“How Do I Deal with a Slacker on a Group Project?”

Posted by on Apr 9, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 10 comments

The sign knows everything about slackers. Arggggghhhh!!!!!!

(A one-line write-in from a student… Does this problem ever go away in life? No! The slacking group member is a plague! Students feel helpless and concerned about grades, and they may wonder when to bring a prof in on the problem. Here’s my take…) 

Ellen,

How do you work with a group member who does not put in their work on a group project?

Student

***********************

I realize the student didn’t ask for all the advice I’m giving, but I’m giving it anyway. What do you say???

Student,

I so empathize! As a student, I couldn’t stand group work because I knew I would probably have to manage or do most of it so my own grade wouldn’t tank.

Can I be honest? Even as a professional, I still become a little anxious with group work. Let’s face it: Not everyone has the same work ethic. You can hope for everyone to step up, but as you are experiencing, some people don’t. This is a classic complaint for students. I have abandoned group work in my classes with any sort of high stakes, unless I am teaching a group communication course.

On to you: What do you do with that slacker in your group?

My first recommendation is don’t go to your prof immediately, but I will tell you in a minute when it is time to do that.

I bet your assignment is well underway. If the assignment was just starting–and since it has–this would be my strategy:

-Immediately take the lead (Not a dictatorial lead… just assertively take charge of making suggestions…) and ensure that every person ‘owns’ and recaps their deliverables, including a date for each deliverable (this can be a collaborative discussion–I’ll explain below);
-Build in enough time so if each person doesn’t meet the deadline, you can address the problem;
-Assign another group member in place to pick up unfinished work, if necessary.
-Assign yourself or a second person as “quality control” to make sure the work is completed on time and up to standards.

Bring your group together now and say that it’s time to “regroup.” You need all members there to re-establish everyone’s deliverables and the dates: “We agreed that Nyara would have X done by Monday evening and Mike would have X done by Wednesday, and I will update where we are on Thursday.”

Have a clear-cut plan of action if someone misses their deliverable with the majority of your group in agreement. Say, “Given that we only have a week (two weeks… whatever) to pull all this together, if one of us misses a deadline, they’ll get one reminder (because remember–you’ll be building in your dates with some buffer room!). Who will step in to take over that job?” Make sure that person is ready to move quickly.

Remember, too, that everyone needs to be in specific agreement about expected quality of work. Is everyone striving for an ‘A’? What does ‘A’ work look like? Underperforming can be as bad as not performing.

While you’re in the discussion about dates and work, have a mechanism so everyone knows what will happen if they don’t step up. I recommend a group evaluation, whether or not one was required. Say, “If someone needs to take over someone else’s work, I suggest we submit a group evaluation along with this project.”

I don’t suggest a huge intervention with the slacker. You can try one private conversation to be diplomatic: “The group is concerned about you. Is there something going on that is preventing you from getting this work done?” But the bottom line is, regardless of this person’s answer, the work needs to be done. If they have a genuine life issue, they need to work with the professor on that. If they are just slacking, then you won’t have time for empty promises and more delay.

More on the evaluation: Sometimes, group projects come with guidance for an initial group contract, self-evaluation of your performance, or peer-evaluation of the group performance. These tools are critical for establishing expectations and roles. If you are not explicitly told to turn in some sort of evaluation, I would turn one in anyway. A grade is at stake here. It is not fair for everyone to receive the same grade if only three of four people carried the work–unless everyone agrees to that, of course.

I may be in the minority on this thought, but in a short-term situation, like a class, you should not be forced to carry someone else’s weight at the expense of your grade. I totally get the argument that these projects prepare you for real life, but in business, someone not doing their share of the work would have harsh ramifications and you’d have longer to deal with the issue. Also, drama takes energy and time, and a quarter or semester is finite.

Make sure all group decisions are transparent–and this includes to the slacking group member. It is tempting to split off, talk behind that person’s back, and take over, but the slacker should know what’s going on. He/she may need to speak to events in the group with the prof.

Finally, let’s talk about your communication with the professor: I always recommend that students try to solve the problems first in the group. Leave the prof out of it, unless the circumstance is dangerous or extreme. But upon completion, I would make an appointment with the prof and say, “I just wanted to let you know that in my group, we had some issues. We established clear tasks and deadlines, but we needed to reorganize our group members’ responsibilities in a few places to get the work done. We were able to solve the problems, but would like to submit a formal group evaluation.” 

Your prof will read between the lines that you’re looking for fairness, and if he/she has questions, you’ll hear them. You don’t have to say “…so you FAIL the slacker’s ass and we all get A’s!”

