Part III: Special Issues That You, As A Student, May Face During The Project

Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10

There are special situations which can make students feel uncomfortable and awkward. Time management, and the group grade raise various issues, such as when Lori works full-time or Rick is not working his fair share, which effect all students in one project or another. These issues are not rare, and everyone should be prepared so as to be more familiar with different aspects of human relations as they effect your work.

Chapter 8 Time Management and Priorities That Are Unique To Students

There are special time and schedule constraints that are unique in an academic setting. Other classes and jobs have to be balanced with your project so that the schedule is manageable and you can maintain some sanity.

8.1 You, The Project, and The Rest Of Your Schedule

Since the project course will probably not be your only class, you will have to prioritize and manage your time in regard to tasks and their deadlines. Frankly even if the course is your only class, you do have other things going on in your life (e.g. class assignments, family, friends, girlfriend/boyfriend, job, video games) that you want to find time for. You may also be involved in more than one team project over multiple courses. When you are working on a group project, you are part of a team so you cannot procrastinate or lag behind without jeopardizing your team's morale and well-being.

The best thing you can do for yourself, when it comes to time management, is to maintain a calendar for your personal use and if possible to share with your teammates. Nowadays such a calendar can be paper-based or electronic. If you prefer the paper-based approach, you have options. A hundred dollar DayRunner is overkill for the job. A seven dollar weekly planner, or even a self-made calendar (like the sample calendar at the back of the guide) will be fine. The drawback to the paper-based approach is that you and your teammates need to manually figure out when you can meet. This task is made more difficult if you leave your calendar at home. Nowadays, you also can keep your calendar on your computer or a mobile device. Online services like Google Calendar will allow you to keep your calendar online and to coordinate meetings easier among a group of people. If your school uses Microsoft Exchange, you may find that you can use the Calendar feature in the Outlook client as well.

So what do you keep track of? You have course and project dates that are 'hard coded.' Examples include exam, quiz, assignment, and project deliverable due dates. Ideally, you should note the times that items are due as well especially when times are outside of class meeting times. If you have hours in which you work, you should note those times as well. Time should be blocked for other obligations during the week (including the weekend). At this point you and your teammates (from each project team) should agree upon your meetings times. Again, using an online calendaring system will help in the determination of meeting times. Once the project is underway, you can add in the intermediary task deadlines that you are responsible for (e.g. completing a draft of the SRS that you were assigned, creating a set of test cases that you volunteered for). While there should be a master project schedule, you want to have your personal responsibilities accounted for in your calendar. No matter what, you don't want to be surprised by a project milestone or midterm that has crept up on you. To insure that you don't allow your calendar to lie fallow, you should have a large copy of it pinned (or otherwise affixed) to a wall or refrigerator. If your calendar is online, look at it (and maintain it) regularly and utilize any features that remind you of upcoming due dates. By looking at it and keeping the calendar up to date you can get an idea of how much time you will need to finish the task of the day or week.

Task Estimation. Depending on the course, you may be asked to use a specific estimation method. However in most projects you are left to your own devices. If you are not sure how much time you will need to complete your task, a rule of thumb to go by is to multiply the amount of time that you think it will take by 2 (best to err on the side of caution). Why? Unexpected things will always arise in the course of a project that results in a setback. Also one usually underestimates the time it takes to complete a project.  As you acquire more experience you will be able to make more accurate time and resource estimations.  Also when you do schedule time to work on the project, don't allot blocks of time smaller than an 90 minutes.  If you only allot yourself a small amount of time (i.e. an hour), that time will actually be a waste as you will either be interrupted or you will otherwise not have enough time to focus on the task. People often need to "get in the zone" when working on a complex task.

When you keep a calendar up to date and look at it regularly, you will also feel guiltless during your leisure time and be able to itemize your accomplishments. As an added bonus, you will be able to look at your schedule at-a-glance and be able to schedule additional group meetings and other appointments around your schedule.  Also don't just write on your calendar, adhere to it.  If you scheduled three hours to work on the implementation of Class X, don't  make it two hours because you were playing your favorite online game or watching TV.

