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Swathi Sasikumar

Swathi is a post-graduate student at the University of Melbourne. When she's not working, she's either studying her cat or indulging in TV shows.

6 Helpful tips to working in groups for online classes during COVID-19

A growing number of universities across the world are migrating to online classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For international students, this means everything will be translated into the virtual classroom, including group work.

For example, class interactions with your professors and peers will take place via virtual meetings and emails, lectures will be recorded and posted online, group discussions will be assigned via breakout rooms or forums and more.

Studying will be done online in the comfort of your home and in your PJs, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

One of the most seemingly challenging out of all academic activities happens to be the notorious group projects.

It’s even more challenging with online classes because students can be scattered across states or countries, stuck in different time zones or not able to meet up due to lockdown restrictions, making group work trickier to execute.

So, if you are starting or continuing your university studies online, I’ve got a handful of tried-and-tested tips for you to follow to make online group work a better experience during COVID-19.

1. Break the ice

When you are assigned to a group, make sure you put some effort into introducing yourself and get to know one another.

It doesn’t matter if the partners assigned are either for a one-time project or for an entire semester. Establishing a cordial relationship is quintessential for the productivity of the group.

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2. Organise regular meetings

First thing you’ll need to do is organise a suitable time and date to meet. This can be trickier when you can’t meet up on campus.

The easiest way to organise regular meetings is to schedule a time to meet up online either directly before or directly after class since most students will have cleared their day to attend class.

However, for students who do have busy work-life commitments this is not always the case, and back-and-forth emails can make it difficult to agree on a time and date.

In those situations, you can use a meeting scheduler app such as needtomeet to find the best time and date that suits everyone.

You’ll also need to decide how you will meet up. Your university will have recommended online platforms you can use to schedule group meetings, otherwise you can use Zoom since it’s free.

3. Set up some house rules

For a group to work effectively, you’ll also have to lay down some ground rules. These rules can be around showing up for regular meetings or what mode of communication you and the group can use to get hold of each other (i.e. emails, WhatsApp groups, Facebook, WeChat or Zoom meetings etc).

Remember to discuss individual strengths and weaknesses as well. For instance, when I was working in a group, the members had discussed what they were good at as well as their limitations.

While some excelled in researching and assembling data, others expressed confidence in creating content.

Therefore, have this conversation early and assign work or allow the members to choose their share of work based on your group discussion.

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4. Choose leaders

That’s right, leaders! I personally believe that a group of five or more can’t function with only one leader, especially during COVID 19. Here’s why.

When you’re working with a large group, unloading all responsibilities, such as organising group chats or meetings, emailing professors, checking up on members, working on assignments etc., can turn out to be a gargantuan task for one person to handle.

Sharing responsibilities will not only create a healthy balance within the group but also reduce stress when facing impending deadlines.

So, once introductions and meeting arrangements are out of the way, it’s time for you to choose a leader who’s confident to oversee the progress of the work, one leader to act as a medium of communication for the group and the professor, another leader to set reminders for meetings and catchups, and one more to submit the assignment.

Remember, there is no rule about how many leaders you should have since each group functions differently. The number of leaders/representatives can vary according to the group size, responsibilities and amount of work present.

5. Set pragmatic goals

During group work last semester, I realised half-way through our project that we were only making little progress to our goal.

Upon discussion with the group, we discovered that we were trying hard to emulate the process and group ethics of working in a face-to-face environment and it was getting us nowhere.

That’s when we forced ourselves to accept and learn how to work more collaboratively online with fluctuating mediums of communication and embracing a more organised yet flexible process.

So, if you’re facing the same dilemma, then make sure you set multiple small deadlines so you feel accomplished after completing a certain amount of work. This will help the group stay motivated till the end.

You’ll also have to be pragmatic on how you make the most of your time. Instead of spending time trying to achieve an unrealistic level of precision in the process and getting caught up in the small details, determine your ideal outcome for the project and concentrate your efforts to working toward that goal.

This will weed out the unnecessary and distracting concerns involving the process and help the group to fully commit to the result.

For example, set goals or an agenda for your meetings in advance so you won’t waste hours going in circles discussing irrelevant topics.

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6. Look out for one another

Remember, to pay attention to your group members, since we all have lives and commitments outside our studies. So, as important it is to get the work done, make sure you also take a few minutes to catch up on what each other have been up to.

You can feel free to complain about the stress induced by assignments or about your regular mood swings or the loneliness of the quarantined life or the new TV show you had binged on.

Pay attention to the feelings of your group members, especially with the additional stress of COVID-19.

Try to encourage members to talk and share their feelings and experiences. These conversations will disseminate a sense of normalcy within the group and an assurance that no one’s going through the phase alone.

If you notice anyone lagging at work or observe a slump in their performance, instead of alarming them with deadlines, reach out to help them.

Try to understand their reasons and give them a break if needed. Universities are willing to negotiate deadlines these days, so don’t hesitate to request extensions from your teachers and professors.

With COVID-19 significantly impacting all areas of our lives, learning how to work in virtual groups and collaborate online is another adjustment that we’ve been faced with in this pandemic.

With learning, working, and communicating online becoming the #newnormal, it’s time we embrace this novel approach and function together virtually.

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