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How to collaborate more effectively at university

James Davis

Effective collaboration doesn’t have to be difficult. With these tips, you’ll be able to accomplish even more than you would have thought.

Collaboration can be a beautiful thing… when it works! In theory, it’s when people come together to produce something that’s more than the sum of its parts. There’s a good chance you’ll have to work with others at least once in your working life, so learning how to do it now in a safe environment like uni is a great opportunity. 

I’m sure you’ve encountered people who’ve rubbed you the wrong way, or vice versa, which can make it especially difficult when you’ve got to work with them. There are fortunately several things you can do to avoid or recover from conflict and confrontation to instead start a positive working relationship. That doesn’t mean you need to be friends with all your group mates; it just means making sure everyone’s talents are being utilised! This article will get into some of the things you can do and mindsets to cultivate when making collaboration click. Let’s get started.

Regularly ask questions and follow-up questions of other group members

If you’re in your first or second year at uni, there’s a good chance you’ll be grouped with people you’ve never met, or you’ll have to start a group with people you only met once last week! Again, this doesn’t need to be an ordeal. On the contrary, it’s quite the opportunity to develop your interpersonal skills. One thing you’ll likely notice not only within your group, but those of your peers, is the diverse range of personalities. You’ll have bombastic people who take the room on one end and those who prefer to stay quiet on the other. 

If you’re interested in growing as a leader and communicator, it’s within your best interest to make sure everyone in your group gets a chance to contribute. Too often, students who struggle with English, or feel like there’s just no room for them in the conversation, have good ideas that never get said. By simply remaining conscious of how often each contributor has been speaking, you can tip the balance by simply asking what the quieter or shyer group members think, taking care to give them your full attention. Their reasons for being quiet may simply be they have nothing to contribute right now, sure, but if it happens consistently it could be a result of feeling like speaking is a futile effort. 

Being a good collaborator doesn’t necessarily mean having all the good ideas, or having your ideas implemented. It’s about making sure everybody gets the chance to put their hat in the ring, be heard and be considered. If you were taken off the street and knew nothing about the subject matter of the group assignment or group task you may currently be working on, it’s possible to still be valuable simply by asking the right questions and practicing active listening. We went over what this means in our conflict article, but it’s just as useful here. Here are just a few steps to take when encouraging a group member to contribute.

  • Listen without interrupting. Simply nod to show you understand. 

  • Paraphrase what was said in summary to show you’ve understood. This is an opportunity for them to correct any misunderstandings you may have had regarding what they said. 

  • Expressing out-loud you understand. You’d think the paraphrasing would be enough to imply you understand, otherwise how would you have been able to do it! However, there’s an emotional component to telling someone you understand them. It makes them feel reaffirmed, perhaps boost their confidence and could increase the likelihood they’ll continue contributing in the future. 

Now you’ve given them the spotlight, as well as the chance to hold the floor without support, ask others in the group what they think of that idea. Specific follow-up questions can serve to flesh out an idea. If you’re encouraging others to engage with each other’s ideas, rather than the worst-case scenario of everyone just saying what they think on repeat, you’ll get valuable discourse and the beginnings of strong collaboration. 

Questions also keep everyone engaged. It’s very easy these days to get lost in a sea of memes, particularly if your deadline is a couple weeks out. Some people feel as though establishing a meeting for a distant assignment is enough and feel they’ve earned a reward, but what’s the point if nothing gets decided? May as well not have had the meeting at all. To get people off their phones, you don’t have to be aggressive. Just ask them what they think of the topic you’re discussing, or of the assignment as a whole. The idea is to be gentle, but not too forceful. After all, it’s always a safe bet to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re texting a sick grandparent? Perhaps they have lecture notes on their phone? If it’s serious, they’ll let you know and apologise. If it isn’t, they’ll just put the phone away… hopefully! If they end up just answering ‘I don’t know’ to everything and continue tapping away, there’s not much else you can do without rocking the boat. If the problem persists over the next week or so and everyone’s in agreement they just aren’t contributing, you can pull them aside and say you’re thinking of replacing them in the group unless they can show they’re as committed as everyone else. Harsh, but it’s better than dragging deadweight along for the ride!

The whole point of collaboration is making the most of everyone’s contributions after all. If they aren’t contributing anything, may as well either get someone who can or get rid of them entirely. Again, this is a fairly nasty outcome you’d ideally like to avoid. As long as you give them ample opportunities to show what they can do and ask them plenty of questions, then if they still don’t engage, you’re well within your rights to toss them overboard. Figuratively speaking, of course! We don’t recommend doing your assignments on 18th century naval vessels anyway. 