You are not alone (or There is No "I" in "Team"). Keep in mind that you are enrolled in a course with a group project, and you are on a team where people's actions affect one another.  It is your responsibility to communicate with your team, complete your tasks on time and at a high level of quality.  If you are late with your tasks or if someone else has to redo your work, you are dragging down the team.  Everyone else on the team has other classes and other responsibilities too.  With some exception, time management can take care of a busy schedule.  When crisis does arise, let your teammates know ASAP so that tasks can be redistributed.  As with anything else, do not abuse the kindness of others.  Earlier I mentioned that group in my graduate course.  Well, one member always said how he was so busy with his other classes and he didn't have time to work on the initial phases of the project (this happened over a period of time).  At first we were accommodating, but his excuses grew tiresome as we all had several classes (and in some cases families and full-time jobs).  In the end we completed the project without him, and in order for him to avoid getting an F he had to implement the project himself with our documents.  We let the professor know the situation early enough so that we didn't get stuck with his (the lazy group member's) incompetence. You may be thinking "well that won't be me because ..." - don't forget to read the Team Project Success Myths section.

8.2 When A Group Member Has A Job (Besides School)

In recent years, it seems like more and more students are working while attending school. The responsibility of a job, compounded by the demands of a class schedule, may give a student stress and feelings of being overwhelmed while making the group as a whole feel awkward when meeting schedules are discussed. Time management is crucial. The following are some tips for the working student and his/her group.

To the working student or parent:

  • Try to maintain a calendar that gives an hourly breakdown of your day. That way you can keep track of your work schedule, class schedule, and homework schedule. If you are a parent, you should note important dates regarding your children (e.g. when to pick them up from school/babysitter, soccer games, parent/teacher meetings). You can then allocate time and prioritize tasks accordingly. All students should use a calendar, but it will be essential for you.

    Ascertain how flexible your work schedule is. This varies. I have known students who worked full-time jobs (even one guy who was a night manager at a video rental store). If there is a critical meeting that you cannot otherwise attend, gauge ahead of time whether you can work around the meeting, change shifts with someone, etc. You may not be successful, but if you are you want to use such options with caution as you don't want to jeopardize your job. The same can be said for students who are parents. If you need to switch times for your babysitter or a neighbor to watch your children, you want to look into that well ahead of time. I know a student who was a parent and she was able to make nearly all meetings due to careful planning and time management. She did have boundaries -for example no late night meetings or meetings early on weekends - but these special needs were communicated early in the project.

  • Don't overload yourself whenever possible. I can never say to not overload yourself at ALL costs, because everyone's situation is unique. Try to balance your workload to your class load, especially in the case of high-demand project classes. For example, if you must work more than part-time (more than 20 hours a week) you may not want to take a full load of classes (especially if a project class is among them). If you think that you can handle everything at once, then you will definitely want to confer with your quarter/semester calendar. Your schedule may seem manageable in the beginning, but as the quarter/semester progresses, things can become overwhelming. Even if you are only going to work 20 hours a week, you can still overextend yourself. Be careful and take some time to critically evaluate your situation. If you will have to re-organize your work or class schedule, then you will want to do so early.
  • To the group:
  • Try to be flexible to your fellow students' needs. The group should try to coordinate common free hours as soon as possible so that you can agree upon meeting times and have enough time to adjust an individual or group schedule early (if possible). Since the employed group member (or parent) is probably self-supporting (to some degree), then he/she will be motivated and focused toward getting the project done due to the constant time constraints.

  • Be prepared to conduct some group meetings without the working student (or parent). A schedule conflict can arise that can prevent the working student from attending the meeting periodically, but the group must keep the working student apprised of the topics and decisions made during the meeting. For example, Kim can't attend Monday meetings, but she can attend Wednesday and Saturday meetings, but Raul calls Kim after she gets home from work to fill her in on what happened during the meeting. That way Kim won't feel left out of the meeting process, and have enough time to be able to keep up to date on the project and contribute the next meeting. Technology can be of assistance here, regardless of whether why the teammate is working or not. While the team member may not be able to be at the meeting, he/she may be able to be at a computer. Options like Instant Messenger or an online whiteboard (such as available through course portals like Blackboard) can facilitate communication.
  • Chapter 9 The Group Grade

    The concept of a group grade may frighten some students, who are mistrusting of other's work or who don't think that other people work as hard as he/she does. Some professors may offer individual grading as an option, but for the most part the group grade is binding to all members. It is best to discuss the grading amongst the team early on in the project so that you can gauge the group's potential against your own benchmark, and still have some time to find another group if necessary. Discussion is key so that everyone knows what is expected of them during the course of the project. You can't predict everything within the first days of class, but it is a good idea to be prepared for different types of situations, such as the proceeding examples, so that they can be handled effectively.

