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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: How to Manage Group Projects

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

The Benefits of Group Work

As stressful as group work is in college, it can actually be beneficial in the long run because it closely parallels the group dynamics of participating on a committee, task force, or on a collaborative team project found in many workplaces. Whatever form the group assignment takes in your course, the opportunity to work with others, rather than on your own, can provide distinct benefits. These include:

  1. Increased productivity and performance -- groups that work well together can achieve much more than individuals working on their own. A broader range of skills can be applied to practical activities and the process of sharing and discussing ideas can play a pivotal role in deepening your understanding of the research problem. This process also enhances opportunities for applying strategies of critical inquiry and creative or radical problem-solving to an issue.
  2. Skills development -- being part of a team will help you develop your interpersonal skills. This can include expressing your ideas clearly, listening carefully to others, participating effectively in group deliberations, and clearly articulating to group members the results of your research. Group work also help develop collaborative skills, such as, team-based leadership and effectively motivating others. These skills will be useful throughout your academic career and all are highly sought after by employers.
  3. Knowing more about yourself -- collaborating with others will help identify your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, you may be a better leader than listener, or, you might be good at coming up with the 'big idea' but not so good at developing a specific plan of action. Enhanced self-awareness about the challenges you may have in working with others will enhance learning experiences. Here again, this sense about yourself will be invaluable when you enter the workforce.

Colbeck, Carol L., Susan E. Campbell, and Stefani A. Bjorklund. “Grouping in the Dark: What College Students Learn from Group Projects.” The Journal of Higher Education 71 (January - February, 2000): 60-83; Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Golde, Chris M. Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presented November, 1994; Updated November, 1996 at Association for the Study of Higher Education; Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Collaborative Pedagogy." In Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 54-71.

Stages of Group Work

I.  Getting Started

To ensure that your group gets off to a good start, it may be beneficial to:

  1. Take time for all members to introduce themselves, including name, background, and stating specific strengths in contributing to the overall goals of the assignment.
  2. Nominate or vote to have someone act as the group leader or facilitator or scheduler. If the burdon might be too great, comsider deciding to rotate this responsibility among all group members.
  3. Exchange current contact information, such as, email addresses, social media information, and cell phone numbers.
  4. Consider creating an online workspace account to facilitate discussions, editing documents, sharing files, exchanging ideas, and to manage a group calendar. There are many free online platforms available for this type of work.

II.  Discussing Goals and Tasks

After you and the other members of the group agree about how to approach the assignment, take time to make sure everyone understands what it is they will need to achieve. Consider the following:

  1. What are the goals of the assignment? Develop a shared understanding of the assignment's expected learning outcomes to ensure that everyone knows what their role is suppoed to be within the group.
  2. Note when the assignment is due [or when each part is due] so that everyone is on the same schedule and any potential conflicts with other class assignment due dates can be addressed ahead of time by members of the group.
  3. Discuss how you are going to specifically meet the requirements of the assignment. For example, if the assignment is to write a sample research grant, what topic are you going to research and what organizations will you solicit funding from?
  4. If your professor allows considerable flexibility in pursuing the goals of the assignment, it often helps to brainstorm a number of ideas and then assess the merits of each one separately. Ask yourselves as a group: How much do you know about this topic already? Is the topic interesting to everyone? If it is not interesting to some, they may not be motivated to work as hard as they might on a topic they found interesting. Can you do a good job on this topic in the available time? With the available people? With the available resources? How easy or hard would it be to obtain good information on the topic? [NOTE:  Consult with a librarian before assuming finding information will be too difficult!].

III.  Planning and Preparation

This is the stage when your group should plan exactly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and who should do what. Pay attention to the following:

  1. Work together to break the project up into separate tasks and decide on the tasks or sub-tasks each member is responsible for. Make sure that work is equally distributed among the group.
  2. Assign due-dates for each task, keeping in mind you must have time at the end to pull everything together.
  3. Develop mechanisms for keeping in touch, meeting periodically, and the preferred methods for sharing information. Discuss and identify any potential stumbling blocks that may arise that could hinder your work.

NOTE:  Try to achieve steps 1, 2, and 3 in a group meeting that is scheduled as soon as possible after you have received the assignment and your group is formed. The sooner these preliminary tasks are completed, the sooner each group member can focus on their particular responsibilities.


IV.  Implementation

While each member carries out their individual tasks, it is important to preserve your group's focus and sense of purpose. Effective communication is vital, particularly when your group activity extends over an extended period of time. Here are some tips to promote good communication.

  1. Keep in touch with each other frequently, reporting progress regularly. When the group meets for the first time, think about about setting up a specific day and time of the week for people to report on their progress.
  2. If someone is having trouble completing his or her area of responsibility, work with that person to figure out how to solve the problem. Be supportive and helpful, but don't offer to do other people's work.
  3. At the same time, make it clear that the group is depending on everyone doing their part; all group members should agree that it is detrimental to everyone in the group for one person to show up at the last minute without his or her work done.

V.  Finishing Up

Be sure to leave enough time to put all the pieces together before the group assignment is due and to make sure nothing has been forgotten [e.g., someone forgot to correct a chart or a page is missing]. Synthesizing each group member's work usually requires some negotiation and, collectively, overcoming any existing obstacles towards completion. Technically, this can be done online, but it is better to meet in person to ensure that everyone is actively involved in the process.

If your group has to give a presentation at the end, go through the same process--decide who is going to do what and give everyone enough time to prepare and practice ahead of time [preferably together]. At this point, it is vital to ensure that you pay particular attention to detail, tie up any loose ends, and review the research project together as a whole rather than just looking over individual contributions.


VI.  Writing Up Your Project

Writing the group report can be challenging; it is critical that you leave enough time for this final stage. If your group decided to divide responsibility for drafting sections, you will need to nominate [if not done already] a member to pull the final piece together so that the narrative flows well and isn't disjointed. Make it their assignment rather than assigning that person to also write a section of the report. It is best to choose whomever in your group is the best writer because careful copy editing at this stage is essential to ensure that the final document is well organized and logically structured. Focus on the following:

  1. Have all the writers in your group use the same writing style [e.g., verb tense, diction or word choice, tone, voice, etc.]?
  2. Are there smooth transitions between individual sections?
  3. Are the citations to sources, abbreviations, and non-textual elements [charts, graphs, tables, etc.] consistent?

Barkley, Elizabeth F., Claire Howell Major, and K. Patricia Cross. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014; Boud, David, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Sampson, editors. Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2001; Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Collaborative Pedagogy." In Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 54-71; INDOT Group Work and Report Planning Handout. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Working in Groups. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Working in Groups. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Group Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Golde, Chris M. Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presented November, 1994; Updated November, 1996 at Association for the Study of Higher Education.