Group Work: The Agonies – and the Possibilities

You’ve started dreading Biology. Your lab partner is nice enough, but she doesn’t do much. You have to ask her to help with the task itself, and she texts her boyfriend while you prepare the lab report. You try to get her to contribute, but she always says, “I don’t know” and copies whatever you write.

Then there’s Business Management. In groups of four, you’re working on your final project: a plan for a new business. The assignment constitutes 30% of your grade, so you want to do a good job. You’re also excited about applying the concepts you’ve been studying in class. But one guy has already appointed himself CEO of your fledgling corporation. He’s not interested in your ideas; in fact, he doesn’t let anyone do very much. This is just fine with one member of your group who is delighted to be off the hook. But two of you are getting frustrated: it’s your education, too!

If you’re a student, you know the perils of group work. Since kindergarten, you’ve also heard teachers rave about the importance of working with others.
Like it or not, collaboration is part of the academic and professional world. After graduation, you will have to contend with other people – even if you work from home, run your own business, or pursue a freelance career. Often, your colleagues will be warm, supportive, and inspiring. Sometimes, you will find yourself with a lazy, stubborn, or overbearing co-worker. You’ll have to contend with these situations without clenching your teeth, compromising your health, or leaving your position.

Here are some tips to make group projects less stressful:

1.) Set Boundaries: Before you get started, delegate tasks. Determine who is responsible for each part of a project and set deadlines. This can be casual: “I’ll answer questions one and three if you do two and four.” With larger projects, you may want to establish more formal requirements: “Rick will write the Procedures section, Liana the Analysis, and Chelsea the Recommendations. We’ll meet to discuss our drafts a week before the paper is due.” Get these arrangements in writing – or save e-mail correspondence about them – so that there is no confusion about responsibilities.

2.) Be the Teammate You Want. Don’t be lazy, don’t be disparaging, and don’t take over. It’s normal to be frustrated when the material is difficult or when your partners’ standards are different than yours. If you’re struggling with the project, get help – from your professor, classmates, or the Academic Support Center. If you find yourself with well-intentioned, but less skilled group members, help them succeed. For example, if your partner is not a strong writer, you might proofread his work and tactfully make suggestions. You might also refer him to the Writing Clinic. When he does something well, tell him so.

3.) Document Everything. Keep track of who attends meetings and contributes to the project. If a teammate isn’t pulling his or her own weight, you will be able to bring specific grievances to the professor. Use this option as a last resort: only approach your instructor after you have talked with your group member. If you must complain about a classmate, be professional. Don’t tattle or rant. Instead, express your concerns in a well-written e-mail, and attach any documentation you have.

4.) Put Your Project in Perspective. Sometimes, this means writing the lab report yourself if you want a good grade in the course. At other times, you’ll have to shrug off your lackluster discussion group. Weigh each assignment to determine how much time you want to spend nurturing group dynamics.

Regard difficult group work as you would any other obstacle: a chance to prove to yourself and your professors that you have the maturity and determination to overcome a challenge. Take a deep breath, and tell yourself that you’re developing skills you’ll use the rest of your life.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Don’t Like Your Class or Your Teacher? Here’s How to Succeed Anyway

Chemistry’s boring. I don’t like my instructor’s teaching style. I hate English. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. That class has nothing to do with my major or what I want to do with my life.

At Academic Support, we hear it all the time.

I won’t use this post to tell you why you should embrace Chemistry or English. I won’t defend your instructor. I won’t explain why a particular class will help you become a well-rounded person or succeed in your career. However, I will make a concession: your complaints may be legitimate.

But you’re not off the hook. First, if you’re old enough to be in college, you’re an adult – and thus responsible for your own learning. Second, when future employers and grad schools look at your transcript, there won’t be a column that explains your grades:

Ancient History C- (But her instructor was boring.)
English Composition D+ (But he never liked writing.)

There are no “buts” on transcripts. Your grade is your grade.

That said, you can keep yourself motivated even when you find yourself with a class or professor you don’t enjoy:

1.) Get Help When You Need It. Many people dislike math, writing, or other subjects they find challenging. If you’re struggling with a particular class, meet with your professor, form a study group, or visit the Academic Support Center for tutoring and other support. And don’t be afraid to ask questions: if your instructor’s assignments or notes confuse you, ask for clarification.

2.) Remember the Real World. In your future career, you will encounter difficult people, stressful times, and challenging situations. Even your dream job will have dull or unpleasant elements. Right now, college is your full-time position, so accept that you won’t love every class or instructor.

3.) Find Your Interest. Get excited about something in every course. Try applying something you learn in science to the world around you; consider history in light of current events. Maybe a character or text in a literature class reminds you of a person, event, or theme in your life. If nothing else, regard each class as a challenge. Tell yourself, “Yes, this isn’t my thing, but I want to prove that I can earn a good grade.”

4.) Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Yes, it’s a cliché, but sometimes it’s the only mantra that works. If you’re in college, your goals are a degree and a career. Recognize that difficult class or professor as a small, but vital step on your journey to the life you want.

So as the British say, just get on with it. One day, your effort will be worth it.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Procrastination: Don’t Put Off Reading this Blog Post!

According to 19th century psychologist William James, “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” A lot of things have changed in the past hundred years, but we are still plagued by procrastination. It’s part of the human condition. One of the most important – and most challenging – skills to learn is how to manage those inevitable bouts with procrastination

In order to beat procrastination, you need to face it. Acknowledge that that is what’s happening. Don’t kid yourself that because you always seem busy, you must be getting the important things done. The master procrastinators I know are always busy doing legitimate tasks. Busy-ness is the best way to mask the fact that you’re avoiding something else.