    9.1 When A Group Member Is Lazy

    A lazy group member is often measured by the group according to the quality and completion of the assigned tasks and deliverables with respect to those accomplished by the rest of the group. Such a group member who wants the rest of the group to do his/her work is a frustrating person to work with, because he/she is receiving credit for work that the rest of the group is doing. Possible solutions are to talk to the individual to see if there is a reason besides laziness at work (i.e. the person is really not technically competent for the project) and seek mediation with the professor afterwards as a group. Talking to the teammate is key, and do so early. When talking to the teammate, be professional and do not attack the person (verbally or otherwise). If the person sees the meeting as confrontation, he/she will only react and not discuss - and no progress will be made. I have seen many team's wait (hoping that the issue would go away). But the longer you wait, the greater the amount of stress on the team and the greater the likelihood that tempers will become heated.

    Expectation is also a factor, as members of a group (except one member) all expect to work hard towards an A while a member only wants to pass the course with a C. This can be viewed as laziness, but may be due to other issues like the need to put effort into another course. At the beginning of the project, you all should discuss what grade you are all working towards.

    It would be ideal to eject such a person from the group altogether, but this is generally not feasible. Also, you have to face the reality that not everyone is as motivated to work as your are. In industry, you don't always get to work with people like you either - so don't mistake different perspectives for laziness. If a situation is extreme and you are considering professor mediation, you must have concrete proof to back up your allegations. Unsubstantiated allegations won't solve anything.

    Some instructors use peer evaluation to adjust individual scores on a team project. If peer evaluations are used in your team project, make sure that all team members complete the evaluation. When completing the peer evaluation, be detailed and specific while being professional (in other words don't just rant). It is helpful for the instructor to read the entire team perspective in order to see patterns in behavior.

    9.2 When A Group Member Drops Or Withdraws From The Class

    The sudden withdraw of an active group member can lead to temporary chaos, while the remaining group members reorganize roles and tasks to compensate for the lost manpower. If possible the group should have some warning (as a courtesy), but surprises can occur and teamwork is essential to overcome this trial. Also, the professor should be made aware of the group change so as to adjust his/her grading of your group accordingly, adjust the scope of the project, or render other assistance. The example that most students consider is that of a team member withdrawing from the course. Illness, accident, or family obligations are also possible reasons for a student's withdrawl from the course.

    Risk management will help the team keep the project on track. Tips include:

    9.3 When A Group Member Is A Non/Limited-English Speaking Student

    This special situation must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to best assure that feelings are not hurt for everyone involved. First try to figure out what assistance the student requires to effectively finish (and understand) the project, and then as a group seek guidance from the professor when necessary. No matter what happens, don't alienate the group member. He/she may already feel self-conscious and being ignored or overlooked will lead to a total withdraw from the group. That would be a disservice to all of you, because he/she may have some beneficial ideas pertaining to the project.  In one of my Compilers classes, my team had a group member who was a limited English speaker.  At first we felt awkward in discussing the project and delegating tasks, and he was very shy.  After we conferred with the professor, we got a better idea of how much English the teammate understood and we modified how we communicated with him.  We did not ignore or speak down to him, but instead we all got a better understanding of how to communicate in a unique situation.

    9.4 When Group Member Goes Home During Holidays, Weekends & 3-Day Weekends

    For students who commute to school, this issue will not likely occur.  At Cal Poly and other schools where most students are from out of the area, some students go home during weekends and holidays.  During the course of the class, a group member who does not devote an appropriate amount of time to the project (especially at critical junctures) will make the rest of the group feel resentful and abandoned. The individual must be able to make a solid commitment to the project and the team for the duration of the course, though the group must make allowances in times of emergency. Expectations as to work on weekends and holidays should be discussed early amongst the team. The longest holiday break that I can think of is at RIT, where a 3-week break occurs between the third and fourth weeks of the quarter. From my observation as an instructor, some students work on their team projects while others on the team may not. It has often been the case that no conversation about individual effort over the holiday took place.

    The fastest way to make enemies is to "bail out" on the group the weekend before the project is due. However, if an emergency should arise, you should tell at least one fellow group member and try to temporarily re-distribute your work. Don't try to lie your way out of work either. If a lightening bolt hits your car twice and your dog dies three times (all on separate weekends), it will look suspicious. If a long term emergency situation occurs, you may want to consider withdrawing from the class.

    If you are in the situation where one or more people have abandoned the team at a critical point, you will probably have to compensate for the lost manpower.  Don't overwork yourself to the point where you will become ill or neglect the rest of your life.  Complete the work that you can and document everything that happened.  Although you have had added tasks thrust upon you, try to stay calm and maintain quality in the project.  When the offending person/people return, make it clear that what they did was wrong and that they should have to deal with the consequences - not you.  You've done more than your share.  If there is a final self/peer-evaluation at the end of the project (or some other applicable point in the course), the documentation that you compiled should speak for itself.

