Transcribing Interviews – Made Eas(y)ier: 9 Helpful Tips

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The longer you are at university (and this mostly applies to students of the social sciences and humanities), you will most likely be asked to do little research projectsat one point. This can be a daunting task at first, but, in fact, I think these are the most fun and interesting projects you will get to do as a student. Yet they can also be very burdensome in terms of how much work needs to be done for them. Especially when it comes to qualitative research that involves interviews or focus groups. If you have to do this kind of research, most of the time you will be expected to transcribe your interviews and that means that you will have to tape record the interview and then listen to it again to type up – word for word – what has been said. This is called a “verbatim transcription”.

Sometimes your professors may not expect you to transcribe verbatim; this is something you should check out before you get started as it can make a huge difference in how much time you need to allocate to your research project. A verbatim transcription of an interview of 1 hour is often said to take you 6 hours, so for each 10 minutes you will have to budget one hour transcription time. This sounds horrible and it can be, but you will find that re-listening to an interview and typing it up can also be a very useful way of already getting mentally started with your analysis. I will get to this again in a second.

Here are my 9 top tips for how to transcribe effectively, all based on my own experience of having transcribed dozens of interviews, and more, myself.

 

  1. Clarify whether you need to:
    1. Transcribe Verbatim
    2. Include pauses (and think about how you will mark these pauses e.g. with a [pause])
    3. Include ehs, uhs etc.
    4. Include change of tone, laughter (in most social sciences it is usually enough to transcribe all spoken words but there are disciplines e.g. linguistics where you need to include changes of tone and a lot of other aspects of language in your transcriptions, this will add to the above estimation of 1 hour for 10 minutes of interview)
  2. Get a comfortable seat. You will be sat at your desk for quite some time, so make sure you sit comfortably.
  3. Get a comfortable keyboard on which you can type away without making too many mistakes! This will save you a lot of time of having to stop the tape and correcting what you have misspelled.
  4. Practice speed typing! Make sure you are as fast as possible in typing because you will need to keep up with the tape. Though it is unrealistic that you can type as fast as you or your interviewees speak, it is well worth trying to optimize your typing as you will have to stop the tape less often and will be much faster.
  5. Use good speakers and/or good earphones: Since you will be sat at your desk for some time constantly listening to a tape, you should make sure that your equipment is good enough and not harming your ears.
  6. Change between listening to earphones and your computer’s speakers. This is from my personal experience. It can really become painful to listen to a tape via earphones for many hours, so I would recommend you switch between earphones and speakers.
  7. Take breaks. It can be very tedious and straining to transcribe for a long time uninterruptedly, so make sure you take breaks and switch to other tasks to make it less painful. I usually transcribe in the mornings then take a break and do something else in the early afternoon and may go back to transcribing again in the late afternoon. You need to find out what works best for you.
  8. Start analyzing the interviews as you transcribe. This is what I found most useful in transcribing interviews. As you re-listen to the interviews you will again and again find very interesting passages that you want to remember so make sure you already mark these passages by e.g. highlighting them in a specific color. This will make the analysis phase much easier and it will also save you time. Also, mark these passages with timestamps so you can always go back to them easily if needed.
  9. Use transcription software!!!! This is probably the most important tip I have for you and I have not discovered this possibility until recently. There is software that will help you transcribe by allowing you to regulate the speed of the recording, to fast forward or backward, to easily stop and start, to print timestamps and most importantly to type in your browser!! So you won’t have to switch between the player and the word processor. It can all be done in the same interface. This has actually helped me cut my transcription time by at least 1/3 if not more. The software that I have been using recently is completely free and you don’t even need to download anything as it is 100% browser based. It is called otranscribe and you can find it here: http://otranscribe.com/

I hope that these tips will help you make transcriptions a less painful and even useful experience for you, and if you have any additional tips about this subject, please feel free to comment.

