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Suggestions for project-based teams

There is a lot of research, both in education and in industry, supporting the value of group-based work. Groups often make higher-quality decisions and develop more creative products than solo workers do. And learning in a group means you get the benefit of encountering many different ways to approach an issue or problem, and of the growth that comes from having to explain your ideas to others. But, as we all know, group work can be tricky, and is not by default an inclusive experience — that is, one where each member feels they are valued and integral to the team's work. It's worth taking the time to think, individually and as a group, about how to build inclusivity into your team's experience.

The suggestions below offer some direction:

Communication practices

Show respect for people's individuality.

Learn how to pronounce everybody's names, and use people's pronouns. Avoid assumptions about people's ethnicity or country of origin, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. If you make a mistake, it's OK!  Just apologize and ask for correction.

Do your best to use inclusive language.

Think about how the terms we use can reinforce traditional ideas of who has power in society (consider man-made vs. human-made), can "other" groups of people (foreigners vs. immigrants or international visitors), and can imply a lack of agency (disadvantaged area vs. area with a high poverty rate).

Also, try to be aware of how a comment might affect others. For instance, offhanded comments related to a disability (as in "I'm being dyslexic!") or mental health (as in "that's psycho" or "I'm so OCD today!") can reduce comfort levels of students who have personal experience with mental health concerns.

Pay attention to and building on what every group member says.

Treat everybody’s input as important to the development of the group as a whole. Also be sure that everyone has an equal chance to participate. If some people tend to have the floor more than others, make an effort to shift that pattern.

Be accepting of others’ subjective experiences.

For example, if somebody says that they find a particular task hard, but you find it easy, acknowledge their feelings rather than simply stating that it was easy for you.

Take a growth-oriented approach.

Encouraging a “there are no dumb questions” rule can help create an atmosphere where people are unafraid to suggest ideas or ask for clarification. Keep the focus on learning, not showing how much you already know.

Group processes

Help people get to know one another.

Icebreakers don’t all have to be cheesy. Use them as a way to loosen people up and to get to know one another on a personal level – which can help people feel welcomed. Try this list of icebreakers for the classroom. Need more? Here's another icebreaker list. Take care to consider the diversity of experiences people bring. For instance, a question about favorite vacations assumes that everybody has had the means to vacation regularly, and a question about favorite sports teams assumes everybody follows sports.

Start with collaboratively generated ground rules.

 Setting expectations for group work together helps ensure that everybody’s concerns get addressed upfront. Plan to set aside time in your first session developing ground rules that everyone agrees to, and then type them up and send them to all members. We have a sample list of ground rules you can use as a starting point.

Sample Ground Rules for a Project Group
  1. Allow everyone a chance to speak. If you have been speaking more, step back to make room for others.
  2. Give everyone a chance to take a leadership role.
  3. If you can’t make a meeting or will be late, inform the group.
  4. Make a commitment to meet deadlines. If something happens, let others know as early as you can.
  5. No question is a dumb question.

Address conflict, productively.

Some level of disagreement is natural in a group project, because you're working with different individuals who bring their own personalities, values, expectations, perspectives, and so on.  And it can even be useful, because it can allow the group to explore diverse ideas and opinions. But a high level of conflict can interfere with the group's productivity, and can leave individuals feeling disconnected or excluded. If there is a conflict:
  • Focus on impact, not individuals. For instance, if you’re upset that somebody missed a deadline, explain the impact that this had on you (you had to delay other tasks, etc.), rather than criticizing the person for their tardiness.
  • Try to identify the source. Is it about group process?  Communication styles? Differing expectations or priorities? Identifying the root cause will help you work toward a solution.
  • Return to your ground rules, and ask group members to consider whether they're being followed, or whether they should be updated.
  • Try to have an open conversation about the conflict, and create ground rules for this conversation (for example, listening actively, avoiding interruption, focusing on issues and not people, etc.).
  • Learn more about addressing group conflict.

Acknowledge that there are multiple ways to approach a problem or task.

If somebody takes an approach different from yours, be curious, and ask yourself, "What can I learn from this person?" The variety of perspectives and approaches that exist within a group enrich the conversation, benefiting everybody.

Reflect on how tasks are being assigned.

It makes sense to play to people’s strengths when you divvy up project tasks. But if one person ends up with tasks that tend to be less valued (e.g., note-taking) while others get tasks that come with more acknowledgement (e.g., giving a presentation), there may be an equity issue. Be sure to consider everybody’s interests and preferences in how work gets divided. Using a formal process – such as allowing everybody to submit their top 2-3 role choices, and ensuring everyone gets one of those – can help avoid feelings of inequity later.