The Thread: Group Projects

Sheryl Burgstahler, DO-IT Director

I wanted to share with you a question posed by a DO-IT AccessSTEM Team Member in our Internet discussion forum and some of the responses so that you can get the flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online. Featured responses are from DO-IT AccessSTEM Team Members and DO-IT Mentors, who are academics and professionals. Some forum posts are edited for clarity and brevity. 

Image of two students working on making tetrahedron kites
Completing projects with a group can require a student with a disability to discuss accommodations with their peers.

I am currently working with a team on a capstone project as a requirement for graduation. Throughout grad school I’ve had trouble working with teams, unable to effectively communicate that I can’t make all the meetings or why. Lately I’ve been having trouble managing symptoms of my disability. I’m exhausted, and I’ve been experiencing higher than usual pain levels. I need more down time in order to keep my body functioning, and I can’t take pain pills and muscle relaxers when I need to use my head. I’m not sure how to handle the reactions of my teammates when they have no clue as to how much effort it now takes me to just get through one day. They get visibly upset with me: dirty looks, not-so-nice tone of voice, talking down to me. One of them even keeps asking me, in a condescending manner, if I’m understanding, if I’m following along, do I get it... She doesn’t do that with other team members.

I have been pitching-in where I can by doing things such as taking on a great deal of the team’s writing deliverables; however, when we get a grade that is lower than expected, I also take the blame, even though the team had ample opportunity to contribute and provide feedback.

I wonder if you could share how you’ve handled group situations when you weren’t able to physically keep up with the rest of the group. How do I communicate this without appearing incompetent, unintelligent, and like I’m trying to get out of doing things? How do I respond when I am blamed for the result of a group effort? What are some unique ways in which I can contribute to the group effort? How do I turn a bad experience into a good one?

AccessSTEM Team Member: You should calmly and privately speak to the girl who keeps talking down to you, and explain to her that it’s offensive when she does—and that you’re not incompetent. Tell her you’ve been struggling with medical problems that you’ve had for a while, and that they make you exhausted. Ask for her understanding, not her pity. Try to have a conversation about your limitations and strengths, how you’ve been applying them to your activity in the group so far, and if she can think of something more you could do to satisfy the group. Try to get her to work with you on this.

I’d also say don’t tell her more than what you want everyone in the group to know. Because that’s usually how groups are, no secrets. If you tell her about your issues while asserting your competence, then maybe her judgment and that of the group will soften and you’ll be able to reach a compromise. You don’t want it to sound like they should pity you. That’s different. That takes away too much of your power and you might still be seen by her and the group as incompetent or “unsalvageable.” In the conversation you have, don’t say or do anything that sounds like you’re making excuses; your health struggles are just a fact of your life, not something you “chose” to happen to you.

AccessSTEM Team Member: First things first, you’ve got to a) address the disrespect, and b) admit you’re having difficulties. So how do you do that? Here are some suggestions:

Is she the group leader? If so, pull her aside to talk to her. If not, talk to the group leader, or the entire team. Firmly tell her that her tone is offensive, and she must stop treating you that way. Ask for respect. If you don’t ask, you won’t get it. Tell her you have a disability. No need to explain in detail. Say you have trouble keeping up with the schedule given your disability. Also tell her your strengths. Explain the ways you can better support the group project: Are you the better project manager? Would you better serve the team by handling all the scheduling and communication?

Talk to your professor today! Tell him the problems you’re experiencing in the group, and what steps you’re taking to address the situation. When all is said and done, you’ve demonstrated your ability to overcome workplace challenges, which is very valuable to most employers.

AccessSTEM Team Member: I’ve also had trouble meeting with people for a group project outside of the classroom. I have trouble seeing and reorganizing people in a place where I don’t usually see them. I wish professors were more understanding of the struggles group projects create for some people. I had to drop out of German because of all the trouble I had working with groups, though I really wanted to learn the language.

DO-IT Mentor: I support these recommendations, as well as the idea that you should reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Are you contributing your biggest strengths? Is writing your area of strength? If yes, stay with it. If you have higher areas of strength, seek to contribute to the group project with that strength.