I can’t emphasize enough not to waste your time with drama. Keep everything ‘business’ as much as you can. The slacker will learn soon enough that working this way just doesn’t work. Hopefully your prof will make things equitable.

Good luck and let me know if I can help further!

Ellen

What advice do you have? Colleagues, how do you mitigate these types of situations?

10 Comments

  1. As usual Ellen, this is a fantastic post about a prominent issue in learning. I have experimented with all kinds of grouping to eradicate this issue, but there are just some students who don’t care and others who will dominate. Like you, I was the over achiever in my groups and anxiously wouldn’t trust others with my grades hanging in their hands. It wasn’t until much later in life that i realized that group work is far more than learning about the subject matter in the project but rather a communications and team work activity that requires a whole other skill set. You give great advice. May use some in my classes

    • Thank you, Starr!

      I feel really guilty for stopping group work altogether. I found that it was just a huge misery-fest and it wasn’t really teaching students anything. If I teach a full class on group comm, that would be another story. Then at least we could get into the communication issues and the dynamics on a deeper level.

      I just can’t blame students at all. There was a time, once upon a time, that I was asked to take over a committee. It was a big committee, too, and another person would have co-chaired with me. Sadly, I knew that the person slated was kind of a slacker based on other committees on which we’d served together. I ended up declining that particular year. I just didn’t need to carry the load or for my own reputation to sink.

      I appreciate you commenting… as usual. We’re in the trenches together :-) .

      Ellen

      • Thank you for tackling this difficult topic with concrete strategies and sage advice for a common sense, problem-solving approach to group work. I also pulled back from group work in my classes because of the same “misery fest” effect (what a perfect description). I remember thinking that I was tired of my college class turing into a middle school mud-slinging mess. I teach college and academic skills so now I teach group work only in the context of helping the students learn about group work. We introduce a very small project, like making a poster — one of my favorites is based on your wonderful book “Say This Not That to Your College Professor” — and then we walk the students through their experience to try to help them discover strategies to deal with their challenges. The slacker is the number one problem my students encounter, so I will be sharing your great advice with them this quarter! Thanks, Ellen.

        • Hi, Robin!

          It is such a hard decision to make, isn’t it? I really tried to keep small group projects going, but in the context of 10 weeks, it was difficult. I also realized that they didn’t really fit with public speaking. The time that I was trying to use them with peer editing, if a slacker was in the mix, that could be very harmful to other students’ work in that they could fall behind.

          I am so excited about your students using #STNT for their projects. It seemed to TOTALLY work, as far as I could tell!!! The outcome was incredible and, I hope, long-lasting!

          Ellen

  2. Through the years this has become a prominent issue for me. Being a little above my peers academically, they would expect me to carry out the tasks, as if I was superman. So even after dividing up the tasks at hand I would still have to do a little more than the rest of my group members. When confronting said “slackers” I heard many excuses and I have never been able to change one person’s work ethic. So the most valuable piece of advice that I can attest to is that an intervention won’t solve any problems.

    • Mohammad,

      It is awesome to hear a student’s perspective on this and I can see how you would be the automatic leader. You are very astute in that an intervention doesn’t typically change a person’s work ethic. Unfortunately, that person is going into the assignment with the work ethic they already brought to the table. The only person who will change that is the person, themselves.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

      Ellen

  3. Hi Ellen,

    I came across this post and couldn’t resist commenting. I am also a professor of communication studies, and one of the courses I teach is Group Discussion and Problem Solving. Needless to say, I don’t have the easy out of not doing group projects in that course. Group projects are also called for in the course requirements for some of my other classes, and I’m well aware of the frustration that both students and faculty feel about them. But I do wish that the answer wasn’t so often just “don’t do group projects,” but instead, to do them fairly.

    As you say, real-life groups have consequences for shirkers, and I believe that college projects should, as well. But faculty also need to be on the lookout for behavior that makes a student feel alienated and unwelcome in a group, which can result in withdrawal and lack of participation as defense mechanisms. Often a very assertive person, or a dominant pair (especially if they are already friends) can take over a group and try to steer it in the direction they want, leaving others to go along with the agenda, fight for control, or just withdraw — and people with certain personality types, communication challenges, or personal history may find the last option to be the least painful one.

    I wish more faculty would take the time (and it IS time-consuming) to do guided group projects, where the group work is monitored and students have help negotiating the process of full participation and consensus decision making. More than just punishing slackers with low grades, it would help all students realize that taking the time to get everyone’s input and making sure the process is inclusive is a worthwhile set of skills to learn.

