I E - Academic Advising Service

Group work: Meeting the challenges of the semester as a team

The talk on the German version of this site discusses teamwork as a central component of studying and the benefits and challenges it may bring. The following provides a summary in English of the most helpful insights and tools mentioned. If you want to read through the complete talk, download the translated transcript (pdf).

Most TU Berlin students will face the challenge of group projects and work as some point during their studies. For example, teamwork may be required to pass a module, or you may form a study group to prepare for exams. In the best-case scenario, everyone gets along, and things run smoothly. However, there are often stumbling blocks.

As a research and teaching assistant at TU Berlin, Robert Spang has taught many courses requiring group work. In this info talk with the Academic Advising Service, he discusses what makes a team successful and provides specific tips for working together effectively. 

Why is it important to be able to work in a team?

Whether you are doing homework or studying for an exam, working together with other students is often required to pass a class, but it can also be a good strategy to more easily succeed in your studies.

The importance of good collaboration isn't always clear when you are just starting out at university. Perhaps you are initially focused on getting good grades, but it is important to remember that as social creatures, we benefit when we interact with each other. It's important to join together when pursuing major goals because we achieve more together than alone. As such, studying and working together in groups also prepares you for later professional work.

How do I study successfully?

In school, it was the teacher's responsibility to ensure you understood and learned the material. Studying, however, means closely working through the lesson content yourself to gain a better understanding. It is an active, often strenuous process, which is exactly what makes it so rewarding. This means it's the university instructor’s job to create a conducive learning environment and teach you the skills to teach yourself. This includes you asking them questions. Don't hesitate to contact them and use office hours!

When is group work effective?

The most obvious answer is that group work is successful when you've achieved your mutual objective. However, there are also learning lessons when things go wrong. With time you will realize how valuable your experiences were and perhaps even identify mistakes you won't repeat.

How do I start off on the right foot when working in groups?

Whether you choose your group members yourself or join an existing group, don't be afraid to reach out to each other! Everyone is in the same boat, especially at the start of their studies. Speaking with others can help you overcome natural shyness. Use the opportunity to meet others at the University. Sooner or later these relationships will be important and useful during your studies, regardless of whether you already have a large group of friends in the city.

When you have the choice of which group to join, you are faced with deciding whether you want to work with students you know or meet new team members. Both offer advantages and disadvantages. Stepping outside of your comfort zone to meet others requires a great deal of energy. On the other hand, you are rewarded with new perspectives, knowledge, and ideas. In courses which cover a lot of material, it is helpful to work with people with different backgrounds and experiences, while working with familiar classmates can provide some comfort to counteract feeling overwhelmed. Which type of group works best for you may depend on your personality.

Problems within your group can cause uncertainty and frustration or possibly even lead you to consider dropping out of the module. Working with other students can help you learn what a successful team looks like and gain ideas for your next group or lead you to choose another team the next time.
If necessary, it can also be helpful to speak with your lecturers. You should always speak up if there are issues you are unable to resolve by yourself. Impartial advising services such as the Academic Advising Service can also help you to reflect and find solutions.

What should we discuss at the beginning?

At the beginning of your collaboration, develop a joint vision: What is our aim? Why are we here? How do we want to tackle this? For instance, does everyone want to earn top grades and put in as much work as possible or are you all in agreement that you want to pass with as little effort as possible? If you do not all agree, then you can perhaps assign tasks appropriately.

Talk about the following things: What does good collaboration look like to us? What do you need to be able to perform well? What do you do well (or not so well)? Actively create an atmosphere where needs can be discussed by explicitly asking others, demonstrating your willingness to discuss, and creating space for joint solutions. Maybe a team member has a young child and can only meet in the morning or someone has a chronic illness requiring regular breaks.
Include your instructors when making arrangements if necessary. It is their job to create an environment where you can effectively learn. If a group member is worried about failing due to health issues, you can arrange solutions with your lecturer to relieve some of the pressure. Just like TU Berlin's advising offices, your instructors have experiences of similar situations which were resolved in the past.

Make clear agreements and make sure you can rely on each other. Figure out when you want to communicate or share with each other and which channels you will use. Are there certain times when you are available or when you shouldn't be contacted? Where will you work? In the library, a study room, a student café, online, ...does your group even want to meet? Is the meeting place appropriate for getting the necessary work done? Inform others, for instance, if you will be traveling but still plan to attend the meeting by other means.

