence your financial well-being.
posted by cgg at 12:52 PM on August 27, 2008

My very favorite professor in college, who adored me and with whom I regularly dined, had a penchant for group work. I recall asking him on two occasions if I could projects myself - I was a borderline non-traditional student who was married, lived far off campus, and was 4-5 years older than the other students in his class.

The answer in both situations was a big fat no. MrMoonPie has it. Ask, if you want to, but don't bargain on cooperation, particularly from someone who doesn't know you. If you're the senior student in your group, take charge of the situation (someone will have to), and be the first to propose deadlines and meeting times. This was how I avoided meeting at Starbucks at 10pm the night before the due date.

Partly because I'm a productive procrastinator

Bzzzzzt. Don't do that to your groupmates, unless you want someone like me up your ass for two weeks before the project's due.
posted by timetoevolve at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2008

Group projects are like a game of chicken. Like say you're in a van, but it's a weird van where everyone has a steering wheel. And the van is driving towards a cliff.

What you want to do, see, is procrastinate turning that wheel. Maybe it doesn't have power steering, so it'd be kind of a hassle to turn.

Let one of the kids freak out and do (most of) it.
posted by low affect at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The best thing I can think of to do is to contract the class as honors and have my special extra work be that I have to do the project by myself. No mention of how I feel about group projects needs to be made if I do it this way if you ask me.

If your honors program can work that way, go for it. I assume you could just draw up a proposal for your honors program counselor and Arch. prof. Type it out, act excited and professional about the plan, be detailed and reach for more than the basics of the project, and then follow through with both to get their OK. Then kick the project's ass and put the underclassmen to shame. You're a senior, just walk the walk and take care of business if it means alot to you. I don't see how it would fail unless the prof was willing to go toe to toe with your honors program advocate just to satisfy a "collaboration-oriented" project in an introductory class.

If it's not gonna happen, don't meet resistance with more resistance. You get stuck with failures or mediocre people, just make sure that your work it spotless, don't procrastinate (easier than carrying the anxiety you show now), and alert the prof. of any deadbeats. If there's a presentation, you'll probably have the most confidence with the material and it will show that you deserve a good grade despite the underwhelming work of your groupmates. I had a water science group project with participants of varying proficiency, and all I can remember is monopolizing the presentation because I was the only one to know the material well enough to talk about it confidently, and I'm rubbish in front of a crowd. Just because you're in a group doesn't mean that you can't still demonstrate how good you are with the material. What I think you fail to realize is that having bad group members makes you look better, not worse.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:10 PM on August 27, 2008

All due respect here folks, but yesterday someone posted a homework question for a 6th grader, and no one jumped on that person for cheating, or gave lectures about how sometimes not having an answer is part of learning, etc.

theichibun paid his $5, so help him cheat too!

I'm sure he already thought about all the above. He's wanting to get out of it, not asking what life lessons he'll miss by not doing it, or future repercussions on jobs, or even if he's being reasonable or being a hypocrite! Yawn.

The question was, "What's the best way to approach a professor about going solo on a group project?" If you don't have an answer, don't play.

theichibun, I too think you're probably SOL, but it can be done.
  1. I often got out of group projects, since I worked 55+ hours a week, and was in the National Guard while in college. I honestly just couldn't get together with groups. In my case, I usually just gave my teacher my schedule, and asked for suggestions on when she thought we could all get together.
  2. Come up with an alternative project that takes into account the "statistical analysis" or whatever you think the point is. Pitch that. "I'd love to work on this group project, but I've got this real world thing I think would be cooler. Anyway I go do this real world thing instead?" Of course the real world thing wouldn't entail a group.
  3. Get a documented reason why you are unable to. A doctor's note saying you have some kind of extreme social anxiety, diagnosed learning disability, pink eye or some other communicable disease, etc. You know, lie.
  4. Come clean. Let her know you're afraid you'll negatively impact someone else's grade.
  5. Get your teammates to do your dirty work. Let your teammate's know you're a procrastinator and think working with others, especially underclassmen will suck, and watch them clamor to not have to work with you.
You'll eat the participation points with the last one, but gets you your desired goal. I realize my answers are pretty crappy, because everyone else is right (you're trying an end-run on what is probably the real assignment, but this doesn't mean it can't be done), but at least I tried. I'm sure if people try they can come up with better answers.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:19 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having taught college for 15 years or so, assigning group projects in about 1/3 of my classes, I can not imagine a scenario where I would approved the substitution of an individual project for a group project. None of the strategies suggested by others would work with me.
posted by hworth at 1:25 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was the same way about group projects, but you just have to suck it up and do it. If any members of your group really suck, there's usually some sort of evaluation form you can fill out at the end of the project. (I'm assuming there will be one since your teacher has those seven points for how well you work in the group.)