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Making your life easier with reference software

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As soon as you enter higher education you will be confronted with the need to write academic essays or papers. A fundamental element to successful academic writing is referencing correctly and I have written an extensive blog post about how to reference correctly. And while I think it is important to understand how to reference well manually, it is also very important to professionalize your referencing the longer you are in higher education and the more references you accumulate over the years. When I say professionalize I mean either developing a system of manually referencing very quickly that works for you (and an annotated bibliography can you help you with this) or drawing on reference software for assistance. Reference software can be tremendously helpful in making sure that all your sources are cited in a coherent style and contain all required information in the bibliography. Basically such software automates the process of compiling a bibliography for you!

This is great news and I got really excited when I found out about these available options. I’m sure most of us know how time-consuming and tedious it can be to sort out your reference list after you felt you had already finished the paper, course work or whatever it may be you had been working on, so a software that automates this for you sounds like heaven.

However, over the years I have tried out a few different reference packages such as EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley myself and my initial excitement was dampened somewhat by a few issues I encountered with all of them. They all share some basic functionality, that is, they allow you to store all your sources in one place and then automatically draw the information that is needed for a reference list from there. However, they all differ in certain ways and you should try to find out what is important to you.

So for instance, I tried using EndNote for some time but the costs of it are enormous and I didn’t want to count on my university providing a license to me for free and then finding me in a situation of having lost all my sources once my university license had expired. So for that reason I would urge you to look at the available free software first (e.g. Zotero, Mendeley).

With Zotero I found it super easy to save sources online through a little add-on button in your browser, meaning that with a single click on the button all the information (i.e. document meta data) I needed to cite this source was already stored in my Zotero database! How great is that! But at the same time I perceived it as quite constraining that Zotero was limited to Firefox, which made me stop using it at one point (though there is new version of Zotero now that allows use in different browsers). Additionally, since Zotero is open-source based it has a big support forum, so if you have a problem with it someone else will probably already have had the same and has received help from the community. Mendeley, for instance, does not yet have such a great support community.

More recently I started using Mendeley as there was a lot of hype around this software and I wanted to give it a try. However, while there are a lot of benefits to using Mendeley such as the folder monitoring feature (i.e. basically you can tell Mendeley to watch a particular folder and as soon as you store new documents in this folder, Mendeley will retrieve the available information from the document and store it in its database), I found the software’s capacity to retrieve information from sources (e.g. pdfs) more than limited. In fact, for most of my references I had to manually go over the automatically stored information, which kind of defeats the purpose of having this feature. From that perspective Zotero always worked much better for me.

So as you can see there is a lot to say about each of them. In this blog post I don’t want to go into great detail describing these three options as there are already a lot of very good and detailed reviews out there. (Please go to this website for a very thorough and useful overview of paid and free citation / reference management software: http://www.literaturereviewhq.com/6-tips-on-how-to-choose-reference-management-software/)

Instead, I just want to make people aware that there are solutions out there that can help you manage your referencing better, as many are not aware of these options! At the end of the day you need to try out which one works best for you. Yet there is always a point to be made for knowing how to reference manually. As I said, from experience you should never trust the software completely and always check if all information that needs to be there is there and is correct!

Dealing With and Visualizing Data – A Free Resource to Give You an Edge

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When studying at university at one point many students will have to deal with data in one form or another. Especially if you are a business or social science student, statistics and data visualization will play a role in your undergraduate and postgraduate life at one point or another. Usually, you will be given access to a statistical software package such as SPSS. While these programs are really good to help you analyze data quickly and effectively, they are no good at visualizing your results. What I have done in the past, and probably many others finding SPSS data visualizations horrible, I copied the relevant data output to Microsoft Excel and built my graphs there. Now, though I have spent many, many years using excel and, believe it or not, I love it (I think it is really powerful in many sorts of ways), Excel is also no particularly advanced program for making nice data visualizations. It gives you more flexibility than for instance SPSS, but that’s it.

So recently I came across Tableau. What is Tableau: It is a really nice piece of software that aims at making data visualization visually attractive without you having to learn how to use costly, professional design software to make elaborate charts and graphs. And what’s more, they offer a one year license for free to all students with a valid university email address.

http://origin-www.tableau.com/academic/students

Now, I don’t want to be seen as advertising any particular software here, but as I said it is free; there is no cost attached to it if you are a student. So why not sharing this knowledge! And when you look at what has already been created with Tableau, you sure want to give it at least a try.