Our recommendation is allowing everyone to have the right to say no. Find a common approach that works for everyone instead of trying to convince certain members and thus potentially excluding them.

How can we get to know each other as a group?

Take some time at the beginning to get to know each other. Develop a relationship of mutual trust and a group identity before jumping into the task at hand. Going for a coffee together or to the canteen can provide space to find things out like: Who are you as a person? Do we have different needs? You can take a group photo to create a sense of connection even when you are unable to meet or you can come up with a team name. There are also of course countless fun icebreakers, such as going around in pairs and finding something you have in common like a favorite hobby, that can help form a bond despite other differences.
Playing a warmup game before a group meeting can also help create a bond and continue to help members adjust to each other. For instance, everyone can answer an off-topic question to break the ice like "What do I want to learn in the next few years?"

What are common stumbling blocks when it comes to good collaboration?

Unreliability, lack of trust, or lack of openness can all make good collaboration difficult. Failure to clearly communicate can also be a source of complication. Be honest with one another and communicate openly, for example if you want to drop out of the module, instead of just ghosting the group.

If something needs to be discussed in the group, everyone should be present and included instead of deciding something as a partial group without others. When you meet up, it can be useful to clearly discuss the purpose of the meeting in advance. Do you just want to informally socialize or will you be making a plan for the semester?

Define work packages and allocate tasks. If you all have a different aim, you can adjust tasks accordingly. Those students who are highly motivated can develop content in detail while those who want to get by with moderate effort can be in charge of the organizational details.

Dominant behavior can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it's helpful when someone takes control, like facilitating a team meeting. To avoid resentment, it can be helpful to get everyone's agreement or arrange to rotate responsibility for this role.

Where can I find suitable tools and software?

TU Berlin provides a number of services you can use for group work (and more):

ISIS
Materials for all your courses are uploaded to ISIS. A forum with a chat function is often available to use for questions and discussions.

Matrix
Matrix is a chat service, similar to other messenger apps, hosted on the University's own servers.

TU Email
Your TU email account is an essential tool for your studies. Important information about your studies as well as short notice changes to courses are communicated via email.

Webex Teams
You can use Webex Teams to chat with other TU members, organize different groups, and make phone calls as well as hold video conferences.

Zoom
TU Berlin's Zoom license has been adapted to local data privacy regulations, offering you the option to hold group meetings online and use practical functions for collaborative work like a joint whiteboard.

Practical tips for online meetings

If you sleep, study, and work all in the same room, you may not want to share your personal space in your video background. In addition to technical solutions such as a virtual background, you can also hang a bed sheet or something else to provide some privacy.

Arrange with your group members to all turn your cameras on, at least at the beginning of the meeting. It is more comfortable to see everyone's face and get feedback by reading their body language rather than staring at a black screen. This also helps you all get into the right mood for the meeting.

Remember that some group members may have an impairment that is not visible. Turning your camera on can help others read your lips.

Muting your microphone when not speaking and using a headset can improve the sound quality for everyone.

How much planning and project management is necessary?

The amount of scheduling and project management necessary depends on the task and project at hand. Handing in weekly homework requires less coordination and planning than a complex project which runs over the entire semester. Courses requiring more planning often teach useful methods to achieve this. For instance, it can be helpful when one person takes on a structural role as project manager and concentrates on what type of communication is necessary, whether a Gantt chart is needed, keeps an eye on whether work packages are evenly distributed, creates a plan, etc.

Resources like a joint calendar in your TU Berlin email account, which allows you to schedule meetings and send invites, can be helpful for such planning.  It may also be worth testing out tools for shared to-do lists.

What if conflicts arise?

Group dynamics change over time, and it is completely normal for conflicts to arise. What is important is how your group deals with these. A look at the different phases of collaboration, such as those studied by Tuckman in the sixties (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing), can offer reassurance: Is what is happening normal? What information can the model provide about what your group currently needs? Consider what you are able to do yourself. Engage in dialog with one another. If you are not able to resolve the conflict together, speaking with your instructor can help. You should always talk to them if you are having problems and are unable to solve them on your own. As an impartial unit, the Academic Advising Service can also help you to reflect and find solutions.

Further information and advising offers

Academic Advising Service

studienberatung@tu-berlin.de

Building Hauptgebäude
Room H 0070
Address Straße des 17. Juni 135
10623 Berlin
Advising session via ZoomTue 10:00-12:00, Thu 14:00-16:00
Additional advising sessionsby appointment via e-mail