In the meantime, double-check everyone's work if you're concerned they'll screw everything up. Unless you're obnoxious about that, it shouldn't bother anyone. And at the very worst, even if they get annoyed, you'll still get a good grade overall.

Professors that assign group projects think it's important that you know how to work in a group. I very much doubt you'll be able to dissuade her. I don't like to work around other people either, and I don't like to do everything really early either, but that's life. You'll be fine.
posted by Nattie at 1:34 PM on August 27, 2008

I'm a professor who occasionally assigns group presentations and who abhorred group work in college. My concern was not that I liked to do things at the last minute (I did, but tried not to be that way), but that I feared working with other students who weren't as interested as I was. I naturally feared this for my own students too. I've come to understand that I haven't done a good enough job teaching students how to work in groups.

So unlike some others, I would go to the professor with your concerns before you get assigned to a group. Tell her that your natural response is to want to do the assignment by yourself, but that you want to learn how to better work with a group. Ask her if she can help with that. The best case scenario is that she devotes some time to helping her students learn how to work better in groups. There's even a scenario where she says "Feel free to go it alone," but then you don't get better at a valuable skill. At very least, she'll be impressed that you had the dedication to worry about it and come to her.

And, if you can help it, try not to plan to procrastinate. Intro to Archaeology sounds fun. Let it be the start of the time where you made plans to take advantage of everything your coursework can teach you.
posted by ontic at 1:35 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've had a crap groupwork experience, which I learned a lot more from than if I had had a fine first groupwork experience. That said, my current group seems to be amazing. I'm finally getting the level of discussion I've craved at university, and with adult approaches to group dynamics, so I suspect I will learn a lot from this experience too. It's usually the most difficult learning experiences, the ones that challenge and frustrate, that bring out the best in a person. Suck it up, yeah, and learn about teamwork, project management, time management, organisation etc. You think you're there only to learn archeology. Guess not.
posted by b33j at 4:09 PM on August 27, 2008

As a TA, the professors I know wouldn't even give you time to list your reasons unless the first one was something like cjorgensen's 'in the National Guard' or 'here's my official medical diagnosis of social phobia'.

What's the worst that can happen? Nobody in your group does any work, it gets to the week before due date (when you would have started anyway, working on your own) and you realise that you're going to have to do it all yourself after all. That's why groups have early deadlines, so that when people fail to meet them there's still time for the useful members of the group to recover.
posted by jacalata at 8:27 PM on August 27, 2008

I felt exactly the same way about group projects. I actually asked the teacher for the waiver. WHy not, worst he could say is do it with the group. I also on one occasion made a tactical decision to just do a group project on my own and take a Zero on 10% of the grade. I figured I could ace it on my own and still get in the high 80's. My goal in college was not to get good grades, but to LEARN as much as I could. I wasn't taking the history class to learn to work in groups. I was taking it to learn about military history. I would take a social anthropology class or a marketing class if I wanted to learn to work in groups. That said, you will need to learn to work in groups sooner or later. Although for the first 16 years after I graduated I had a job that never required me to work in a group much less with anyone else. It wasn't until I 'matured' (financial obligations that shifted my risk reward to one where a lower salary was preferential to a likely higher variable income) that I even considered a job that required group work.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:53 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to be the voice of contention here. I say, go ahead and ask. Politely, and don't press if you're given a no answer, but it can't hurt.