I have downloaded tableau a few months ago myself and I have already created a few nice charts with data from my PhD project. So I have already gained some knowledge on what can be done with it and what can’t. From these experiences I can tell you, it is not 100% self-explanatory to use it and you need to experiment a little and try different things out; but after a while you get the hang of it and it starts to become a lot more powerful. In this way it is similar to Excel. As I said, I have used Excel extensively over the last years but it also took me a lot of practice to get to my current level of expertise in using it. The good thing is that the Tableau employees know this and they have provided quite a lot of tutorials that show you how to use their software. Again, the available tutorials are by no means comparable to the amount of support available for Excel or SPSS but they are pretty good nonetheless. Of course the first time you try to play with your data in Tableau after having watched the first tutorial you think, I haven’t got a clue how they did it in the tutorial (at least that’s what I thought…) but the longer you try the more knowledge you’ll gain and the better you’ll get at it.

So if you have to deal with a lot of data, I would encourage you to download this software and try it out. It may give you an edge in coursework as well as in later job searches where differentiating skills are required.

Effective presentations – Some tips that help you deliver high quality presentations at university

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All of us know that speaking and presenting in front of other people is never easy, yet when studying at university this is something you will most likely have to do over and over again. While I believe it is true that some people are naturally born public speakers, there are a few things you can do and learn to make you perform better, especially when you have to present as part of a marked assignment.

First of all, think about what medium you want to choose. The most widely used one is PowerPoint and my design tips are based on the assumption that you will use PowerPoint slides to present. Yet there are other tools such as Prezi that are increasingly becoming popular, so if you want to be a bit more unconventional try out other formats (but check with your lecturer if these other formats are acceptable!).

I’ll start out with some general guidelines on how to design your slides and will continue with tips on how to structure your presentation and how to organize information and finally I will end with some general presentation tips.

Layout & Design:

  1. Have a master layout that you stick to throughout your presentation but create your own (avoid PowerPoint templates, they are overused and boring).
  2. Use appropriate visuals such as images, short videos or even cartoons where appropriate, but only if they are of high quality. Avoid using the typical clip arts provided by PowerPoint. They are overused and not particularly innovative anymore.
  3. Keep it simple: Always keep in mind that the best slides are the ones that support your narration as presenter not the ones that contain the most text. Ask yourself, how much detail do I need to contain on the slide to make the audience get my point?
  4. Avoid too many animations; they make your presentation look unprofessional. Imagine what you would think if you watched a presentation and every single word flew in…
  5. Choose the right graphs to represent your data. More on this can be found under point 6 on this website: http://www.garrreynolds.com/preso-tips/design/

Presentation Structure:

  1. Hook the reader and get their attention through e.g. storytelling, shocking facts / statistics etc.
  2. Once you have grabbed their attention, explain who you are and what the purpose of your presentation is and show why there is a need for your presentation.
  3. Next you should quickly explain the structure of your presentation so that your audience already knows what’s ahead and can more easily follow
  4. And then, stick to this structure once you are presenting, but allow yourself to play around with it privately until you have found the most logical and easily presentable order that works for you.

Conveying Information:

  1. Think about the information you want to convey: This is important and the Rhetorical Triangle is an often used tool that is quite useful to cover the most important aspects to consider: You just need to think of …
    1. The audience: Who is it and what do they want to take away from your presentation? Does your message fit with your audience’s beliefs? How can you connect with your audience emotionally?
    2. The context: Is it a marked assignment? How many presentations have preceded yours (if there have been many, maybe include some humor along the way to wake up the audience again)? Are my arguments and my slides appropriate for the situation?
    3. You as presenter: Who are you and why are you presenting this? What is your key aim e.g. call for action / education / persuasion etc.? What format are you good at presenting in (formal/informal) and how can you make it work for the occasion?
  2. Another useful way to structure information on your slides is the Message Triangle: It is a very simple concept. When you have a certain message to convey you simply imagine a triangle and along each side of the triangle you place one key aspect of the message you want to communicate. The beauty of the message triangle is that it really makes you think what your key message is. And since a triangle only has 3 sides, it forces you to think about what the most important aspects of your message are. Try hard to fit your message around the triangle but don’t take out key aspects when you really can’t narrow them down to the top 3. More often than not though, it works well to limit yourself to the top 3.
  3. Finally, when designing slides the following should be your motto at all times: Be concise yet complete and clear!

