Problem-based learning in project groups
The study form at Aalborg University is project-organised and problem-based. This gives you the opportunity to work with relevant, realistic and interdisciplinary problems with a group.
The benefits of this study form are that the students’ learning and qualifications are significantly improved - you learn to formulate, analyse and solve various authentic problems. Thus, the students will seek knowledge and skills personally at a high academic level. You will learn to work result oriented, with an analytical view on problems and in teams. In the meantime, you will learn to present your project work, form collaborations with companies and be a central actor in the evolution of your own learning.
The good group work
For most educations at Aalborg University it is applied, that each semester consists of courses, in which the students achieve basic knowledge concerning a set theme that supports the learning goals of the education. The courses are often basic courses, which may not be applied in the coming semester, but gives you a necessary and substantial academic knowledge on your education. The set theme framework makes up the context, in which project suggestions and problem statements are shaped, and then solved in groups.
A new form of group work
As a new student, you can doubt whether group work is for you. Group work is typically not an experience that the students have had in High School where you develop a set of study habits that often don’t correspond with the study form of a University. Read more about the transition from High School to University.
Group work at the University can be experienced as being very differently from the group work you may be used to from High School. You only had a responsibility for yourself when you were in High School, where at the University you have a responsibility for your entire group and vice versa.
You can also experience a very different drive for studying at the University than the one you met in High School. Your fellow students have, like you, chosen a study that they are passionate about. It motivates them to do their best to reach their goal. Therefore, you will meet students who have the same passion for the study as you have, and who also wish to contribute to the project. By having you choose a subject within the theme framework of the semester, we give you and your group the freedom to work with what you find interesting and motivating - and motivation is fuel for the group.
It can still require a large readjustment to become part of a group of 2 - 6 students. At the beginning, you may feel unsure and anxious of what awaits you, and in your head several scenarios and thoughts take place:
- Will I get a good group?
- Can I cooperate with my new group members?
- Do the others think I’m good enough?
Advantages of group work
Here, it is important to consider that you are not alone with these thoughts. It is a new experience for most of your fellow students, and it takes time to get acquainted with a new study form. So allow yourself to be unsure at first, and remember that this study form will soon feel natural for you.
There are certain advantages for you when you work in a group:
- You get more eyes on the project.
- If you are in doubt, you always have someone to talk things through with.
- You get a great network at your study.
- Teamwork is a central part of the labour market which is to your advantage.
There will be different opinions in your group, and you should each compromise with some of your ideas for the project. In this way, the product of your work will be both thorough and well done. In a group work you must all contribute, and all members of the group should help solve complex and large issues.
Work periods, pauses and spare time
The project work will inevitably make you spend a lot of time with your group members. That is why you will quickly get to know your group members. You have to plan the project work, the work periods and your spare time.
It is important that you are aware of the different deadlines. Planning your time can give you a realistic view of how you keep track on time and deadlines. There are many different ways to plan your time - an example can be a Gantt chart, which is a simple system for scheduling time and tasks.
It is also important that you remember to have fun in your spare time. Whether you study is placed in Aalborg, Esbjerg or Copenhagen, the city will have an array of cultural options for you to explore. See what the city with the University offers.
If you feel you don’t have enough time delegated for spare time, you should consider talking with your group if you have set some strict study rules. You can use the exercise “Expectations for use of time” to find out if you set reasonable demands for yourself and each other.
Breaks, breaks, breaks
It is important that you also make time for breaks so that you can rest. It is proved that your results are improved by taking breaks intermittently. Project work is not always problem free, and you can experience that some things causes problems as with anything in life.
You can also feel frustrated about the project. Instead of being irritated about the problems, take a walk, listen to some music, or something that gives you a little break from the work. By taking breaks, you move the problem from one half of the brain to the other, making space for new ideas and thoughts.
Find time for recharging your energy in your everyday life with this exercise:
In a new group, the roles are often shaped at random. The strong group members often conquer the leader role, while the rest willingly take on the roles which fall naturally to them, or the roles the other members do not want. The members, who do not freely take on a role, will get one appointed to them. It is quite important that the roles are revised after some time, since the roles can change during the project phase.
In a group, it is important to preserve the dynamic. Roles that are too fixed can damage the dynamic of the group and limit the group work. However, it is important, to some extent, that all members of the group take on a role to sustain the social interaction. With roles, it becomes easier to find your place in the group and react to others in a constructive way. It is important that all group members are conscious of their role and preferred function in the group.
Difference is a resource
It can, at times, be difficult to understand other people’s roles. But remember that the difference is a large resource in the group, since it often leads to different skills. Equally important is it to remember that you are not your role. The role a group member has taken on, or is assigned, is not identical to their personality. One's’ role in the group is simply a facet of their personality. A person can have different roles in different groups and situations.
A good group is characterised by having a good balance in relation to each other - there is a large agreement in opinions, norms, values and the will to function as a group.
Belbin's concept of team roles is developed through studies that deduce a set of central connections to the understanding of how individuals cooperate. In total, there are eight behavioural characteristics identified, which secure quality and efficiency in teams. It is substantial that these roles are present in a team, just like the distribution between the eight roles should be in balance. Take the exercise, Roles in a Project Group and see if you have a good role assignment in the group:
match your expectations and make a Cooperation agreement
It can have a big positive effect on your collaborative process that you match your expectations. An match of expectation means that all parts in a group will clarify what their expectations are for each other prior to cooperation. The intention is to become aware of each others expectations - not to evaluate or set goals. You can write or tell each other what you expect from yourself and each other and then discuss and match these expectations.
