When (Online) Group Projects Go Wrong

We all know “that guy” (or girl). The one who doesn’t respond to emails, doesn’t offer to contribute any work, and has a generally nasty attitude. In a traditional classroom setting, there’s always the option of calling that person out after class. In an online setting it can be difficult to manage the situation. Like it or not, sometimes we’re stuck with a difficult partner for important projects and we need to learn how to deal (without resorting to banging our heads against the keyboard). When I ran into this problem in one of my online courses, this is what I learned.

Have an optimistic approach. When you are first assigned a group, keep things friendly and optimistic so that everyone comes in to the assignment with a positive attitude. Engage everyone in the planning process and set expectations early on. Split responsibilities evenly between each group member so everyone knows what is required of them. Make sure you have multiple methods of reaching everyone, such as phone number and email.

Set deadlines. Once responsibilities are delegated, determine that everyone will have their portion of the project done by a certain date. This provides motivation for people to keep on track and makes it clear when someone isn’t pulling their weight.

Don’t be too quick to judge. Sometimes people have stressful or devastating personal events going on in their lives that trump whatever schoolwork they have. Unfortunately, people may not always disclose this information and others tend to assume they are lazy and uninterested. (If you find yourself on that end, please notify your instructor and group members – if it’s personal, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it vague.)

Photo from Sybren Stuvel on Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0

Photo from Sybren Stuvel on Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0

Set up a Google hangout/video chat. Get together online to discuss everyone’s progress. This is just one more opportunity to clarify what everyone’s expectations are and to check on how things are going. It’s harder to let group members down when you’re talking “face to face.”

Call them out. Send a personal or group email saying something like: “Hey ___, I noticed we haven’t heard from you in a while about your progress on the project. I just wanted to check in and see if you are struggling with anything or have any questions. I’d be happy to help.” Offering to help is imperative because it shows your willingness to work together to get things done.

Make a backup plan. When all else fails, the group has to figure that person’s portion out themselves. Either split their work between the group or find someone who is willing to do the extra work. Don’t let this get in the way of the end result.

Tell the professor. This should be the absolute last resort. As graduate students, we look bad if we run to the professor with every little problem we have. Furthermore, we don’t want to appear as though we can’t manage a project. In the case of my group project, all of the aforementioned approaches were still not enough to get our group member to contribute. What we did was this: turned in our project on time and gave our presentation as planned without a peep to the professor. Rather than complaining “X person didn’t do this or that or anything! Ugh fail them please!” we sent the professor a list of each member’s contributions. Obviously, there was nothing listed under the non-contributor’s name.

Thank the rest of the group. One bad group member shouldn’t spoil things for everyone else. You all pulled together and got things done! You’re awesome! Thank everyone for helping out when things got tough.

Check out this post for more tips on managing online group projects and this post about regular group projects.


How do you manage online group projects? Do you have any horror stories you’d like to share?


5 replies

  1. I like the final strategy of simply listing the contributions of the project participants. Non-contributors dog us well beyond formal schooling right through our professional and professional association work lives. Rather than killing ourselves with anger/stress after trying many approaches to gain buy-in from a non-contributor, this listing can fairly acknowledge those who did all the lifting and speak volumes to the prof/boss/committee chair.


  2. All about that backup plan! Understand that they may be going something really hard — I’ve had group members who were dealing with mental illnesses, family issues, trouble adjusting to grad school — and reach out if there is a way you and the others can help. Maybe you’re meeting too late, not providing adequate tasks/goals, or not listening to other members. Or maybe the member is just slacking off and fell off the face of the earth for no good reason. Either way, find other ways to make it work by divvying up their work and provide lots of support and encouragement to other active members. Sometimes inactive group members will surprise you and come to class with all their work done (which may not always be a good surprise) but the rest of the group won’t look bad as long as you talk to the professor so they can follow up with the student to identify the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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