And here are some final tips that make presentations truly interesting and lively:

  1. Present freely and slowly (you may use Q-Cards if necessary but please don’t read)
  2. Watch yourself while presenting and identify your personal marker of nervousness: Some people step from side to side, others touch their faces over and over again, and again others shiver with their hands. There are endless ways to show that you are nervous and it is a good idea to identify what you do as the audience will pick it up quickly as well. Once you know what it is, you can actively work against it. E.g. if you keep stepping from one foot to the other, you may want to stand with slightly straddled legs to give you a firmer stand, or you may want to stand behind a podium so that have something to hold on to. These are just a few examples and there are many more.
  3. Engage your audience: Ask the audience a question, look them straight into their eyes and smile at them, try to trigger reactions, be spontaneous with it (e.g. you can pick up on something that someone in the audience has said earlier or what has been said in an earlier presentation).
  4. Practice, practice, practice: And not just once prior before the presentation is due, instead public speaking should be something you actively seek to do. The more you practice the easier it will get.

All that’s left to say is good luck presenting!

Ethnomethodology – A Provocative Research Method Missing the Point?

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***This blogpost is adopted from an earlier blog I wrote as part of an assignment during my master’s degree, I have slightly altered and adapted it.***

A big organisation. People do their work. One man doesn’t fit in. He is watching, observing, analysing. That’s Mark Rouncefield’s job. He is an ethnomethodologist.

During my master’s I had a very valuable course that thought me how to do research in academic contexts and introduced me to the different kinds of methods out there. One particular lesson I remember was that on Ethnomethodology, a very interesting and provocative qualitative research method, taught by Mark Rouncefield of Lancaster University. This lesson really challenged everything what I had read, learned and believed in the past. And it particularly challenged grand narratives and theories such as the ideas of modernity and postmodernity. For these reasons I find it quite important to revisit this subject in this methods blog, though it is a much more philosophical and less hands-on post than usual. So, if you are interested in the philosophical discussions behind doing research, this post is for you!

Sociologists argue that there are underlying social constructs that shape society which influence our work, home, the technologies we use, our understanding of our identity – capitalism being one of them (e.g. as discussed by sociologists such as Richard Sennet in his book “Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism” – I highly recommend it). This is just one side of sociology though. There are many different streams. A very prominent one that I have strongly identified with recently is that of social constructivism which argues that everything is socially constructed including technologies, gender identities etc. (e.g. Bjiker & Law, 1992 in “Shaping Technology/Building Society”; MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999 in “The Social Shaping of Technology”). Theories are a fundamental element of such approaches to sociology in their attempt to untangle the grand narrative that builds our society and civilization.

Mark Rouncefield on the other hand is an ethnomethodologist; another fancy word with probably a purely academic meaning and most likely not much controversy, so it may seem at first sight, but bear with me as I will explain how it relates to sociology and why I find it fascinating and relevant!

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnomethodology) ethnomethodology is the study of everyday methods that people use for the production of social order. This method aims to understand how and through what practices people make sense of their world.

While this definition doesn’t seem to be too radical at first sight, when Rouncefield explained it, it became clear quickly how fundamentally different his approach is to that of sociology (even though strictly spoken ethnomethodology is considered a part of sociology). Even more drastic than merely being the opposite of conventional sociology, he aggressively rejects anything that has to do with it, especially when it comes to actively designing artefacts. He completely discards the idea of having a theory and a grand narrative as he considers these all to be “made-up speculations.

As I understood, he believes that claiming to look for underlying causes in society and meanings in our behaviour is a waste of time and only a sociologist imposing his or her theory on the world: he basically considers sociologist assuperfluous. Instead he proposes that it makes a lot more sense to actually go out and study what people do by documenting every step of their actions and how they do it. He looks at the daily processes that people engage in and tries to discover routines and exceptions to these routines. That way his ethnographic accounts of how people live can then inform design decisions.