In undergrad, I hated group work because I was pretty much a nose-to-the-grindstone, get-it-done-early sort, and my classmates just . . . weren't. In every case, I'd end up doing a large chunk of the work, often with one other dedicated student, and at least one group member did nothing. And I had several professors assign in-class group work very transparently as a way to get out of teaching material; we'd have assigned reading for homework, and then get into (professor assigned) groups at the beginning of class. In these groups, there would be one bright student assigned to work with two or three that didn't have a thought in the world. So the bright student would get to explain 18th century European poetry to students who usually hadn't read before we met as a larger group. If you're the smartypants in either situation, it sucks for you--and you'll likely end up learning less than you would working independently.

My point being that I hate group work.

I'm now a TA. My first several semesters, I didn't assign group work for major projects at all. My students' projects, particularly their final projects, were excellent. But a lot of my peers asked me why I was making things so hard on myself. So, now I assign group work. I'd say work overall is of a slightly lesser quality than it was before. I'll usually have one or two phenomenal final projects (whereas, normally I'd have 15!) and the rest are just aight. But you know what? I don't have to grade almost 400 pages of work. I've sometimes given my students a choice--write marginally more for your total final word count (so that the actual workload is comparable), and work in groups, or work alone. The vast majority choose to work alone, and their work is usually really, really good. But I don't always feel like grading that much, so I don't always offer the option.

Though group work might not be avoidable in the real world, it's not the job of your archeology professor to teach you how to become a team player, and I think the urge to teach students these skills (or, the urge to get out of grading 400 pages of work) sometimes eclipses the actual goal of teaching students to start to critically apply themselves in a subject. But, unfortunately, there are a lot of plain old lazy profs out there, and many who just don't care about getting the best out of their students. They're there for the tenure, or so they can do their own research, or whatever. This isn't true for all of us in academia, of course, but to act like professors assign this sort of project purely because they have the student's best interest at heart is pretty naive, or idealistic, or something.

Therefore, If you were my student, and you made this request, I'd careful consider it. I'd ask what your reasons were, and weigh them against the goals of both the assignment and the class (IE, if you were in my business communication class, no dice! I really am there to teach you to be an officey team player, unfortunately). I would at least try to address your concerns if I did say no, likely by making some time management suggestions. But as long as you were respectful, I wouldn't hate you for it.

Now, if you challenged your grade, on the other hand . . .
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:58 PM on August 27, 2008

Thanks to the people who read the whole question and realized that I was asking how to do what I want, not if I should do what I want. In response to some of the points that were brought up:

1 - I realize that just telling her that I hate group work wouldn't be a good idea. Which is why I asked if the honor's contract path would be a good idea. And I actually do have a crazy schedule, so that could work as well.

2 - I haven't seen anyone from the class around campus at all. Which doesn't mean they aren't older students, but I have nothing to base age off of. So picking older students is a crap shoot.

3 - Hell yeah I'd ask my boss if I could work on a project alone instead of in a group where I was worried that the group wouldn't perform as well as I could individually.

4 - 0 points for not playing nicely with others makes sense too.

5 - To the general "suck it up and work in a group" responses, this isn't my major, just a class filling a social science requirement.

Also, as much as I hate these group projects, I do suck it up and deal with it for classes in my major.
posted by theichibun at 9:39 PM on August 27, 2008

I also prefer to work solo. However, when placed in a group, I've found someone usually needs to take charge to direct what needs to be done. If I see the others floundering, I'll grudgingly step up to the plate and take lead. I must be good at it, since I've been promoted to team lead positions at jobs several times.

You have your preference, but we don't always have the choice to work alone. Since you think you can do it alone, you likely know what needs to be done. If others aren't pulling their weight, they probably just don't know what to do, delegate something simple and straight-forward to them.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:46 AM on August 28, 2008

jacalata's right. In my experience, every group project amounted to all but one person flaking out entirely and the lone person who cared about their grade (i.e. me) doing the work and everyone else in the group getting the same amount of credit as the hard worker. So, if you're a procrastinator, odds are you'll end up doing no work while the lone kid who cares about their grades does it all for you. Hooray, slacking! Or uh, you could just do all the work yourself, and be a "group" in name only, as they are likely to be.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:46 PM on August 28, 2008

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