How to deal with bad group members?
March 28, 2007 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Students: What do you do when group members don't do much at all? Educators: Do you want to hear if a student is not pulling their own weight in a group work situation?

I am a senior in college, taking my last couple required classes. In one of these classes, we have been assigned a group project (a paper and 10 minute presentation). I've tried a number of times since February to get ahold of my group members.

I got no response the first time I e-mailed. The second time, I got a half commitment to working over Spring Break from Group Member #1. After replying back (twice), and not hearing anything, I did the 8 page paper on my own during Spring Break.

Sunday, March 18th, I e-mailed them with the paper asking for feedback. I also asked if one or both of them would like to work on the PowerPoint since I did the paper. I received a response a week later (March 25) from Group Member #2 saying, "Are we still on for our project on April 3rd?" No mention of anything else... paper or PowerPoint. I was fairly frusterated, and sent a short e-mail telling him that was INDEED the date. (Keeping in mind that our schedule is not only in the syllabus, but also posted online. So he had the same access to it that I did).

After not hearing anything else, I sent another e-mail Monday (March 26) asking, once again, about the PowerPoint. I got a response from Group Member #1, asking when we could all meet. He then proceeded to say he's busy every day except 2 hours in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I wrote back telling him that I can't meet during those times, because I have class.

Group Member #1 replied back, basically saying he wanted to go over what we were going to say in the presentation. Of course, at this point, we still don't HAVE a presentation... so arranging a meeting to go over it seems a bit pointless.

After another round of e-mails, he said, "Sure, I'll do the PowerPoint." While I'm hesistant to leave it at that, I don't know what else to do in this situation. I'm not sure this guy will come through. He didn't seem particularly dedicated to getting it done... and didn't give a timeframe as to when he will have it completed. It was, once again, more of a half-commitment.

Group Member #2 is more troublesome in that he's made no contribution, and doesn't seem to be making any effort to do so. I don't love the idea that he will just stand up there with us and get credit for doing the assignment (worth 10% of our final grade).

So, first... What should I be doing to make this work? Again, the presentation is due next Tuesday (April 3rd). I have other classes, and life and all of that stuff going on... and I am by no means an "early bird" when it comes to school work... but it's getting a bit close for comfort and I don't feel like we have a real "plan of action".

I e-mail, but neither of them is particularly quick to respond. I haven't gotten any response to the paper. No REAL commitment to doing the PowerPoint... and NOTHING at all from Group Member #2 (apart from what I consider to be a semi-stupid question).

Do professors want to hear about slacking group members? Is it something that's not even worth bringing up? Apart from doing it all myself, what can I do? What happens if, on presentation day, Group Member #2 stands up there with us and takes credit for something he had no part in?

The professor doesn't seem to be super approachable, but I really don't know... Should I talk to her? Should I suck it up? It it too early to be worrying about it?

I hate group work.
posted by Mookbear to Education (34 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have two simple questions (that likely your professor is going to ask)

When email failed, why didn't you use the phone?
How about why didn't you approach them in class?
posted by filmgeek at 11:43 AM on March 28, 2007

Call, approach in person, setup meeting times.

If these things are not working, approach professor with documentation

Or, suck it up, do all the work yourself, and approach professor after you submit the project with documentation that you did all the work yourself. (Sometimes this will backfire, and professors will say the goal of group work is to learn how to work with others, which is annoying if the other group members are totally worthless.)
posted by gramcracker at 11:48 AM on March 28, 2007

Well, I didn't approach them in class... because I don't know who they are. They weren't there the day we were put into groups. The class is large, and not discussion based... and we obviously didn't exchange phone numbers.
posted by Mookbear at 11:50 AM on March 28, 2007

If you are emailing these people asking them when they can meet, you are never going to get anywhere. You need to email them telling when you are going to meet. It sucks that you have to be the leader, but someone has to do it and it's only natural that the most motivated one do it. This is exactly why you were given a group project in the first place.
posted by DU at 11:57 AM on March 28, 2007

Yep, you need to call the other two people on the phone and set up an in-person meeting for no later than this weekend. At that meeting, write down who's going to present what pieces of the Tuesday presentation. Also set up a second group meeting on Monday night to do a dry run. That way, if on Monday night it's still not done, you can at least pull an all-nighter and get something together.

But I don't think it's time to panic yet---probably they're just huge procrastinators and are thinking "There's plenty of time, I'll do it this weekend."

