A Few Thoughts on Research Ethics

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One key aspect in the research process that is often ignored or overlooked by students when doing social research is the question of ethics. When students go out to do their own research for the first time, they are usually excited and nervous about it and all they do is think about how they can get their research question answered and how they can best collect the data they need. This is totally understandable. I myself usually get really excited when I have a research project in mind and I don’t immediately think about ethical issues and dilemmas involved. Nonetheless, after the first excitement about a new research idea has cooled off a little and I start thinking about how to operationalize my project, the question of ethics is one of the first ones that I need to consider.

Ethics discussions can often be very abstract and philosophical due to which many people quickly switch off. I sympathize with these people, I really do, but when you really think about what ethics entails, you quickly realize that it is one of the most important aspects to consider in doing research. For three reasons:

  1. It affects you as a researcher, your health and safety.
  2. It affects other human beings (your research subjects, possibly your families), their health and their safety.
  3. If affects the social sciences more generally, their reputation and chances of getting access in the future.

When I talk about ethics I am referring to moral questions of what is right and what is wrong in doing research, who may get harmed in the process, and who needs to be protected and how. Usually, there is no black or white answer to what is ethical or unethical in social research. Rather thinking about ethics is supposed to make you reflect on important issues and it wants you to justify your approach, while minimizing any harm (to your participants, yourself and other researchers and your discipline). It urges you to consider all possible consequences (including unintended) and what they mean to you and others. One key dilemma in the discussion on ethics is the question of covert vs. overt research.

Covert vs. Overt Research: The debate whether covert, that is, “undercover” research is ever justified is one of the key ethical dilemmas social scientists face and there is no yes or no answer to this question. Generally speaking there are quite a few celebrated research studies out there where researchers have conducted covert research. However, quite often they put somebody at risk, either themselves, their families and friends, their participants or their discipline. So, even though important insights may be won e.g. about drug dealers or gang culture, by doing covert research. There are huge ethical issues involved that you should NEVER try to solve or handle by yourself, as a student researcher.

So in general, the key thing to ethical research is trying to think through a variety of possible scenarios and consequences before you go out to do research. In addition, not having done this beforehand will most likely put you into difficult situations and then you are not sure how to respond. You may well be unsure how to respond even if you think about ethical issues beforehand, nonetheless, you are much better equipped at responding to tricky situations in an acceptable, ethical manner if you have considered potential ethical dilemmas beforehand.

Some more practical tips for “doing ethics”:

Informed Consent: One key tool that social researchers usually draw on to minimize ethical dilemmas is informed consent, which basically refers to a written statement in which your participants agree to take part in your research. Such consent should clearly state purpose and process of the study, as well as use of the data gathered afterwards and it is crucial that you talk through this with your informants prior to e.g. doing interviews. Obviously, seeking informed consent is not always possible, especially if you are doing ethnographic research in public spaces like attending an official political debate. Nonetheless, there are ways around this issue. For instance, you can try to seek approval from the formal organizers of the event you want to study or you can explain your research to people you talk to during the event. Verbal informed consent is better than no informed consent.

Key questions you should ask yourself before doing research:

  1. Am I the right person to do this research? Is my background suitable to this kind of research? Here I am particularly referring to issues of class, gender and race. For example, is a white, middle class man the best person to research black, working class females’ experiences of motherhood? Consider the issue of power and privilege in this research setup. A researcher has always a position of power.
  2. Who can get harmed in this process? Is the organization you research put at risk because you reveal too much information about their internals to the outside world? Are you endangered because you are trying to get access to a subculture such as gangs or organized crime? Are your informants endangered because you may reveal sensitive information about them and their doings that may put them in jail or make them outsiders of their community?
  3. What can be done to minimize any harm? Here think about your methods of doing research. About protecting anonymity of your informants. About their emotional experiences and their wellbeing when they talk about sensitive experiences. What about your emotional investment in your research participants?
  4. Who will I be able to talk to about any ethical dilemmas that come up and that I didn’t expect? This is very important, as quite often you will encounter dilemmas that you would like to discuss with other, more experienced people, such as your supervisor, but sometimes due to reasons of protecting anonymity this may not be an easy thing to do.

 

If you find answers to these questions and you follow the ethics guidelines of your institution, you should be well equipped to deal with ethical dilemmas that may appear in your research. And, as the head of department, Professor Mike Savage, thinks, the most interesting research usually entails a variety of ethical dilemmas. So be ready to deal with them!