Keep notes, meeting minutes and action items

Collaboration inevitably requires meetings. To make the most of them, you’ll need to hold yourselves accountable to goals and obligations. You do this through extensive note-taking. 

Before the meeting…

Create an agenda of items to discuss, allowing anyone to contribute in the days before you meet. Use something like a Google Doc to accomplish this. Ensure your group is aware of when the meeting starts, what you’ll be discussing and how long the meeting will go for. Ensure you try to book yourself a room if one’s available. Your university likely has this feature available, so take full advantage of it by scheduling ahead of time. Collaboration is made much easier with the aid of a whiteboard and perhaps even a TV to hook your computer up to. 

During the meeting…

Note the time you opened the meeting, when you started discussing which item, what was said and any other pertinent details you can think of. It can sometimes be helpful for multiple people to have the same notepad open on their computer. Failing that, feel free to have multiple people take notes and consolidate them at home later. What matters is you all go away knowing what was discussed. 

At the end of the meeting…

Create ‘action items’, or things specific people need to work on and complete before the next meeting. You can even establish action items throughout the meeting itself point-by-point. The point of this is to set realistic goals so next time you meet, you’ve all progressed and can discuss something new, or capitalise on last week’s findings or results. Of course, delegating can have its challenges.

Your goal here isn’t to be nominated ‘supreme leader’ and have your group follow your every whim. The whole point is to make sure everyone’s putting their best foot forward and delivering the best product they can, whatever that product may be! So, when delegating, simply suggest or ask what people think of each action item and whether they’d be willing to handle it. An even more passive approach is to pool the collection of action items and open it to the floor. Who wants to do X? Who wants to do Y? How about I take Z and you take X? What do you think? 

This doesn’t necessarily have to apply to delegating for the purpose of action items either. Just about any request can be formatted in this way. The reason it’s so powerful for collaboration is because it’s constantly respecting and considering the opinions of your collaborators. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being ordered around after all! Respect is at the core of solid collaboration. With responsible delegation, you’ll not only keep respect at the front, but also results. 

After the meeting…

Stay in regular contact, making sure to ask for help where required. Bonus points for asking specific people for help on a task, particularly if you know they got off lightly at the last meeting! It helps if everyone feels they’ve made a meaningful contribution to the group’s efforts. It also helps to just check up in general with how people are doing and where they’re at, particularly if there’s a fair bit of time before your next meeting. 

You’ll think yourself for having a tight record of what has been said and done, as it’ll allow you to see what needs improvement, what’s going well and how everyone’s handling the task overall. If anyone’s clearly struggling, you can take them aside privately and just ask them how they’re doing, offer to help or assign them a different task so they can still feel helpful. Everyone has different skillsets at university. A highly sought-after leadership quality is the ability to see the strengths of others. If you can take notes, you’ll be better informed of your progress. If you’re better informed of your progress, you’ll be able to act on that knowledge to be a better collaborator.

Evaluate outcomes

Each time you finish some work, allocate a bit of time to go over what everyone else has done. No matter what you’re working on together, there’s likely going to be a difference of styles. If it’s a presentation for instance, having completely different fonts, janky grammar and colours will make it look more like a ransom note than a unified piece of work. This is quite a simple example, but it applies to the content too. Going as nitty-gritty as you’ve got time for into each other’s work will help refine the finished product as much as you can afford to. Fact check all your sources and triple check your group mate’s calculations. You get the idea.

This kind of due diligence will really sharpen up your collaborative skills because you’ll be practicing respectful criticism whilst learning to take it with humility. This is where good collaboration really stands out from the bad. Where a bad collaborator dismisses criticism out of hand, a good collaborator asks how their critic came to their conclusions and how they can improve in future. Where a bad collaborator gives few to no reasons for their criticisms, a good one is open to sharing specific reasoning and suggesting what it would take to solve the issue. 

Your end goal here is giving each other measurable criterion for further success. Hazy, nondescript criticisms (or in the worst cases attacks) serve only to make everyone feel awful. Well-defined criticisms let everyone know what success looks like and how to get there. 

You should now have a much better idea of how to effectively collaborate at university, but there’s always more to learn. We’ve gone over the basics, but practice is really the only way to internalise all these techniques and use them to the fullest. Whatever you’re working on now and into the future, we really do wish you all the best and look forward to seeing you here again.