Playing Nicely With Others: Doing Group Work

Photo Credit to Flickr user MyTudet

No Bob, I don't want to stab you with these scissors. I LOVE group work.

How many of you have had to do group work in graduate school? What’s that? All of you? Okay, I thought so. Like it or not, group work is integral to library science curriculum. When I first started, I wondered why I had to do do so much group work. What’s the purpose of it? Is there a lesson to be learned? There are so many risks when you have to work with a group of people you don’t necessarily know that well. Coming from an undergraduate background in art history, where you sit in a dark room and stare at slides, you don’t even know who is in your class, let alone have to talk to anyone. It’s a solitary endeavor. However, library school is totally different. You’re expected to talk to your classmates, peer review their work and collaborate with them. That can be really off-putting for someone who is used to a) shy b) used to studying alone c) new to the program, thus not knowing anyone and d) a control freak. This semester, I’ve had to do a couple of large group projects and wondered how collaborating could be made easier.

This post isn’t really intended to tell you what tech tools to use to make group work easier (basically use Google Docs). You can check out our post on Gradhacker for our favorite tech tools and Micah’s Web Apps postfor more info on that. A big part of smooth sailing on group projects is communication! It’s harder to do that in an online setting, which is when the tech tools come in handy. In terms of building a relationship with your team, you need trust, honesty, and agency. Sometimes you have to take the risk of being vulnerable and tell your group that maybe you made a mistake on something. For example, I recently had a project where one of my group mates was very much a control freak, so there were times when I felt frustrated by her expectations of all of us. I had to be honest with everyone and say “hey, I can’t get the work you want done in the time frame you’re asking” and my other group mates thanked me for my honesty. Most people would rather their group mates tell them when they can’t do something, rather than just not do it. You still have to do your part though. Organization is also really helpful. Dividing up the workload and setting deadlines is key to accomplishing projects. Reconnecting with the group also keeps people accountable and keeps the communication line open. Finally, saying “thanks” to your group can go a long way, because everyone contributed something.

No group is perfect though, there’s always the occasional slacker who doesn’t communicate well. Or what if you just don’t get along with that person? I always try and understand where that person is coming from, despite our differences. Sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and find a way to get the project done, without strangling anyone. It happens and it sucks, but you get over it and move on.

Back to the question of “why so much group work in library school?” I think it prepares us for the profession. From a professional standpoint, you probably end up in lots of meetings and working with a group of people to achieve a common goal. The same goes for ALA committees and round tables. In the library, you spend a lot of time with people (patrons or coworkers), so might as well start working with them while you’re in school. It really helps someone like me who comes from a background where very little group work is involved. It gets me into the mindset of playing nice with others, learning what I respect in my colleagues and what I don’t like dealing with. I learned to relax and trust other people to do their part, plus it’s nice to look back and see the things I’ve accomplished with my group.

We’ve all had at least one group project in school. What do you guys think? Have any group work success stories? Horror stories? Tips on how to play nice? Share them in the comments!

18 replies

  1. So perfectly timed! Last night I led a library committee meeting at the small private school where I work, and one of my points was how important collaboration is to me. I started with a (somewhat tangential) story about how when I started library school the group work drove me crazy, but now I see that having the skill set to work effectively with a group is what takes a good idea to a great idea to an outstanding result.

    Of course, I have horror stories of group work gone terribly wrong. But that’s all a part of the process in learning how to communicate more effectively (especially in an online setting) and in compiling your strengths to bring about your best work. …until the next time you approach the same/similar problem. We continue to get better at what it is we’re doing, and I’m a convert: 2 (or 3 or more) heads really are better than one.


    • Yes, by the time I graduate, I’ll be a group work pro. I do think working in groups is much easier out of school. First, no one assigns people to work with for a grade. I’m learning not to stress out so much. Working with someone who is more of a control freak than me, helped me be a better communicator.


  2. Annie, great post! Being extremely positive and gracious in a work group can go a very long way. It is the best tool I have found. I work in a library with a strong group mentality, and my experience from group work in school helped me to be more confident, outgoing, and focused in the group work at work.


  3. Don’t forget too that working in groups is another way to build your networks! I’ve kept in touch with a lot of my past group members–I know we work productively together, so what is to say we can’t collaborate on something professionally down the road?