Interviewing in Social Science Research Projects Part 1 – Some Basic Principles

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Interviewing is a very common method to collect qualitative data in social science research projects. Interviewing is a very time consuming but very fruitful method to use and much can be said about it. Due to this reason I will split this topic into two posts. In this first post I will cover some of the basic principles you should adhere to when interviewing; in the second post I will discuss some personal experiences and pitfalls I have come across or fallen into in the dozens of interviews I have conducted to date and I will explain how I tried to solve some of these situations.

Type of interviews

There are 3 types of interviews that are used:

  1. Unstructured: You only have an idea of what you want to talk about, but you have not prepared a set of questions you plan to ask. Instead it feels as if you are having more of a conversation than a formal interview.
  2. Semi-structured: You have prepared a set of questions and you have a clear idea of what topics you want to cover. You can still deviate from your questions and talk about new things that come up, but generally you aim to cover the same questions in all your interviews.
  3. Structured: You have a clear set of questions, often with yes and no answers. This is a very formal way of interviewing and most often used in survey research. It is less commonly used to collect qualitative data that aims to uncover meanings, experiences and stories of the interviewees.

Most typically interviews for qualitative studies are semi-structured, so the remainder of this blog will be based on the assumption that you conduct semi-structured interviews.

Preparation

  1. Define topic of interview: What do you want to find out?
  2. Who to interview and how to access them: Once you know what your topic will be, it is important to ask yourself who you want to interview and how you want to access them. If you want to find out about a certain subject that only a specific group of people know about, it is of crucial importance to find one first contact who can help you identify more interviewees who he/she thinks would be good candidates. From these new contacts you can then identify even more candidates and so on. This method is called snowballing and is often used in interview studies. While it may be difficult to get that first contact, in my experience, once I had it I have often found it very easy to get access to more interviewees.
  3. Topic guide: Before you start with your interviews you need to develop a topic guide. In this guide you should include all questions that you want to ask, grouped by theme or topic. You should also make sure that you have a logical order in which you want to ask your questions, though this order may need to be adjusted during the interview.
  4. How to interview (virtual, in person, telephone): During the time you seek access, you also need to think about how to interview. Will you be able to meet everybody in person for a face-to-face interview, can you call them by phone, can you do a video call with them e.g. through Skype? I have used all three of them on many occasions and while face-to-face is probably the best way to establish rapport between you and the interviewee, it is not always possible. In such cases Skype can be of great help and can also allow you to save significant amounts of money, if you don’t have to travel physically.
  5. Obtaining consent: Once you are clear on the above points, you should draft an informed consent form that details the aims and objectives of your research, the methods you use, the confidentiality procedures you have put in place and what will happen after the interview. Often universities provide examples of consent forms that you can adjust to your needs.
  6. Bring equipment e.g. recorder, pen & paper: In times of smartphones you usually carry your recorder with you, but you should still make sure that you know how it works and how good the quality is. If the interview is online you can download apps that record the interview for you e.g. “MP3 Skype recorder”.
  7. Location of interview: If the interview is face-to-face think about where you can interview in confidence and quiet without interruptions. Cafes may be a good meeting point but are not a good option due to noise and distractions. If the interview is online you should still make sure that you and your interviewees sit in a quiet room so that nobody will interrupt or overhear your conversation.
  8. Bring/Provide “thank yous” as incentive: It is always a good idea to let interviewees know upfront that you are grateful for the time they give you, due to which you will provide e.g. snacks, drinks, cookies, chocolates. Depending on budget, other incentives can be useful as well such as a small amount of money to thank them for their time. It is not necessary but often appreciated. If the interview is online, the least you can do is to offer the interviewees a summary of the results at the end of your study.

Conducting the interview

  1. Speak slowly and clearly: This will make the transcription afterwards easier and will also make it easier for your interviewees to follow your questions and understand them fully.
  2. Introduce yourself: This may sound obvious but especially when it is an online interview, it is easy to forget this. It is important that your interviewees know who you are so that they can establish some initial trust.
  3. Clarify objectives: Make sure the interviewees are clear on what this project is all about and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
  4. Start interview with fairly easy questions: This is very important as you don’t want to be too demanding at the beginning and you need to slowly work your way towards more complicated and/or personal questions.
  5. Try to build up trust and rapport between you and your interviewee e.g. by telling them something about yourself: This has often worked for me. I ask them about something personal and I make it easier for them to answer by providing a personal story of my own.
  6. Ask more difficult questions later on: Once the trust is there it is much easier to ask delicate questions.
  7. Be sensitive: Not everybody is always willing to talk about all the things you will want to talk about. Respect this and stop pushing, if it is clear that they don’t want to go there.
  8. Probe for more details if something interesting comes up: For instance, ask “can you be more specific”, “do you have a concrete example”.
  9. Clarify complicated statements by rewording them and by asking if you understood this correctly: Ask them “Did you mean…” or “To sum up, I understood this…”
  10. Complete interview and tell the interviewee what happens next: Once the interview is done, be clear about it, tell them how you will proceed and how long you estimate it will take before you can provide them with a summary of the results.
  11. Thank them for their participation and time
  12. Possibly ask for contact detailsg. email address so that you can provide the interviewees with the results of your study, should they be interested.