Definitely don't talk to the prof until you at least attempt to get a hold of them on the phone (or in class, as filmgeek notes).

On preview: oh, you don't have their phone numbers? That sucks---can you look them up in the campus directory? If not, you must do as DU says.
posted by slenderloris at 12:00 PM on March 28, 2007

I am a professor and I've given group exams in the past. I won't fill up a whole green page with my commons, but look here for some general thoughts about group projects and how they should work.

Your situation is the most intractable problem with assigning group projects. It is not at all inappropraite to e-mail your professor and let her know that the group is not functioning well. She's doing something slightly experimental in the classroom, and if she's a conscientious teacher, she wants direct feedback about it!

But you should let her decide on a course of action: i.e., you are writing to say "this group isn't working well and I'm concerned about my abiliity to do a good job on the project, what should I do?" not "I demand that you move me into a different group" or "I demand that I not get the same grade as those jokers."

It's a bug, not a feature of groupwork that the strongest, most motivated students do more work. We want the best students to work harder. Ideally, the extra work is made up of helping other students with the project -- teaching material is the best way to learn it. Suboptimally, the extra work is dragging a bunch of dead weight along with you -- i.e. your situation. It might seem unfair that you have to work harder than the other students. But you know what? You probably work harder than other students anyway, which is why you're the one expending an effort to pull the group along, and why you're probably going to end up with a better grade in the course than your slacker classmates!

As for "What happens if, on presentation day, Group Member #2 stands up there with us and takes credit for something he had no part in?" the answer is, he gets some credit for work he didn't do. He doesn't learn anything about the material of the course, and you do. He gets a poor grade overall because he's been treating the rest of the course the same way he's treating the group project. A year from now you'll have forgotten his name.
posted by escabeche at 12:00 PM on March 28, 2007 [9 favorites]

I think the best way I've ever been involved with group projects in school dealt with it in the following manner:

During my engineering design class, at every major milestone the professor would hand out a survey to each group member. Each member would grade their teammates' level of involvement and include comments. The professor would then use this information in determining individual grades. The majority of each grade was scored as a group, but I think about 25% of the points at each milestone were "individual" points determined by your group members' feedback.

Obviously there are ways to cheat this system, but I think it kept us all mostly honest.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:22 PM on March 28, 2007

I had almost the exact same situation happen to my last semester. We had a large paper due, as well as a presentation. This was a semester long project with that was about 30% of our grade. It was a business course, so part of the assignment was submitting plans that including which prece of work each person was supposed to do, as well as a timeline for completion. It was a four person group (including me, the group leader), but especially after spring break, two of my group members stopped coming to class. I'd email them, and they'd come up with excuses about why they weren't in class, but they'd always say that they're still working on the paper and that they still want to be part of the group, so they wouldn't fail the class. So I'd say "ok, well, if you could just due the blah blah analysis and ladida something else, that'd be great"

It got to a point where I wasn't recieving any work from them and the professor was getting annoyed we were missing our (own) set deadlines. The weekend before it was due, the other person and simply divided all the rest of the work and did it all ourselves. On the day of the presentation, one of the absentee group members showed up. He helped (barely) with the presentation, but when it came to fielding questions, it was obvious that he was clueless.

At the end of this long story, I talked to the professor about the situation. Like I said, previously he was annoyed about the group work we were submitting, but after I explained how the group members kept asking to be assigned something to do, then not doing it, leaving me or they other guy to scramble to finish it, he said that he's change the rules about the entire group receiving the same grade. Also he asked to see copies of the emails I had sent and the responses I got. When we got the notes and grade on the paper back, he said we did an excellent job for just two people working on a "four person paper"

So to answer your questions, at least in my case my professor was sympathetic about the slacker group members. While I was resentful about doing extra work on the overall project, there wasn't much I felt I could do besides complete the assignment so I wouldn't get a bad grade. I too, hate group work and it actually made me reconsider what courses I would take in the future depending on how group-oriented it was. Hope that (somewhat) helps.
posted by lizjohn at 12:30 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I taught middle/high school, I tried to establish a rubrics for groups that would not punish those who did work, but also provide incentive for them to urge underachievers to do their job to some degree. I also tried to establish project rules that punished/discouraged overachievers if they tried to do someone else's work. In this case, the projects had separate responsibilities that were decided by me up front. If that's not the case, then it's required that the group members have open communication.