Once you’ve acknowledged your procrastination, you have to make a firm commitment to overcome it. This takes great courage and perseverance for several reasons:

1.) Like any change, it’s hard.

2.) You have to deal with your personal fears – of failure, of less than perfection, of commitment, of success. (The idea of being productive and efficient is very scary if you generally aren’t!)

3.) It won’t gain you popularity, and it might not be fun.

It’s easy to see why so many people put off dealing with procrastination. Avoiding procrastination requires a combination of attitude and technique.

Let’s start with attitude. You have to convince yourself that you can manage your behavior with regards to time. Yes, you can.

Let go of perfectionism. Conditions are rarely perfect for working, and people are rarely capable of achieving perfection in their work. Strive for personal excellence and satisfaction instead.

Appreciate deadlines: don’t fear them. The adrenaline rush caused by an approaching deadline may be exactly what you need to get those creative juices flowing!

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You are responsible for turning that light bulb over your head. It’s not magic, and it only happens after you’ve invested some time and energy.

Once you believe you can manage yourself through time, work on your technique:

1.) Become a list-maker and a prioritizer. Before you go to bed at night, make a list of tasks you need to accomplish the next day. Note which things are most important in terms of time or significance. Write them down so you can’t conveniently forget them or rationalize them away.

2.) Make sure your goals are realistic. Break huge, overwhelming jobs into smaller, doable chunks.

3. ) Tell the people around you what are you are planning to do. The added pressure will help you stick to your plans.

4.) Get started with something! Keep your planning and prioritizing simple, but don’t waste time debating where to start. When it’s time to work, pick something on your list and plunge in. It all needs to get done.

5.) Have patience with yourself. Once you start, give yourself time to focus on the task at hand. If it’s hard to get focused, try a different perspective or approach.

6.) Reward yourself when you’ve achieved a goal. Take breaks when you need to – but make yourself get back to work and finish things. Whenever you finish a task, cross it off your list.

7.) Pay attention to the things on your lists that never seem to get done. If they’re not worth doing, drop them from your list and forget them. If they are worth doing, acknowledge that those are the things you’re really avoiding and get help dealing with them.

If you need help dealing with your procrastination, don’t delay getting help another day! The longer you wait, the more overwhelming the looming tasks become, and the less likely you are to be able to salvage the semester – and your well-being.

-Becky Eno

Becky Eno is the Academic Counselor at Castleton University. She also teaches in the English department.

 

 

Get Ready, Get Set, Get Organized!

stress_000The last week has been a blur. You’re adapting to a new schedule – and maybe changing that schedule as you add or drop classes. Professors are inundating you with syllabi and assignments, you’re planning to meet up with friends, and you’re trying to fit homework around your job or extracurricular activities. The semester’s hardly begun, but you’re already overwhelmed.

There’s no question about it: the start of the semester can be chaotic. (Even faculty and staff may find new routines stressful.) However, choosing an organizational system – and sticking to it – can relieve tension throughout the semester and help you be a more successful student. Here are some tips to keep your academic and personal life in order all year long:

1.) Use one binder per class. You need a dedicated three-ring binder – or at least a notebook and folder – for each class you take. Even if your professor puts your notes and assignments on Moodle, you should still have a physical location where you can store handouts, drafts, and other documents. Keeping track of deadlines will be much easier if you keep all the materials for a specific class in one place. Take notes on a laptop or other device? Make sure you set up an electronic folder for each course on your schedule.

2.) Plan ahead. Buy a planner. There’s nothing like being able to see all your commitments and deadlines in one place. You can buy a planner at the Castleton Store; if you prefer an app, check out myHomework. Whether you choose a traditional planner or an electronic one, invest in one that will show you a week at a time. This will give you a sense of how you should structure your free time for the next few days.

3.) List it. Planners and planning apps show you the week at a glance. A “To Do” list lets you list your priorities for the day. For example, your “To Do” list for a given Saturday might look like this:

To Do

            -Write draft of history essay.

            -Start research for psychology paper.

            -Go to the gym.

            -Get a haircut.

            -Call Grandma and wish her a happy birthday.

“To Do” lists can be paper or electronic; choose the format that works for you. Note: you can also create “To Do” lists for specific projects. This can help you break down large assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks.

4.) Pause. When you’re juggling multiple commitments, life can get confusing. Being a full-time student is full-time work – and most students also have outside jobs, extracurricular activities, or family obligations. Occasionally, even the most organized and conscientious among us lose track of our priorities. When you find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, or unable to focus, stop whatever you’re doing and take a deep breath. Take a few more breaths, and then write down everything you have to do. Look over your list. Which items do you need to do? Which do you need to do now? Which tasks could you put off for a few more days? Are there any you could reschedule or even skip? We’re not advocating shirking responsibilities or blowing off assignments, mind you. But if you have to study for a biology test, finish a history paper, and attend a club meeting, make sure the test and paper come before the extracurricular activity. Sports, clubs, and socializing are all important, but academics should always be your first priority.

Some stress is an inevitable part of college and life in general; however, with a little planning, you can avoid the sensation of moving from one crisis to the next. Sometimes, a little structure can mean the difference between dreading your responsibilities and enjoying them.

-Dorothy A. Dahm