After the interview

  1. Reflect on the interview: What has gone well and what hasn’t? How can you improve next time?
  2. Develop topic guide further: Possibly new issues or themes have come up in one interview that you hadn’t thought about previously. In such cases I have often extended or modified my topic guide to include these new issues for the remaining interviews.

Getting Started with Research – Basic Knowledge on Social Science Research Methods

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Choosing the correct method depends on your research question and your aim. Do you want to describe something, explore new questions or do you want to confirm a hypothesis? Answering this question first will be of key importance when choosing methods for your research project. Another factor to consider and heavily linked to the first question raised above, is asking yourself what kind of research you want to carry out. The question then is whether you want to use a deductive or an inductive approach.

Deductive: This term simply means that you start with a theory from which you develop a hypothesis, based on which you choose your research methods. In your research you then seek to confirm or disprove your hypothesis. This research approach is associated with quantitative data.

Inductive: In contrast to deductive reasoning, using an inductive approach means that you start with observations without having either a hypothesis or a theory guiding your research. The goal of inductive research is to let the hypothesis and theory emerge through the research you do. The idea is that you start your research with a clean slate in terms of theoretical expectations. This is of course very difficult, if not impossible, as we are always influenced by the things we experience and we often can’t help but have preconceived ideas of things, people and social phenomena surrounding us. Nonetheless, the challenge is to block this out as much as possible and to let the theory emerge from the observations you make. This kind of approach is strongly associated with qualitative data.

As you can guess from the above differentiation, often there lies a large ideological gulf between these two approaches that is also reflected in the question what kind of data you should collect. The key difference lies in quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative Data: Basically, quantitative data are numerical data that allow you to measure and quantify things and to test hypotheses. Most typically you will collect quantitative data through questionnaires with closed questions and scales. This means that the participant can only select pre-given answers which have an assigned numerical value for later analysis. Alternatively, they may be asked to select a numerical value on a scale that represents a certain answer e.g. Strongly disagree =1, Strongly agree = 5. These types of scales are called Likert Scales. Quantitative data have long been seen as the only valid sort of data in scientific research, but this perception has been eroded as the collection of qualitative data has become more widely accepted and used, especially among social scientists.

Qualitative Data: When you collect qualitative data you try to understand meanings and interpretations. The idea is to collect narratives of research participants, to be more detailed and holistic, and to account for contextual circumstances. This kind of data may be made up of words, direct observations, videos, texts, pictures etc. and will be most typically collected using interviews, focus groups or observational techniques.

The distinction between quantitative and qualitative data seems very clear and hard, yet numerical data always has a qualitative and subjective element to it and qualitative data can be quantified as well, e.g. through textual analysis that counts words. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of this ideological divide, have a look here: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/datatype.php

Mixed Methods

In fact overcoming this gulf can actually be very fruitful and more and more researchers, including myself, discover the beauty of using mixed methods. A mixed methods approach allows you to collect both quantitative and qualitative data and benefits from the advantages of both types of data while offsetting, at least to some extent, the disadvantages of either. In addition it makes your final thesis and interpretations stronger as you rely on multiple sources of evidence, not just a single one. An often used term to describe this advantage is data triangulation.

The Difference between Methods and Methodology

This question is another thing that bothers many students that are confronted with it for the first time and often teachers fail to give a simple answer to this question. The problem is it is not easy to answer this question in simple terms but I will try to answer it in the way I have learned to understand the difference over the years. For me Methodology is the overall approach I am using to develop a research project and Methods are the techniques I utilize as part of this approach. Methodology requires you to understand your research aim and question first and to have a good understanding of the different ideologies that may guide this research. This understanding will then allow you to choose the best methods to accomplish your goals.

So in the most basic and reductionist sense:

Methodology = the why

Methods = the how

The above discussed terms are only a starting point in understanding the research process in the social sciences but sometimes just getting a basic understanding of some complicated sounding words can open a new world of exciting research opportunities for you.

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.

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!

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.