Your problem can't be solved (well) in this time frame. You're close to the deadline and you've done everything. Sorry. Here's what you do in the future: at the beginning, establish a meeting time (agree as best as possible, but it really is a mandate). Attend, divide labor, pick items, leaving a fair share for those not in attendance. Communicate, put in a deadline, establish the next meeting with a clear, "if you can't attend" clause for handling that. At that point, if you have nothing from other team members, you talk to the prof looking for help.

I've had that problem in college and dealt with it. I've been with the members who did their part and did it on time. I've been the "can't make this meeting, but I'll send my work in." I've had to work around the flake. It's a challenge.

So you're the responsible one. That's a point in your favor, but you need to use that proactively or at this late time in the project, it will sound like sour grapes.
posted by plinth at 12:32 PM on March 28, 2007

As a disorganized procrastinator, I have to say I would probably be Member #2. I'd have the due date written down or know where I could find it but not have it cemented in my brain. It would be something that is going to happen "later" and is therefore to be worried about "later." I wrote every single paper in college the night before it was due. I did fine. An April 3 project wouldn't have been on my radar until about now unless another group member pushed it (like you're doing).

The other members may yet come through, but just aren't on your timetable. I agree with DU that you should send a fairly take-charge email with a definite meeting time during the weekend (when there will be fewer obligations to interfere). Don't be an ass though, b/c the procrastinators will resent it and it won't help the group.

At the meeting, do what slenderloris suggested and write down which parts of the presentation will be done by which person. Don't ask if they want to do part of the presentation--ask, "Which part of the presentation do you want to do?"

Also, you're frustrated, which is fine, but I have to say you do sound like an "early bird." That's not necessarily a criticism (I wish I were more of one), but I can't think of anyone I knew in college who would've been thinking about an April project before mid to late March. With that in mind, you might want to take care with your tone to the other members (which you may have been doing already).
posted by Mavri at 12:33 PM on March 28, 2007

I vote for contacting the professor- though it should have been done early in the process when people didn't respond initially. I've run into this problem more than once, and each time, the prof worked with me and the given students who were slacking off.
posted by jmd82 at 12:35 PM on March 28, 2007

Students: What do you do when group members don't do much at all?

I used to squee with joy that I could just get the thing done myself and not have a bunch of idiots drag me down with their 'input'. Seriously, this might not be a bad thing.
posted by chrismear at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2007

I agree with the "don't ask, assign" approach. This might seem painful, but it's good preparation for what things are going to be like at your job in the future. And you'll probably actually end up at a job where you get to lead people and plan projects, when those other guys, well, won't.
posted by matildaben at 12:47 PM on March 28, 2007

I'd contact the professor as a very last resort, but he/she may want nothing to do with your problem. Part of these projects is learning how to handle people in groups.

Once you get out into the working world, your boss will expect you to handle stuff like this in your own way instead of running to the boss and expecting him/her to mete out justice.

Or that was the rationale for some of my professors' hands-off attitude when I was in business school.
posted by dr_dank at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2007

They probably don't have your level of anxiety. If the project only requires an 8 page paper and a 10 minute presentation (and is due April 3rd), I know I wouldn't even be thinking of it until April 1st.

Working together on a project like this is a two-way street. Your colleagues probably think you're nuts for wanted to start in February and work over Spring Break.

Consider how much detail went into your question; for you this may be a big damn deal, but for others this class is likely their senior year slack-off.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:00 PM on March 28, 2007

You should tell the prof so she realizes what a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible idea it is to assign group work unless it's a task that *inherently* needs to be divided up between several people.
posted by footnote at 1:29 PM on March 28, 2007

I was going to give you a suggestion involving doing all the work (which you should be prepared to do anyway; "group" projects rarely are), sabotaging the presentation (Tubgirl?), and blaming it on the teammate who was ostensibly responsible for it, but in retrospect, you are taking this far, far too seriously. It's a project worth 10% of your grade during your senior spring. Go outside. Enjoy the nice weather. Roll down the windows, put the pedal to the floor, and crank up the Chaos! At the Skating Rink, or whatever you kids listen to these days.
posted by uncleozzy at 1:30 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Shit like this is why smart people drop out of college (and often life).

Your moment of zen.
posted by shownomercy at 1:51 PM on March 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I was in the exact same situation during grad school and I know how much it sucks, so you have my sympathies.

