"OK, class. Count off by fives."

When your teacher gives you that instruction, you know what's coming next. Sometimes, breaking into small groups lasts as long as the class does. Other times, it signals the start of a "group project" — which means you'll be working with a few classmates for a day, several days, or longer on an assignment.

Ever wondered why this type of project is so popular in school? Or what you can do to make sure your group project is fair, fun, and successful? You want a good grade, right?

Why Group Projects?

Few of us act alone in the real world. Most things are done with the help or ideas of other people. Group projects are great practice for high school, college, and real life, when you will probably have a job that requires working with others. Right now, group projects can be fun and they often allow you to do a bigger, more interesting project than you could alone. With group work, you can actually learn more in less time.

Group projects also give you a chance to get to know kids you might not otherwise know or talk with — maybe the quiet kid in the third row, the boy who lived down the street when you were in kindergarten, or the girl you're sometimes scared to say "hi" to at recess.

Group projects are also a great way to practice skills you're not so sure of. For example: working on a deadline, staying organized, or being patient. And if you're a little nervous talking in front of a group, a joint project can help you become more comfortable with it.

Maybe your group will pick you to tell the whole class about your project. If so, you'll know your whole group is rooting for you!

Getting Started

One of the most important things about group work is talking and meeting together. It's a good idea to continually check with everybody on their progress and to see if anyone needs help. Here are some other tips for making group work really work.

You might think the first step is figuring out who will do what, but actually it's getting to know one another a little. Take a few minutes to chat. Even if you know each other well, it can help to take a minute to think about your skills and share your strengths and weaknesses. For instance, you might say, "I'm a good artist, if you want me to make the poster." Or, "I'm not the greatest artist, but I'd like to get better at it — would anyone like to be my partner on the poster?"

The second step is to go over ground rules from your teacher and any that you want to create together as a group (for example, how the group will help people who are behind on their work). Will all of your meetings be in class? Do you need to plan time to work together outside of school? Now's the time to talk about it.

Focusing on Fairness

Figuring out individual jobs within the group is a really important part of the process. One of the most common pitfalls of group work is that someone may end up doing all the work if the rest of the team can't quite get it together.

From the beginning, it's important to divide the work fairly and evenly. If you feel like you or another kid are doing too much, gently bring it up with the group. If nothing changes, you might want to talk with your teacher.

Holding Good Meetings

One key to a good meeting is having a leader, who should help the group stay focused. It doesn't have to be the same person every time. In fact, it's better if it's not. It's a good idea to talk about how the work is going, and if anyone needs help.

What if you're not the leader? Important roles to play during a meeting include:

  • The starter makes suggestions and offers ideas.
  • The asker asks members to share information or ideas on a topic.
  • The peacemaker looks at opposing views and finds something useful in each of them, helping people work out differences.

And try not to play any of these negative roles:

  • The non-participant does not contribute and/or discourages the others.
  • "Captain Critical" responds to other people's ideas with criticism.
  • The dominator interrupts and talks more than listens.
  • The clown distracts the group and keeps it from focusing on the work.

If Problems Arise

Just as it takes work to complete your project, it also takes work to make a group successful. Maybe you can't stand the way one group member always talks over other people or you're sick of one of your group members being a non-participant. The best approach is to try to talk about the problems, in a nice way.

Bring your concerns up gently with the group as a whole. (It's a bad idea to whisper to a few group members to try to get back-up. A good group requires honesty and everyone's involvement.) You might say, "Sara, it hurts my feelings when you interrupt me when I'm trying to say something." Or, to someone who's not doing his share of the work, "Jesse, what part of the research do you want to do?" If you can't solve these problems on your own, talk to your teacher.

It's natural to ask your mom or dad for help on a big project. It's fine if they give you advice and encouragement. But it's not OK for them to do the actual work for you. They shouldn't do your research or write the letters on your poster — even if they can do it perfectly. A project, like other homework, is to help you learn by doing.

If a parent is too involved, bring it up with your teacher or with the group as a whole. You don't have to be mean — just say, "It's nice that Billy's mom is helping, but I think Mrs. Brown wants us to do the work ourselves."

Usually, group projects end with a presentation to the class. Then, the teacher gives your project a grade. If you cooperate and do your best, you just might be sharing an "A"!

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