How do I begin working with a partner on school project?
January 26, 2014 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I've managed to avoid working in school teams or groups since I was nine years old but no more. I have to do a research project to be submitted to journals for publishing with a classmate. Designing and carrying out a feasible project in a semester would already be a lot to me, but I need some guidance on how to facilitate the process with a partner.

I don't even know where to begin, what to say to her first. This is online so we can't meet face to face. It will be email and Skype. The class is crime analysis/crime mapping so the project wouldn't require a lab or meeting in person, probably more like analyzing records and patterns (not sure since this is my first class on that subject). But writing papers has always been personal and idiosyncratic for me, done on a schedule that makes sense in my mind but may not be how anyone else works. So how do we do this, how does it begin, what are the steps?
posted by Danila to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Nobody likes group work, so if you meet early on, you can agree to each do your own sections independently, trade your sections X number of days before the deadline so you can see what the other did, then smash it together and turn it in on time.
posted by headspace at 3:04 PM on January 26, 2014

What to say first:
Set up a skype conversation to just say hi, get to know each other a little bit, and brainstorm. Introduce yourself. Ask her about herself, where she is in the program, her areas of interest, etc. Get to know each other a little. It's a lot nicer to work on a project with people you know something about.

Talk about how you both like to work. If I'm on a group project I'd rather break up the work into small segments, agree on who is doing what, agree on when certain milestones will be met, and talk regularly. You may both prefer to be more independent. Regardless, come up with an approach that seems reasonable to both of you.

However you split up the work, try to set things up so that if she flakes you will be able to recover. Assume goodwill, just cover yourself.

When group work sucks, it sucks. But when you have a good team and you turn out something you're proud of, it's kind of cool.
posted by bunderful at 3:21 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm one of those oddities who, with one exception, loved doing group projects in college (and my last two years were nothing but intensive group projects). The trick I learned early on is to assume leadership (not dictatorship!) immediately. Take charge and be the person with the plan (and Plan B and Plan C)--without being the proverbial bull in a china shop. If you end up with someone who also wants to be the leader, well, that's kind of great, because you at least have someone who is as engaged in the project as you are. Then it's just a matter of compromise. The overall goal is to be assertive, proactive, and reliable without being overbearing. FWIW, the college friends I still stay in contact with are largely the ones I did stressful, hair-pulling projects with; accordingly, I think group projects are a great opportunity to connect with peers while developing your leadership skills. Try not to fear it.

In general, the first step is determining what actually needs to be done to complete the project. After that, divvy up the work in a way that makes sense and is an equal workload. (An example of that might be that you both agree on a topic/scope of the topic for the research project, then one of you researches Facet A of the topic and the other researches Facet B of the topic. One of you might handle the reference/works cited page; in turn, the other might handle writing the introduction and conclusion.) Set clear deadlines. If you are the first one to initiate contact, lay out your proposed plan in your e-mail to him/her. (A casual e-mail. Nothing too formal.) You'll want to come to an agreement as to who is responsible for editing the two halves of the project into a cohesive whole. After a cohesive whole has been created, there should be enough time for the other person to review, edit, and sign off on the project. Communicate at all times--if you have a concern, run into a problem, anything. Communication is absolutely key. And if you think you have someone who genuinely doesn't care about the project, then, as bunderful said, definitely have a quiet back-up plan where you can get a cohesive project out the door. (I usually headed this off by assuming the meatier portions of the project, whenever possible.)
posted by coast99 at 3:44 PM on January 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

> Nobody likes group work

What planet do you live on? There are very few jobs that don't involve dealing with other people, and many of us like them. Coast99 covered it very nicely, but I want to emphasize a clear understanding of what is required by each team member and a definite expectation on when it will be delivered. I would also set up a mechanism early on as to how to communicate slips in timelines.
posted by kjs3 at 4:50 PM on January 26, 2014

I had to do SO MANY group projects in school and I developed a system because it worked out poorly so often.
1) Pick your partners carefully. Sounds like you didn't get a choice about this most important step though.
2) Meet early and bring your own plan. I found that no one else had really read over the project requirements or thought about topics, so it saved a lot of time and aimless discussion to come in with something. This doesn't mean taking charge (I hate being in charge or being taken charge of) but people will have a lot more thoughts and ideas in response to something than nothing.
3) Set up a next meeting date and some tasks to be completed by then. Usually the first meeting might be discussing general project ideas and concepts and in the second meeting you can finalize the project topic and set up a schedule. That gives you a couple days to think it over.
4) Set up a loose project schedule with the important milestones (data collected, first draft completed, etc). Have a regular meeting time (like weekly or bi weekly) and agree on tasks for each of you to complete by the next meeting. Then you can get regular feedback from each other.
Good luck! When it works out, group projects can be really awesome. Especially if you both feel ownership over the project and a sense of trying to keep up with your partner's standards. Keep an open mind and go with the flow; you will get a different project than you would ever have gotten by yourself!
posted by Gravel at 4:56 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few things that really helped in the group projects that I have worked on.

What to do first:

Hi Person's Name!

It looks like we've been partnered up to work on the big project. Why don't we have a skype call next week after class to go over ideas and get a schedule roughed out.



Coast 99 has it right on that communication is everything. There is nothing worse than radio silence. Even if something terrible happens, a five word email (e.g "family emergency. Can't meet tonight") will help smooth things over.