In my situation, I emailed the prof and let him know of the difficulties ("it's one week before the big assignment is due, no one else seems to be motivated to work on it, I've written my parts of the paper, but no one has edited my parts or written their parts. I've tried emailing and assigning tasks, and people agree to the assignments, but then just don't do em.") and he laughed me off and said that group work was practice for a real job. No, I replied, if this were a real job, I would have fired these people already, or I would have complained to my supervisor who would have encouraged them to find some motivation or a new job.

So I gave up after that. I polished my part of the assignment and turned it in, without the other 3/4s of the assignment that my groupmates were supposed to do. I got an apologetic email from my prof an hour after class. I got an A, my groupmates got zeros.

Since I am a petty jerk about effort, my advice for you is, tell your prof about your difficulties and what you've done, just so she knows what is up. You already wrote the paper, so make your groupmates create the whole presentation on their own. If they show up and have nothing prepared/it sucks, you can sit with a satisfied smirk on your face as the prof realizes you're not lying about the situation, and your groupmates make clowns of themselves in front of everyone else.
posted by holyrood at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2007

As someone who has been the leader, the helper, and the slacker in various college group projects, I agree that it is okay to let the professor know that Group Member 1 agreed to do the Powerpoint, and Group Member 2 isn't doing anything at all. Show her the emails. Group Member 2 shouldn't be getting credit for your work.
posted by donajo at 2:11 PM on March 28, 2007

As a professor who sometimes assigns group work, I would definitely want to know if someone wasn't pulling their weight. If you've gotten to the point at which it's frustrating, you should approach the professor about revising who gets the credit for work done in your group.
posted by ontic at 2:22 PM on March 28, 2007

Myself and my boyfriend have been in this situation - being the only group member that actually ever does anything. Those surveys mentioned nearly backfired on me; I gave less-than-stellar reviews of everyone else (after they changed our topic on me THE DAY BEFORE IT WAS DUE and made me write a whole report with only one source) and the ringleader bitched at me for not giving her perfect scores. My poor boyfriend was super taxed for his "group" assignment and couldn't really breathe until it was all over.

Talk to the professor, it's worth a try. I hope this works out for you.
posted by divabat at 3:45 PM on March 28, 2007

the ringleader bitched at me for not giving her perfect scores.

Your partners were allowed to see your marks? Yech! I've had some less-than-stellar group projects, but I've been fortunate enough to never have to deal with the pressure of knowing person x will see what I wrote about them.
posted by jmd82 at 3:57 PM on March 28, 2007

I hate group projects, and I've had to do a few of them with really crappy groups. Definitely talk to your prof, and try assigning work to other group members. And I would probably prepare some sort of presentation anyway, just as back up in case your slack-ass group members don't do what they are assigned. That way, you at least get your grade. If they get credit for your work, you could contest it then, but my main point is CYA.
posted by bolognius maximus at 4:07 PM on March 28, 2007


I must say, having dealt with slackers in just about every group work project I've ever done, I had a slightly different approach.

If I didn't recieve committment and contact a week after the group assignment was given, I emailed the lecturer (or tutor) post-haste to ask for assistance in tracking down my group members. If they were still slack at the 50% mark of the time allotted, I contacted my lecturer or tutor to alert them to the situation, and ask their advice. At the 1-week-to-go mark, I rocked up at their office, and panicked.

This approach was developed over a series of group projects, at the rate of 2 or 3 a semester over the course of my degree. Teamwork is a very important part of engineering; it was quite pervasive in the degree. There were times when I had some form of group work due twice a week, and scheduling was a nightmare.

I realise that this doesn't help you now; however, in your position, I would most definitely contact your tutor or lecturer, to at least ask their advice on what to do in this situation. Be aware, though, that at this late date, they may not be overly sympathetic, and you may have to prove that you are not making it up to get an extension.
posted by ysabet at 4:18 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

jmd82: actually, they didn't see them. I think what happened was that they asked how much they gave each other (they all gave each other perfect scores) and I was more pessimistic. Or someone sneaked a glance, I'm not sure.
posted by divabat at 4:43 PM on March 28, 2007

If they get credit for your work, you could contest it then

Just jumping in one more time to say: complaining to the professor that you deserved a higher grade is understandable, and sometimes achieves the desired result if your cause is just. Complaining to the professor that someone else in the class deserves a lower grade is ... well ... um, jeez, just don't do that.
posted by escabeche at 5:07 PM on March 28, 2007

I agree that your group-mates may not be as concerned with the project, yet. 8 pages and a 10 minute presentation isn't much at all, especially for a group of 3. Then again, I guess it all depends on the topic.

