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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

This guide describes how to successfully complete specific assignments commonly assigned in social sciences and behavioral sciences courses.


A group project is a cooperative learning assignment that requires students to work with peer group members to plan, discuss, and complete a specific project, often over the course of an entire semester. The project can be a research paper, an in-class oral presentation, an out-of-class study project, or research contributed as part of a larger class project involving multiple student groups. The purpose is to prepare students to work collaboratively in order to develop the intellectual and social skills needed to examine research problems from a variety of perspectives, to communicate effectively with their peers, and to evaluate and resolve issues on their own with support from other group members.

Burke, Alison. “Group Work: How to Use Groups Effectively.” The Journal of Effective Teaching 11 (2011): 87-95; 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; Using Group Projects Effectively. Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University; Williams, Katherine. Group Work Benefits and Examples.

Benefits of Group Work

As stressful as it can be, group work can actually be beneficial in the long run because it closely parallels the dynamics of serving on a committee, participating in a task force, or working on a collaborative project found in most professional workplace settings. 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 can 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 -- working with others will help identify your own strengths and weaknesses in a collaborative context. 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 overall 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; Thom, Michael. "Are Group Assignments Effective Pedagogy or a Waste of Time? A Review of the Literature and Implications for Practice." Teaching Public Administration 38 (2020): 257-269;

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 burden might be too great, consider 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 such as Google docs.

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 supposed 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 assignment due dates in other classes can be addressed ahead of time by each 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 would 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. As a group, reflect upon the following questions: 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 that information may be too difficult to find!].

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 determine 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 each member of the group.
  2. Agree on the due-dates for completing each task, keeping in mind that members will need time to review any draft documents and the group 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 [e.g., mid-terms].

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 has been formed. The sooner these preliminary tasks are agreed upon, 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 regular day and time for people to report on their progress [either in-person or online].
  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 to do 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 project 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 about the results of their research, 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 before the assignment is due, 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 team 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 a member of the group [if not done so already] to bring everything 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; Espey, Molly. "Enhancing Critical Thinking using Team-Based Learning." Higher Education Research and Development 37 (2018): 15-29; 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.

Meeting Places

Where Your Group Meets Matters!

Choosing where to you meet can have as much of an impact on your group's overall success as how well you communicate and work together. When your group is first formed, be sure to set aside some time to discuss and come to an agreement about where to meet in the future. Obviously, convenience has a lot to do with your possible choices. However, discussions of where to meet should also focus on identifying a space that's comfortable, easily accessible to everyone, and does not have any distractions, such as, the smell of food from nearby, heavy foot traffic, or constant noise,

Places that meet all of these conditions are the collaborative workrooms in the East Asian Library of Doheny or the group study spaces in the Lower Computer Commons of Leavey Library or on the second floor of Leavey Library. These rooms can seat anywhere from 4 to 10 people and all have dry erase boards and power and network connectivity. Most rooms also have large monitors with laptop connections that your group can use to display a presentation, document, spreadsheet, or other information that is the focus of your collaborative work. Note that these rooms are very popular, especially towards the end of the semester, so schedule early and be courteous in promptly cancelling your reservation so others may use the room. Finally, if everyone agrees that meeting in person is not crucial, a meeting to discuss the group's activities can be conducted over Zoom or other video conferencing platform.

Bilandzic, Mark and Marcus Foth. "Libraries as Coworking Spaces: Understanding User Motivations and Perceived Barriers to Social Learning," Library Hi Tech 31 (2013): 254-273.