    Telling someone that they have a bad worth ethic is, indeed, unlikely to change things. But if a class is at all designed to teach some life skills, as well as academic content, then there is value in the effort to teach students better habits and to encourage their full participation by creating a truly cooperative and welcoming environment in the student group. Can you put yourself in the place of a student with low self-esteem who finds herself in a group with a self-proclaimed “academic superman” like Mohammad, who expects that his ideas and work will be superior? Teachers who put emphasis solely on the results, rather than the process, are doing as much of a disservice to their shy or easily intimidated students as to the ones who will dominate the process and then loudly complain that they “had” to do more than their fair share.

    Sorry for ranting. It’s just that I see these same assumptions throughout academia, and it frustrates me that we aren’t more creative in addressing this issue.

    • Hi, Julia,

      I really appreciated your comment. I wrote that post a while ago, so I had to go back and see what I advised! :-) I actually taught Group Communication at my last college for four years and, ironically, I’m likely set to teach it again in the coming school year. While I abandoned graded group projects in my other Comm courses, I did this more because I’m now on the quarter system, rather than semester system, and I teach hybrid/online courses right now. Because I see my students just once per week, I would rather embark on group experiences in the classroom, and ones that aren’t longitudinal. If students do group work online, it is mostly peer editing, and it is not graded. This was a tough decision to make, but I definitely found that losing those five weeks in a term affected the execution and management of quality experiences, particularly when they weren’t integral to the course.

      I completely agree with you that the process is important and students should not alienate a non-performer. I also agree that faculty should play an integral role in teaching students about proper ways to handle this situation and even the psychology behind it.

      In my post, I tried to keep my recommendations less emotional (typically my nature!) and more focused on reiteration of the tasks at hand. I find that prolonged “processing” to try to make a non-performer change their behaviors doesn’t usually work and creates more drama than the group is prepared to handle. I’ll qualify this by saying that in a dedicated group comm course, of course, these dynamics are precisely what students are there to figure out. However, I truly believe that the non-performer is going to work through his/her own journey and reach their own conclusion, based on potential consequences. As we both know, sometimes reconciliation of behavior doesn’t come until far beyond the course end date.

      I do put myself in a non-performing students’ shoes and empathize with the self-esteem hit that goes along with their behavior. I face these issues, myself, as a very slow runner (I’ve come in dead last twice in races!), who often feels “inferior” to those faster than me–which would be a large part of the running population :-) . But, again, I know that any self-motivating or self-defeating journey has to be mine. Similar to a non-performer, all the encouragement in the world only works if the person is truly ready to receive it.

      There are so many variations of non-performance, as we both know, from the student who is struggling, to the student who is squashed by a high performer (or a series of them, as you mentioned), to the student who just doesn’t care. I will definitely be more thoughtful of the “why” behind non-performance after this exchange. And I hope faculty will look more at the larger lesson. I need to revisit that idea, myself.

      Thank you so much,
      Ellen

  4. I am experiencing this exact same thing in my group for an online class I am enrolled in currently. We are a group of 6 with a big group presentation and paper due in a couple of weeks. So far, 4 of the 6 have communicated.

    Two members seemed to have dropped off the face of the planet and the other two members only pop in once every week to say something like “Looks like we’re on the right track!” One member gave a list of all the reasons why they can’t communicate with us on a regular basis (once a day).

    Meanwhile, myself and another girl are doing all of the work. This is a Group Communication class and is being taken online. When projects are due, I like to get rolling on them as soon as possible. A lot of our assignments are geared toward brainstorming and group communication. Save for the communication that has been going on between myself and the other active participant in the group, communication has had a big breakdown. I wish I knew why.

    I feel perfectly comfortable in a support role but will step forward in a leadership role without an issue. That is the case here. I am the group leader.

    I tried to contact people via email (I have no other ways to contact them) but received no reply.

    To be perfectly blunt, these group projects stress me out. Especially online when there is no face to face contact with the other people.

    In summary, great article! I think i’m going to have to take your advice about contacting the professor at the end of the project.

    Right now it feels like the two of us are busting our humps to get assignments done while the other four are happily turning in our hard work to get full credit.

  5. Ellen,

    Thank you so very much for this! I’m having the same issue right now. The project is due today. Out of 5 people 2 of us worked on the project, I had emailed the others with the response of “I had no idea we had a group project due.” The other student and I, finished and I typed the essay. Now I’m not sure to do with their names. I also emailed the professor with what had happened. Do I keep their names on the report? Or take them off? I still have no word from the professor on what to do. I really don’t want to throw anyone under the “bus” but we had no help AT ALL. Can you PLEASE tell me what I should do?

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