Working in a group with other students is an important part of university. Quite a few people worry about it and some have real problems with it. This activity looks at the main issues people have with group work and gives you some practical tips for your own study.
Cartoon about different student perspectives on group work

Background

Group work came up a lot in the Autism&Uni survey conducted at Leeds Beckett university. Some people found working in groups really useful in helping them to develop skills they needed for work and social life later on. Other people really struggled with it, especially if they felt that they were doing more work than other people.

This is a common issue for non-autistic people, too. There is no perfect way to put together groups or make them work well, so tutors also find it challenging, but getting to grips with group work is a worthwhile thing to do and it’s an important part of many courses for this reason. More importantly, is a very useful skills to have for later in life (e.g. work).

What’s good and bad about group work?

What experience do you have with group work? Try to remember the good times as well as the more difficult ones. It’s understandable to worry about it if you have had problems in the past, but anticipation is often worse than reality. What do you think are the good and bad points about group work?

Who will I work with?

Sometimes you are allocated to a group randomly, sometimes your tutor may create mixed-ability groups and sometimes you will choose your group mates. There are pros and cons to the different methods for allocating people to groups.

If people are allocated randomly (or by characteristics such as their surname) to groups, that can seem fairest, but you could end up with very uneven groups that don’t have a good mix of skills and interests.

If the tutor creates mixed ability groups, distributing the most competent students across the groups, the person who is most able can end up doing most of the work and bringing up the grades of the others, or at least may feel that way.

If students get to choose their own groups, this can feel empowering and you can work with people you already know and like, but less popular students may struggle to find a group and friends working together isn’t always the strongest group.

Ideally, you would choose to work with people based on their strengths and have a variety of different skills and preferences in the group, but this means you have to know what those strengths are and everyone needs to communicate well what they like to do, what they are good at and what their expectations are of the group and the task.

Maximising strengths

Everyone has preferred roles in a group. Some people are natural leaders and are good at making things happen. Some people are very creative and tend to excel at throwing in ideas to shake things up. Some are brilliant at making sure all the notes get made and meetings get booked. Others are amazing at bringing the group together and making everyone feel like they are part of a team. Some people make fabulous slides, others are good at chasing up unfinished work or public speaking. Most people have a mixture of talents, preferences and areas that need more development.

You should make sure that you allocate tasks based on people's strengths when working in a group.

How could this affect me?

Some autistic students enjoy group work more than any other part of their course as it enables them to work with others towards a common goal which helps them with social and work relationships later on. Others worry a lot about it. Either way most courses have group work at some point and it is better to take a proactive approach so you can make the most out of the experience.

Knowing what you’re good at and being able to express it well, without being arrogant, is an important part of working with others. It is also important to know what you are not so good at, so that you can work on improving those areas. You may want to avoid roles that don't fit your strengths but it could also be good to take these roles on as it's an opportunity to work on your weaknesses with the support of other people in your group.

It is best to be very specific – just saying you’re good or bad at something or love or hate it without having a very clear idea of what that is in relation to the group and task isn’t helpful to anyone. Try to think how you can work with or around that element and tell the others.

What to do next?

Spend some time thinking about your strengths and weaknesses and make an appointment to speak to your tutor or advisor.

Practical tips

  • Tell the group you are autistic and how it affects you – calmly, without getting upset.
  • Make a list with two columns: in the left column put the things you are most worried about relating to group work and in the right column, write down how you might be able to resolve these issues.
  • Discuss this list with a trusted person at home or uni, like a parent, your disability advisor, a mentor or a tutor.
  • Make a list with two columns with your strengths and weaknesses and think how you will share them with other members of the group.

Questions to think about

These are things you can talk to your disability advisor and your personal tutor about. Some are good practice anyway, others you may have to make a case for:

  • Telling the group you are autistic and how it affects you
  • Ask all group members to declare what they think they’re good and bad at and discuss these issues
  • Set ground rules for group work and communications, such as how often you will meet up and/or email each other, internal deadlines etc
  • Extra supervision for the group at the beginning of the assignment
  • Establishing a student buddy within the group
  • Arranging formally structured and/or online meetings that support group members getting to know each other

In addition, here are some questions to think about and plan strategies around:

  • How do you decide who the leader is and who does what?
  • How would you divide up work fairly?
  • How do you stop people messing about and get on with the work without upsetting anyone?
  • What about when someone doesn’t turn up or do not produce their share within the deadline? Is it sensible to have a Plan B?
  • What if group members are lazy or not very good?
  • How do you handle different approaches to the deadline?
  • How can you pro-actively manage expectations and cope better by addressing things you worry about early?
  • When should you talk to the tutor about problems and what do you need to do first?

Additional information and links

The University of Leicester has a useful video, made by autistic students, that describes their experiences of group work and presentations

You may want to read


This toolkit is an adaptation of the Autism&Uni project led by Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University, under license CC BY 4.0. The original Autism&Uni project was funded with support from the European Commission with partners in the UK, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. For more information about this project please visit the Autism&Uni website.

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