For design, he believes, looking at the grand narrative is no more than a mere distraction and not helpful in producing something useful to make people’s lives better. In that way sociology is highly impractical, and again superfluous.

Ethnomethodology – the best way to design?

Wow! What a drastically different approach to what I had known so far and seen in academia. Fascinating. What do you think? It definitely got me thinking! I can clearly see his point, for a general theorization of why society is how it is is not directly or visibly constructive in designing artefacts. Yet, I also feel that he is missing a crucial point in completely rejecting grand narratives of society. From the point of view of a constructivist – the vantage point I have come to identify with the most – one tries to understand why our society is how it is, which includes an analysis of power structures. Our norms and behaviours are shaped by underlying values of our cultural background and this background is also reflected in the artefacts we use as our designers shape and are shaped by our society. In this way society advances and brings about innovation.

Another aspect of design I have recently come across is the widespread tendency of designers to infer that their own preferences will also be liked by other people. One example of such “egocentrism” (this is how it is officially called as I learnt from behavioural science literature), I came across recently in the use of email. We automatically assume that people understand emails as we do while writing them; yet often this is not so, leading to misunderstandings (Derks & Bakker, 2010, have a really good paper on this topic). This can also be a problem for designers of new technologies, another example being computer games that often exclude women as most game designers are still mainly young men.

My point is then, if we don’t question the underlying hierarchies and power relationships at play and only observe the existing processes, how do we identify inequalities and how do we hear the voice of the marginalized not present in such ethnographic studies?

More inclusive alternatives

An interesting approach, again something Rouncefield would reject, is that of Standpoint Theory (which I read about for the first time in Haraway (1988) and it made a lot of sense to me) which says that the voice of the unheard needs to be considered in the design process as well in order to be truly objective and hence to bring about innovation for everybody. Where is the criticality in his approach that could lead to social change and advancement? How can disruptive technologies evolve (for me disruptive meaning that they are disruptive to society in terms of change for the better), if we only manifest what we already know? How can the marginalized be heard and how can designers help them and give them a voice if they are absent from the places where ethnographic studies take place?

These questions I started to think about while listening to his ideas and they remained unanswered as he simply said it didn’t matter to him why society was how it was. Don’t you also think he should try to answer these questions?

Again, I totally see his point that for design it is important to observe the existing, as new emerges from the old, just like Schumpeter already argued in his notion of creative destruction. Yet, I argue that to detect and mitigate social inequalities, one also has to have a look at the grand narrative and the underlying causes for power hierarchies. Together, I believe these two approaches could become very powerful indeed in their attempt to create truly innovative and inclusive designs.

Bjiker, W.E. & Law, J., 1992. Shaping Technology/Building Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Derks, D. & Bakker, A.B., 2010. The Impact of Email Communication on Organizational Life. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 4(1), [online] Available at: <http://cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2010052401&article=1>  [Accessed on 31/01/2013].

Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies,  14(3), pp.575–599.

MacKenzie, D. & Wajcman, J., 1999. The Social Shaping of Technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Sennett, R., 1998. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: WW Norton & Company.

Coping with Readings at University: The Art of Speed Reading

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When studying at university you will quickly realize how important reading is in an academic environment and even more so if you are studying a subject in the social sciences, business or related topics. In these subjects it is likely that every single one of your lecturers will have prepared a reading list for you with both core and optional readings. Now, as a student you may quickly feel overwhelmed by the sheer endless amount of articles, papers and book chapters that you are expected to read every week and you may wonder how others are managing it all.

Well, the truth is that many don’t read what they are supposed to and hope to survive by sticking to their notes and lecture slides; and others have developed reading strategies that help them cope. In fact, in some situations it is very important or desired to read slowly and focused, for instance when you read for pleasure. But in other situations you need to absorb a lot of text in a very short amount of time and alternative reading strategies should be utilized. Speed reading is one core strategy that can be used in times when you have to read a lot of content but have little time at your disposal.

