Survival Tips for LIS Distance Learners and their Group Projects

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sarah Brown.

As an LIS graduate student at the University of South Florida, I have had group projects for at least one of my courses each semester. At first, I feared the idea of group work because we were all distance learners. How 20th century, right?

I think of distance group work as important training for my future as a librarian. I imagine that much of my work will entail communicating with others via the Internet to retrieve information, share access to information, and archive in some capacity. Obviously, not being face to face can pose challenges, so learning to navigate the technology and maintain effective communication is a large part of modern librarianship.

Whether you were assigned your group or you were able to choose your members, here are some tips and personal advice to guide you through to the presentation and/or final paper.

Communication is the key to success.

  • Find a platform where you can all meet—-whether through Skype, Google Plus, or a program like Elluminate, which is the platform I used most recently to meet with my group. If your school uses a learning management system, your professor can set up a discussion board and file exchange board for your group. Google Docs is also a good tool to use if you don’t have access to a learning management system.
  • If the group is more than three people, you may want to partner up with one member to help with editing or accountability.
  • Be aware that as distance learners, everyone will be working on a different schedule: some members may work days or nights, some may have school aged children, etc. Everyone has a busy life, which is why finding effective means of communication is so important.

Review the assignment together and create a strategy.

  • Come to a consensus on the assignment points, the group topic, and a timeline at the first meeting. Post this important information in the agreed upon shared space.
  • Take 5 minutes in the first meeting for group members to share what they enjoy and excel at; match these preferences with the division of responsibilities.  Don’t be surprised if the usual power struggles emerge between dominant personalities. It’s all part of the learning process!  Regardless, someone should be the leader to ensure all members are meeting their goals and commitments.

Just like everything, a little at a time goes the distance.

  • As with any research assignment, start ahead of time.
  • Be open to constructive criticism. I have been in groups that had great discussions during the editing process. I learn a great deal from others’ editing and I know I have to be open and ready to make changes. In the end, we all want an excellent grade!
  • Practice using the platform software, recite out loud at home/work in front of others, and time yourself. If you have partnered up, you can call your partner and recite over the phone. Remember that even 30 minutes a day can make a huge have an impact on your work.
  • Be sure everyone is on the same page with formatting and word processing. Trying to assemble a group paper with different word processing formats is maddening. So, keep it simple with one person fusing the paper and formatting for headers. Have group members use a plain text format instead of a template.

When things go south with the group?

  • As we all know, some groups click immediately, while others are more of a challenge. You will meet mature colleagues and those less focused than you. Remember that the semester is not that long, nor is the project.
  • The professor is always there for direction, but try not bring petty issues to his or her attention unless you have exhausted all possibilities. For my most recent group project, one member was MIA for weeks until I emailed the professor. The professor emailed the missing student, who did appear. I have also double-checked with professors to verify information, which, if mistaken, can be corrected in enough time.
  • Planning ahead remains very important. The smaller squabbles and conflicting viewpoints can be resolved much easier within the group if things are not left for the last minute.
  • Rejoice in the groups that naturally gel and learn from the groups that challenge you. Both experiences refine us for future endeavors.

What are your strategies for group work? Share your experiences about what worked and what did not. Be sure to include if you are a distance or on-campus student.

Sarah Brown has been a photographer and researcher for over a decade. She is a graduate student at the University of South Florida Library and Information Science program as a full time distance learner. Currently, she is a curatorial intern for the Photographic Collection at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Categories: Distance Learning

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13 replies

  1. I’m in my second semester as a SLIS student at SJSU, which is an entirely online program. The most valuable thing I learned in my first semester group work was: don’t be afraid to speak up first. Many people are wary of groups, so it helps to have someone set the tone with a friendly and enthusiastic first contact.


    • Thanks Suzanne! It’s tougher to be all online than I thought. I have learned a ton about interpersonal skills through group work!


  2. Love the advice about taking a few minutes at the start of the project to compare strengths. Talking about work styles/preferences is really important, too – whether we’re more task-oriented or process-oriented, for example. Some people prefer to make lists, assign sub-deadlines and get things done early, while others get an adrenaline rush (and do their best work) as the final deadline looms. The most productive groups often have one or two people who are willing to give up a little freedom and one or two others who are willing to cede a little control.


  3. I would add a point to those who are not inclined to step forward and lead- don’t just go along to get along! Even if you’re not the leader, your viewpoint is still valid and important. There is a knack to expressing dissent in a way that does not upset the apple cart, and grad school is as good a time as any to practice this.


    • I have a printed calendar by my computer to keep me on track.
      One of my courses uses Canvas as the info management software, which has a calendar icon that pops up with the course schedule and due dates. I love having this.


  4. Hello, Sarah! I’m also at USF. I don’t know if we’ve had a class together or not, but I agree with you 100%! It seems we alwasy have group projects in our program. Frankly, I find it annoying, but this semester I think I’m finally having a great time with my group. We’ve all had class before with at least one other person in the group, we meet weekly in the evenings using Google Talk, and we use a Wiki to collaborate for our Collection Development projects. Perhaps I’ll “see” in class before I’m done in the fall.


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