I was actually in almost an identical situation my final quarter senior year of college. There were 4 of us, a paper and presentation worth 25 or 30% of our grade and I had little support from my group-mates. I ended up writing the paper with the "assistance" of the other 3 people. By "assistance" I mean that the other members emailed me 2 or 3 journal articles they *thought* would be helpful. In the end they agreed to take care of the presentation.

I wrote the paper (which I thought was damn good, but that's me) and they put together a half assed presentation based on my paper. In the end I was pissed, our final grade suffered because of the presentation and the group Q&A period.

But, you know what? It's 2 years later and I hadn't even thought about that project until I saw your question. My final grade wasn't stellar, but it was decent, I can't even remember what it was now.

At the time I regretted not saying something to my prof. Today, 2 years later, it doesn't matter. Some people just don't give a damn. The good news is it'll probably be reflected through the rest of their course work.
posted by ASM at 5:17 PM on March 28, 2007

Seriously, an 8 page paper and 10 minute lecture is night before stuff not 2 months of work stuff.

Give your team members a break and a chance before you go tattling of to the teacher.
posted by Megafly at 5:32 PM on March 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have to agree with those above who are saying that you might work on a very different schedule than other students. A short paper and a presentation worth a measly 10% of you final grade? Sounds like something to start a few days, maybe a week before the due date. If I was in a group with the OP, and s/he tried to convince me to work on such a project during spring break, I'd be pretty put off.

That aside, if you want the project done properly, do it yourself (and try to convince your co-presenters to let you do most of the talking).
posted by ssg at 7:39 PM on March 28, 2007

Again, I don't feel like it needs to be done RIGHT NOW. I just kinda want to know that it will get done by Tuesday (and be semi-decent). I don't even care if we meet to go over it, as long as I know what slides I will be presenting and what slides they will be presenting.

I only contacted them so early because we didn't actually get to meet in person on the day groups were formed. Additionally, we have a major individual project (worth 40% of our grade) due April 10th, so I would like to have time to work on that too.
posted by Mookbear at 8:45 PM on March 28, 2007

Whatever you decide to do, I recommend using Google Docs. It's pretty amazing and it might get those lazy bastards to do some work. It allows you to make a word document on a web page and then have other people collaborate on it. The collaborators don't have to be on Gmail or anything, only you do.

Since everyone's work is visible on the web page, it might motivate those slackers to participate some more. This service has made my group projects SOOOOOO much easier to deal with - particularly when you're trying to finish everything up at the last minute.
posted by redteam at 12:52 AM on March 29, 2007

Wow, I can't believe there are so many people saying "why work on this so early, you're being uptight"! I suppose I'm rather up front about my own early bird tendencies, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask that the other members of your team at least acknowledge your timetable, even if they're not going to work on it. Do give them a call if you can figure out their phone numbers. If not, I agree with some of the above that you should be more assertive about meeting - pick two times on a weekend day and say "can you meet at 10 or at 2?" That should at least spur them into a conversation about meeting times. If it doesn't and the day comes and goes, then lay it all out for your professor and ask for advice. The asking is key because you don't know what the professor wants you to get from the exercise. Please due this before the paper is due, though - don't wait until you turn in a substandard product because that reads like you're making excuses.

FWIW I had an experience like this in grad school, complicated even more by the fact that one of my group members was not only lazy but stupid and violent. Luckily the professor was extremely helpful.
posted by marginaliana at 10:28 AM on March 29, 2007

...squee with joy that I could just get the thing done myself and not have a bunch of idiots drag me down with their 'input'.
My sentiments exactly. In an entry-level class I once picked the laziest slackers in the classroom as group mates, so that I could receive a positive response from, "Listen, so how about I just program the whole thing, and I'll put your name on the docs, and we can just get this thing done, mmkay?"

My advice is just do it, don't tell anyone, get better partners on the next one, and grin maliciously as these suckers fail the final.

Unless, of course, there's really too much work for n people, where n is the number of productive members available. In that case, document the lack of responsiveness from these members. Then shoot a low-key email to the professor, mentioning that you're having trouble getting ahold of Chad Balphazar and Lukchitia of Glovith, and that you think that may affect your ability to finish the project in a timely manner. If the professor asks, present your evidence. See where it goes from there.
posted by Netzapper at 4:07 PM on March 29, 2007

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