Not everybody is a passionate reader and has developed the so called “flow” that allows experienced readers to read up to 250 words per minute when reading at a normal pace, as opposed to around 70 words of untrained readers (Spiegel, 2014). But the good news is, it is possible to develop your reading skills through practice both for normal and speedy reading.

Well trained speed readers can then double or even triple their speed when reading, absorbing between 400 and 800 words per minute or even more. For students who have to read hundreds of pages per week, this can be a real relief.

Core principles of speed reading:

  1. Skimming: Before you decide whether you want to spend a lot of time reading a text, speed readers advice to skim it first. This technique will help you decide whether you should bother reading the text at all. Skimming can entail looking at the abstract, quickly reading through headings and highlighted words etc. all in the search for information about the quality and key message of the content. While this is not advisable for readings you have been assigned by your lecturers, it is a good method to use when researching for an essay.
  2. Use a pointer (your finger or a pen): Start out guiding your eye by utilizing your finger to point at the line you are in. A key reason slowing down the reading process is the problem of wandering off with your eyes and then needing time to find the line again where you left off. Your finger can help you stay focused. As you get used to using your finger, you can then start to move to every second line instead of every line and then even every third or fourth. If you read from a screen, use your mouse instead of your finger.
  3. Read in chunks: You need to start reading in chunks of words instead of reading every single word. Try this by reading parts of two words at once, then three then four and then at one point you will be able to read whole sentences by glancing at them. This needs practice though, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t see immediate improvement.
  4. Jump with your pointer: As you get more practice in, use your pointer not for the whole line but only move it to certain words that jump at you; they are your eyes’ fixation points. This means that instead of reading from left to right at one point you will have developed your own reading pattern. Once your eye is fixated on one point (i.e. where your finger is) you will absorb the words around it, if you have trained reading in chunks. As you get more accustomed to speed reading your jumps can get much bigger. And you will absorb more words in less time as your peripheral vision gets trained more and more.
  5. Don’t re-read if you think you have missed some passages because your mind has gone off doing something else. If it is important it will come up again. This is often referred to as regression and can take up to 30% of your reading time!!
  6. Only use your eyes, not your head: Moving your head while reading will slow down your speed so avoid this and you will see immediate improvement.
  7. Don’t move your lips: This will also slow down your reading speed.
  8. Avoid reading filler words: Words that are in there to make the sentence structure grammatically correct such as articles (e.g. the, a) and prepositions (e.g. and, then). These don’t add to the substance of the text.
  9. Practice! Keep the above in mind every time you want to read something quickly or even just for the sake of practicing. This website has some additional exercises that help you improve your speed reading skills (http://fourhourworkweek.com/2009/07/30/speed-reading-and-accelerated-learning/).

With reading becoming ever more important in a digitalized world bombarding us with text through tweets, facebook messages, blogs like this one and others, the importance of reading does not fade but becomes ever more relevant. Yet the methods of reading we have been taught at school are not enough to absorb the amount of content we are expected to absorb in ever less time. For this reason, speed reading can be a really useful skill to have though it should be applied only then when we don’t have to make sure that we understand a text 100%.

Surviving Group Work: 10 Tips that will help you get through!

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Everyone going through higher education will have to deal with group work at one point. Depending on your course this could happen very often or very rarely. During my time as undergraduate student, I was faced with group work in almost every single module I took and I have experienced and lived all the pleasures and pains that come with it. I have been in self-selected groups and in assigned groups and in both cases I have had really good experiences and absolute nightmares! So I feel for all of you who have to go through similar nightmares. However, I believe that there are a few things you can do to make the best out of a group assignment. The below tips won’t cure all the ills that group work suffers from in general but they can mitigate some of them.

Please note that these tips are mostly suitable for assessed group assignments. If you are not marked on your group work, some of these tips don’t apply and unfortunately all I can say about unassessed group work is hope for the best…and explain to your teacher that unassessed group work is a general group work nightmare times 10…

  1. Meet your team members asap!

After you have been assigned a group task and your group has been formed either by yourself or by your course teacher, you should schedule a first meeting as soon as possible! Get everybody together and get to know those that you don’t know yet. This will get you started early and can solve a lot of issues upfront. And even if you know all your team members already, still get them all together to sort out all the essential things upfront that will shape the success of your group assignment.

