Working in a group with other students is part and parcel of university study. Quite a few people worry about it, and some have real problems with it. This activity looks at the main issues people have with group work and gives you some practical tips for your own study.
Group work came up a lot in the Autism&Uni surveys. Some people found it really useful in terms of helping them develop skills they needed for work and social life later on. Other people really struggled with it, especially if they felt that they were doing more work than other people.
This is a common issue for non-autistic people, too. There is no perfect way to put together groups or make them work well, so tutors also find it challenging, but getting to grips with group work is a worthwhile thing to do and it’s an important part of many courses for this reason.
What’s good and bad about group work?
What experience do you have with group work? Try to remember the good times as well as the more difficult ones. It’s understandable to worry about it if you have had problems in the past, but anticipation is often worse than reality. What do you think are the good and bad points about group work?
Who will I work with?
There are pros and cons to the different methods tutors can choose for the formation of groups. In the workplace, you rarely get to choose who you work with, but hopefully the work you do will be related to your strengths and skills.
If people are allocated randomly (or by characteristics such as their surname) to groups, that can seem fairest, but then you can end up with very uneven groups that don’t have a good mix of skills and interests.
If the tutor creates mixed ability groups, distributing the most competent students across the groups, the person who is most able can end up doing most of the work and bringing up the grades of the others, or at least may feel that way.
If students get to choose their own groups, this can feel empowering and you can work with people you already know and like, but less popular students may struggle to find a group and friends working together isn’t always the strongest group.
Ideally, you would choose to work with people based on their strengths and have a variety of different skills and preferences in the group, but this means you have to know what those strengths are and everyone needs to communicate well what they like to do, what they are good at and what their expectations are of the group and the task.
Strengths and weaknesses
Everyone has preferred roles in a group. Some people are natural leaders and good at making things happen. Some people are very creative and tend to excel at throwing in ideas to shake things up. Some are brilliant at making sure all the notes get made and meetings get booked. Others are amazing at bringing the group together and making everyone feel like they are part of a team. Some people make fabulous slides, others are good at chasing up unfinished work or public speaking. Most people have a mixture of talents and preferences, and areas that need more development.
How could this affect me?
Some autistic students enjoy group work more than any other part of their course, as it enables them to work with others with support and a common goal and this helps them with social and work relationships later on. Others worry a lot about it, but either way most courses have group work at some point and it is better to take a proactive approach so you can make the most out of the experience.
Knowing what you’re good at and being able to express it well, without being arrogant, is an important part of working with others. It’s also important to know what you are not so good at, so that you can work on improving those areas and perhaps avoid roles where those are the main characteristics.
It is best to be very specific – just saying you’re good or bad at something or love or hate it without having a very clear idea of what that is in relation to the group and task and how you can either work with or around that element isn’t helpful to anyone.
What to do next?
Spend some time thinking about your strengths and weaknesses and make an appointment to speak to your tutor or advisor
- Tell the group you are autistic and how it affects you – calmly, without getting upset or using it as an excuse for not doing work.
- Make a list with two columns: in the left column put the things you are most worried about relating to group work and in the right column, write down how you might be able to resolve these issues.
- Discuss this list with a trusted person at home or uni, like a parent, your disability adviser, a mentor or a tutor.
Questions to think about
These are things you can talk to your disability advisor and your personal tutor about. Some are good practice anyway, others you may have to make a case for:
- Telling the group you are autistic and how it affects you
- All group members to declare what they think they’re good and bad at and discuss these issues
- Set ground rules for group work and communications, such as how often you will meet up and/or email each other, internal deadlines etc
- Extra supervision for the group at the beginning of the assignment
- Establishing a student buddy within the group
- Arranging formally structured and/or online meetings that support group members getting to know each other
In addition, here are some questions to think about and plan strategies around:
- How do you decide who the leader is and who does what?
- How would you divide up work fairly?
- How do you stop people messing about and get on with the work without upsetting anyone?
- What about when someone doesn’t turn up?
- What if group members are lazy or not very good?
- How would you handle it if someone doesn’t speak English that well?
- How do you handle different approaches to the deadline?
- How can you pro-actively manage expectations and cope better by addressing things you worry about early?
- When should you talk to the tutor about problems and what do you need to do first?