CONTENT IN matching your expectation
There are no rules or procedures to be followed when you match expectations. However, you can consider:
- What you expect to achieve both professionally and personally
- What is your ambition level
- What success and failure means to you
- What motivates you. It may be important for your cooperation that you have talked about motivation and how you can motivate each other if one or more of you lose the motivation along the way. It's very common to lose motivation during a project work, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.
The match of expectations is the basis for a cooperation agreement, which forms a strong basis for group work. A cooperation agreement creates a strong foundation for the group work. You and the other members of the group will through a cooperation agreement learn about each other's opinions, ambitions and points of views. Meanwhile you also have an agreement to return to, if any problems should arise in the group. With time, it can also be that the agreement is taken up for discussion, since the group work is a work in progress - preconditions and relations change continuingly. Because of that same reason, a good cooperation agreement is also characterised by being dynamic.
Experiences show that sometimes it can be difficult to renegotiate a cooperation agreement, and that is why it is recommended that you from the beginning agree on how and when you will revise the agreement.
Remember that improving the cooperation agreement is also improving the cooperation.
Content in a cooperation agreement
There are no rules for what a cooperation agreement must contain. It can contain your thoughts on the future group work as for example:
- That you need to have a common goal - which expectations and goals are important to the project work?
- The group must delegate the work reasonably.
- You must be able to discuss with each other during the process.
- You should support and help each other during the process.
It is also a good idea to talk about:
- How often your group should meet? What if you don’t show up or is late?
- How to communicate?
- What should be prepared for the supervisor meetings?
- How do you organise meetings? Should there be a reporter, a mediator, do you take logs of the meetings?
- How much work do you need to do as a group and how much is individual work?
It is not crucial that everyone in the group is alike, and that there is a common “group spirit”. The most important thing is that the members of the group can utilise and accommodate the individual skills you each possess. We all have personal and academic skills, and we should learn how to use these strengths when we are working in groups.
The above mentioned preconditions can however not be sustained if the members of the group are far too different. In such situations, you must admit, that the cooperation is not possible, and afterwards revise the group composition and the future of the group. It can be a good idea to have a chat with your counsellor about such a situation.
Conflicts in the group
“You must not fear saying or doing the wrong thing, because then, you will never do the right thing” (Johannes Møllehave, Danish priest and author).
If you are walking around with negative thoughts on your role in the group or work process, try speaking with your group members. It can be difficult and anxiety provoking to expose yourself in that way to strangers, but maybe they have a different opinion on what your role in the group is than yourself.
It can also happen, that someone else is having the same feelings and thoughts as you. That is why it is important not to be afraid about expressing your issues out loud. When different people have to agree on certain things, it is natural that conflicts can arise. It can be indistinctness in relation to what is expected of each other, or in relation to how the project work should be structured. Here, it is important to remember, that you are cooperating to create a product, and you all have a common goal of making it properly. That is why it is important to aim the criticism towards the project and not the person. Remember that a conflict may be an opportunity to see the good solutions while learning from them.
Conflicts do not need to be negative. They can also be viewed as something, that creates energy and dynamic in the group, and helps evolve the project and strengthen the cooperation, the trust and the unity of the group.
Apprehend arising conflicts
Conflicts cannot be avoided in a group when you work as intensively together as you do in project groups. It is important to talk about the conflicts. Set time off to talk to each other about the welfare of the group if a bad mood arises.
Talking about the welfare of the group can be a point in the contract, and you can set time off for it every month or every other month. However, it is recommended to apprehend the arising conflicts and not wait too long before addressing them. In groups where conflicts are ignored, they break out at the final stages of the project phase, where group members are so stressed that the problems overshadow the project and become insoluble.
Remember that conflicts do not arise around a single individual, but between people. If a group member is repeatedly late or in some other way do not uphold the agreements, it is important not to make that person a scapegoat. Perhaps the interplay of the group has gone wrong, and in such cases the problem needs solving.
It is also important to remember that the way in which you speak to a person signals to them how you perceive him or her. That is why it is extremely important to be thoughtful towards tone and body language when you speak with your group members - especially regarding conflicts.
different CONFLICT types
Conflicts can trigger a reaction with every member of the group. This happens because we each have a conflict type. Most people do not like conflicts because we often do not know what to do when a conflict occurs.
There are many different ways of dealing with conflicts. Perhaps it may be relevant in your group that you explore what different conflict types are in your group.
You can't say one conflict type is better than another - it depends on the situation. All conflict types have both strengths and weaknesses. If you find your conflict types and pay attention to these, it does not necessarily mean fewer conflicts - but it gives you a good opportunity to exploit your disagreements in a more constructive manner.
Basically, there are 5 conflict types:
- The competing type - you fight your case
- The collaborative type - you examine all aspects of the case
- The compromising type - you negotiate and will meet halfway
- The evasive type - you escape and do not take a proper position
- The adaptive type - you agree with the other group members without a fight
Consider how you respond when you encounter a conflict or disagreement.