  1. Determine expectations

In your first meeting you should openly discuss what each one of you wants from this assignment. Do all of you want to do get an A or do some of you not really care about their mark and just want a pass? If they don’t care they may not say this openly but often you can sense it when talking to them. But I have also experienced people telling me directly that they don’t care and really just want to pass this assignment. It is better to be honest here so that team members know what they can expect from each other and group expectations can be established.

  1. Discuss strengths and weaknesses

This next point is very important. It is crucial that the team understands early who is good at what, so that team roles and tasks can be assigned accordingly. Often this requires quite a bit of personal reflectivity and as you go through your undergraduate education you will get better at this. Of course you need to talk about subject specific strengths e.g. writing skills, math skills etc. But also ask yourself are you somebody who is hands-on and finishes tasks, somebody who drives projects, or would you much rather be assigned a specific task? Do you like to take a lot of responsibility? But can you also trust other people and let them produce their own work without you constantly trying to control everything? Are you a bit lazy and need somebody to push you? All these and similar ones are important questions to ask yourself and your team members and you should try to answer them honestly. This will encourage your team members to do the same.

  1. Determine group roles

Once all of you have put all your cards on the table you can then go on and determine group roles. Who will be responsible for what? Do you want a group leader or do you want to take turns in facilitating your group work and your meetings in particular? In student groups it is often very difficult to determine a group leader as there is no natural hierarchy between students, so it may be useful to leave this question open at the beginning and wait and see whether a natural group leader emerges or you can just say that you will all take turns at leading the group. If you decide the latter make sure that you clarify the rota so that nobody will get upset. You should also decide on somebody who takes minutes and distributes the agenda prior to a meeting.

  1. Determine a procedure for conflict

Though I wish for everybody that there will be no conflict whatsoever in their groups and that it will all work well, quite often this is not so. The problem of free-riding has probably existed ever since humans have started to walk the earth. But there can also be problems between team members, uneven expectations and work ethics, last minute vs. early bird attitudes and all sorts of other things that emerge over the course of a group assignment. For this reason it is really important that you determine a procedure to deal with conflict early on. This could be as simple as making clear that everybody addresses potential problems as soon as possible either directly to the person concerned or to the whole group. But you could also appoint one group mediator who will try to talk to all involved parties should a problem arise. You could also determine a red line after which you will consult your teacher to help solve the issue. Do whatever you think works best for your group but try to address this in the first meeting!

  1. Decide on means of communication

Ask all team members how they can best be reached. Is it email, WhatsApp, facebook, a phone call? Exchange phone numbers, create a facebook group or do whatever you feel you need to do to ensure that all team members will be reached easily.

  1. Schedule a regular time to meet

This may sound unnecessary but from my own experience I know how difficult it can sometimes be to find a time that suits everybody. So, having managed to get together in this first meeting is already a great success. For this reason you should take the opportunity to determine regular meeting slots which everybody should put in their calendar immediately.

  1. Assign tasks

After all the organizational stuff has been done you should get an overview of the tasks that have to be completed in your group project and distribute the work among all team members. Make sure everybody knows what to do and that everybody is happy with their workload.

  1. Take minutes and set agendas!

This is very important. Agendas help you to focus on the relevant tasks in each meeting and to get the things done that need to get done and minutes help to remind everybody of what has been discussed and can also be useful if conflicts arise. Determine who does what and make sure that both agenda and minutes are distributed to all team members in a timely manner. Since taking minutes can be a pain and you may not find a volunteer in your group, it may also be a good idea to take turns.

  1. Reflect on your own behavior!

This is actually very important. Try to see the others’ point of view. Have you done less than what you had agreed to? Are you very pushy and controlling? Try to reflect on your own behavior in this group work and try to change it, should there be a need for it. It is always easy to blame others for failure or conflict. Try to see what role you are playing in such scenarios.

That’s it. That’s all the advice I can give about group assignments and it is by no means exhaustive but try it out! It can at least help mitigate some of the pains that group work often comes with. For those interested, I can also recommend looking at some managerial models of team work such as the Tuckman model of team development and the Belbin Team Role Model.