Dropbox is great. You probably should do your work in Word, because if you are submitting to a Sociology journal, the end result is going to have to be in Word. Dropbox also lets you throw PDFs and your GIS files etc. in there, no fuss, no muss. Google docs MAY be a decent option- I write a bunch collaboratively in there too, but don't ever try to anything fancy with the formatting. Comments also tend to mysteriously disappear.

Do not, ever, try to write collaboratively, i.e. two people writing at the same time. Always a frustrating experience, generally a mediocre at best outcome, and extremely unproductive. Assign sections to outline, swap outlines and edit, have a quick call to go over the edits, and then work on actually writing stuff.

This is probably overkill for a simple shared paper, but I love these things, so hey. Try to use some sort of task management tool that you both can both see and use and has a low overhead. Trello is nice.

Understand that sometimes you get stuck with a useless partner and you will have to do the whole thing yourself. So it goes. You can get angry about it or not. Also, don't be that person. Get your stuff done.
posted by rockindata at 4:57 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions here. Much of your experience will depend on whether you get a good partner (someone competent, reliable, and who pulls their own weight) or a bad one (someone incompetent, flaky, and/or lazy). I take it you don't know much about your partner? That's too bad, but the advice here about getting to know her is good. It will really help if you have at least some sense of who you are dealing with, on a personal level.

Try to find out right away if you have a good partner or a bad one. You can probably at least get a sense of this right in the first meeting. If you have a good partner she is likely to be at least somewhat interested in the subject, will have some ideas about where to start, will respond promptly (within a day, anyway) to your emails regarding setting up a meeting and will show up on time to Skype and chat meetings. She will write coherently and respond to your messages in a professional tone that matches your own (you should definitely keep things on a "professional" level, that's definitely the best way to handle research projects), and will just generally seem like someone who has her head on straight and is ready to pitch in. She also may well be somewhat worried about whether or not you are a good or bad partner. If you have a bad partner, well, she'll be the opposite.

If you have a good partner, congratulations! Collaborating with a good partner can be a real pleasure. Have your first meeting, find out what some of her interests are, share some of your own, talk about what you want the subject of your paper to be, how you'll coordinate your efforts, and how you're going to divide up the work. I agree with others above that dividing things up evenly into small chunks is a good way to go about it, and that the writing of the final paper should mostly be done by one person with the other taking only a proofreading role (trying to actually write collaboratively is a huge pain). Make sure to give as well as take – a good partner will want to make a real contribution and won't appreciate being railroaded. Agree on some milestones for the project – by when do you want to have your bibliography compiled, by when do you want to have an outline, etc. Then, once you have agreed on a plan that you're both happy with, simply execute it. Remain in close communication throughout the project so that you each know where you're at and can share notes, resources, and encouragement. It'll be easy.

If you have a bad partner, I feel your pain. We've all been there. The best thing to do in a situation like this is to resign yourself to doing almost all of the work yourself and letting your partner ride on your coattails – it's galling because you'll feel like you're being taken advantage of, but it leads to the best outcome for you. You might be tempted to confront your partner about her inadequacies or to speak to the professor about it, but I've never heard of that turning out well. Think of it as a test – even once you're out of school and employed, there are going to be times when you will be stuck with a bad partner and will have no recourse except to get the job done on your own. It's a real-life situation, and you might as well take this as training for situations like that because this won't be the last time it'll come up. Anyway, just do your best to route around whatever deficiencies your partner may have. Take control of the project (if your partner is lazy they'll probably be happy to let you) and arrange things so that the work gets done properly and on time. If she's incompetent, give her easy tasks that she can't screw up. If she's flaky, give her small tasks that you can do yourself if you have to and try to keep on top of her. Do whatever you have to, just make sure it gets done.
posted by Scientist at 6:59 PM on January 26, 2014

Google docs can be a great way to collaborate (and is a great way to "check up" on what one's partner has been doing). Formatting in google docs can get a little wonky at times, so I would do the final formatting in another program, however.

I suggest figuring out ASAP the degree of compatibility of your schedules. If you can have a standing meeting at a given day of the week and time.... great. If your schedules frequently conflict, you will need to plan accordingly. I've found that it can be easier to "meet" some people in the morning or during lunch... the evenings are way too crazy.

During the first "meeting" it is helpful to discuss relative strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. The person with the stronger grammar skills might want to take on the editing role, for instance.

Another document to have in your google drive is a calendar of the semester. During your first "meeting" the two of you should put down any (school) holidays, days that you won't be available because of [blah], etc. Then the two of you should brain storm the different steps involved in the process and how long each step should take. Map this out in the calendar (and who is responsible for each step). Be sure to allow for extra time for Murphy's Law, and then some more.

I don't know how you approach your writing process, but I have found that the more detailed the outline, the better when working on group projects. I also suggest putting approximate number of pages for each section in the outline itself. If you are going to write different sections of the paper, it can be helpful to agree on certain conventions (such as citation style) before you start writing.

I'm not sure how this translate to the virtual realm, but one way that I've found to hold people accountable for deadlines is to set up a meeting with the professor to discuss [some aspect] of the project. It might also be potentially helpful to get that person's cell phone number.
posted by oceano at 8:24 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Update: project turned in yesterday. Complete disaster averted by the advice in this thread to take a leadership position. I didn't know I had it in me, but if anyone else thinks of themselves as "independent" and needing to work alone, if it's something you're good at (I genuinely like writing and doing research), then it might be good to experience leading someone else because a lot of other people want to be led.

In the end my partner did not contribute a single word or usable idea and hid from me until the day the project was due. 15 minutes after it was due. But since I'd led and knew everything that would need to be done, I did it.
posted by Danila at 7:31 PM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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