Dealing with Uncertainty and Challenge

Group work involves dealing with a series of challenges. Uncertainty is a normal part of the group work process. Make sure that your students are aware of these things from the beginning.

Prepare groups for uncertainty

Students find the challenges of group work tasks and projects more manageable if you've led them to expect some level of difficulty or uncertainty within their teams. Discuss the stages that emerging groups often go through. The following sample handout may be helpful.

Student handout

Phases of group work

Phase 1: Getting to know your group and working out how it will function

Getting to know each other takes time and patience, and you need to work at understanding each others’ strengths and weaknesses and ways of working and learning.

During the initial phase of group work you might experience some confusion and possible conflict around your group project as you define your task, negotiate and clarify your roles and responsibilities, and set ground rules for your group.

Phase 2: Getting the work done and maintaining your group dynamics

As you work through your assigned tasks and meet with your group on a regular basis, you may find that certain issues cause conflict in your group. While it might seem difficult to find solutions, we will be exploring some strategies (such as reflective listening, constructive feedback) to help you deal with such issues.

Note that argument and negotiation are often productive and necessary to move your group to the next stage of your project. It is equally important to reflect on what your group is doing well as you progress.

Phase 3: Reflecting on your group processes and effectiveness

Once you have completed your group project, you will be given an opportunity to reflect on how your group functioned, its strengths and weaknesses, and how you think you could improve in the future.

There may be some variation in how group members assess each others’ contributions, and how group members perceive the effectiveness of your group. Understanding these differences is important, and can help prepare you for future tasks.

Make sure students know what to do when they run into problems

Students need to develop strategies to deal with challenges and conflict within their groups. You might ask them to come up with a list of strategies when they set their ground rules at the beginning of their group project, before any problems arise. Student groups themselves should be the first to take action to resolve their problems; the lecturer should be the final resort. By giving students adequate tools with which to resolve their group problems, you will reduce your workload.

But there may be times when they cannot resolve issues on their own. When they reach this point, they must know what to do to avoid their group falling apart or not completing their assignment.

Submitting progress reports can help you keep track of students’ progress and identify potential issues groups are facing. You could ask students to submit a 1-page report several times throughout their project, under the headings "The most effective things about our group are…", "The least effective things about our group are…" "Issues we are facing as a group are…" and so on. You could also use a checklist to help students identify issues in their group and make it easier for you to recommend appropriate strategies; you'll find one on the Identifying Group Issues page. Any problems must be recognised by the group as a whole, and the group must share responsibility for resolving them.  For further tips, see Dealing with Commons Issues in Group Work.

If a group becomes too difficult for you to manage, the UNSW Counselling Service may be able to provide some support.