    I don’t have a deep well of knowledge to pull from quite yet, but I would suspect that Annie is correct, and working in groups is a part in every library workplace culture. At my current job, we collaborate on–seriously–everything. And everything is better for it–we work together to build assignments, plan events, build our syllabi, etc etc. It’s actually lovely, because it creates a non-competitive environment and a sense that we all ultimately want what is best for our students, our program, and each other.

    It helps in these situations to have a sense of humor, and, as Annie rightfully notes, to be able to let go of your need to control everything (difficult for me, <–total control freak). It is also vitally important not to take criticism, feedback, or even snappy remarks personally. Not everyone in a group is going to agree with something, and that is a response to the idea–not you (hopefully!)

    In the past, I've talked myself out of contributing certain ideas–it was too obvious, or unrealistic, or stupid–and then someone else suggests it and it turns out to be a great idea. I've also suggested some total duds. You can't hit every idea out of the ballpark, but you have to at least put them on the field. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and take risks!


    • Good point! You are working with potential future colleagues. As far as working in groups outside of school, it’s true, you do build your network. Even in other settings, you might be the only librarian represented on that committee. Then other people can learn about what you do.


  4. I went into it dreading the group work. I had one particularly tough group project in my previous graduate program, and of course everyone talks about group work like it’s a horrible chore.

    Every group project that I worked on in library school went surprisingly well! As you say, you have to be careful to clearly communicate with your group — if you don’t actually tell the other member(s) of your group, “hey, I would really like to do this part if you’re ok with doing that part,” then you have no right to get frustrated that they did the part you wanted to do!

    Negotiating timing is important too. I’m a last-minute, just-in-time kind of person. I get it done on time, but just barely, and that can be really nerve-wracking for someone that needs everything done early… And it’s not fair to leave it down to the wire like that if the other person has 3 other papers and a test due that week, plus a full time job. So we agreed on deadlines for each part, based on both/all of our schedules, and that helped a lot!

    Even if you do have a painful group work experience, it may be worth it in the end. One of the questions in the phone interview for the job I now have was about a time when you had a challenging group project and how you handled it. And that really is important in my current job — all of the instructional services librarians work together a lot to collaborate on planning lessons and workshops.


    • Communication is key in group work! I like to try and get stuff done a little bit earlier so I start sweating when I don’t know what the others are up to. Now that I’m getting closer to the end of my degree, I don’t dread group as much. Also, collaborating with other HackLibSchool writers has helped me appreciate group work. It’s opened many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I just stuck to myself.


  5. Thanks for your post, Annie. I had yet another group project this semester and I was nervous about it because it seems like something always goes wrong. This time was different, though. We all had similar expectations of ourselves and each other, and that helped distribute the work evenly. My views on group work have dramatically changed as I near the end of my LIS degree.


  6. “someone who is used to a) shy b) used to studying alone c) new to the program, thus not knowing anyone and d) a control freak” — ha! I’m e) all of the above.

    I had two group projects in this first semester of grad school. One was an excellent experience; the other was not so great. I am one of those with a full-time job, and instead of the weekend and evening meetings the same group managed in the beginning of the term, the second half of the project had meetings scheduled at 10AM on weekdays, which I couldn’t attend! I didn’t feel like I was connected to the project during that time, although I edited the paper and contributed in other ways.


  7. I can’t say I always like group work, but I appreciate it. It’s an important skill and experience to have.

    My “best” group experience in terms of learning was probably in a large project where the professor acts like a somewhat detached senior partner, and the students are the staff working on the task day-to-day. This is perhaps more similar to real working environments.

    This was in a Pratt SILS information architecture class with Prof. David Walczyk – see outcome of my group at

    I also had a good team experience in a reference-related class, where we had teams of two or three to deal with large and fairly hard collections of questions. The professor (Debbie Rabina) knew we would divide up the work, but urged us to talk through our answers with each other, which both improved the quality of answers and shared the learning experience on each question among all the team.


  8. I don’t always like group work, but it’s important. I’ve had two particularly good experiences with this. In one case, our professor acted like a somewhat detached “senior partner” of each student team, which was somewhat analogous to work in a professional consultancy or design firm. This was in an information architecture class at Pratt SILS with Prof. David Walczyk, and the result was this

    Another good experience was in a reference class where our professor Debbie Rabina gave teams of two or three people big sets of hard questions. My partner and I divided up the basic work but reported carefully to each other what we had done and shared advice when we were having problems. The result was really improved output over what would have been possible if either of us had worked alone, even on just half the material. We learned a lot from each other, which I think is something Prof. Rabina wanted.


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