    Chapter 10  Other Useful Stuff

    This chapter consists of topics that did not really fit any where else.  As you will see these topics do not really have anything to do with each other on the surface, although if you were to look at them closely you will find some relationship.  Nonetheless these topics will be useful to everyone on the team no matter if you are new or experienced in working in teams.

    10.1  Keeping a Journal or Log (or Blog)

    It is a good idea to keep a journal or log throughout the course of the project.  In some cases you may be required to keep a journal, but even if you are not required to do so there are advantages to keeping a journal.  In the "real world" journals are often required insofar as all of your notes, thoughts, and other preparatory work regarding a project are kept in case a lawsuit arises concerning ownership of a design or an idea.  For the purposes of the class project, a journal will be useful in case you need to show what tasks you did and when.  A journal can also be useful in case you need to show the professor the evolution of personal and group processes.

    In order for your journal to be effective, you need to keep detailed notes in your journal on a day-to-day basis.  Journals are traditionally paper-based. When paper-based, a journal should be enclosed in a small composition-like book, although I have seen some notebooks that also have pockets attached that can be effective in attaching other relevant notes.  When entering your notes and thoughts, write details and include your input and any objectives that were reached.  Do not feel obligated to only write about the good things that happened to you.  By writing about the good, bad, and the ambiguous will allow you to look back at the project and your part in it.  Remember that the journal is for you, not for the professor (although he/she may take a look at it if it is part of your project grade).

    Nowadays, people like to go digital. And using a blog as your journal is another option. While your team may have a wiki, a blog offers you an individual log of your work that can be easily associated and managed by you.

    Journals will make the preparation of an end-of-the-quarter/semester self-evaluation much easier than trying to remember what happened.  Also, if you need to prepare a self-evalution or other type of reflection you can analyze your journal and look for patterns of behavior or process that were successful for you and the team.

    10.2  Empowerment and Encouragement

    As mentioned previously, among the purposes of the class project is to provide you with opportunities to expand your skills and to try new things.  While you need to learn about the various facets of software engineering, you also are learning about working in a team.  Working in a team goes both ways.  You, as an individual, are a part of the team and the team, as an entity, is a part of you.  Those who have participated in a good team can tell you that it is fun to be a part of a hard-working team with members who communicate with each other.

    Being in a team means that you need to contribute to that team, and not let the team take advantage of you.  If you want to take a particular role, but are considered shy or passive, you can take this opportunity to speak up (empowerment).  After all, if you don't have the self-confidence to speak up then do not expect anyone else to do it for you.  Some people (e.g. professors among others) believe that those who are naturally talented at a particular task should take the particular role/task.  I do not always think that is the case.  Take a moment and think back to a Physical Education or an Art class in High School (or maybe Middle School/Junior High).  You may remember having a teacher or two who always let the natural athlete/artist lead the activities and get the praise while you tried your best and were ignored.  In some cases those students were the only ones to get A's and you may have given up entirely in the class.  There is no reason why this travesty needs to be repeated here.  Everyone needs to develop good leadership skills, writing skills, presentation skills, and so forth.  While you may not be the person everyone thinks of to create the team web page or run the meeting, if you have the desire to work hard and show off your skills then SPEAK UP and ASSERT YOURSELF.  I am speaking from experience here as I have been one of those shy people who didn't speak up.  At the same time, I also was not always happy with how the teams were being run or how some tasks were being done.  As a result, I started speaking up and asserting myself and after a while I starting having much more satisfying experiences in my team projects (I felt more in control as I was an active contributor).  Remember that asserting yourself is not the same as a hostile takeover - many team members are very receptive to people who are eager to work hard.  Empowerment is also needed when you need to say no and in negotiation with others - it keeps you from being taken advantage of.

    If personal empowerment is not an issue for you, then encouraging your teammates may be.  When you see that a teammate needs a bit of encouragement in order to assert him/herself, then do so.  You may need to talk to him/her and see what seems to be holding him/her back from speaking up, but assuming that the issue is not something out of the ordinary you can mention that Bob or Mary would be a great candidate for the task because his/her work is great.  All you may need to do is to simply mention to him/her that he/she should speak up at the next meeting.  Keep in mind that those who have the desire should get a chance to have a particular role/task even if he/she is not as "loud" as someone else on the team - loudness is not a sign of quality.  Somewhere in your past you needed encouragement, and you can draw from that experience when the time comes.  If someone does not want your help, then do not take it personally it just isn't the right time and you weren't assigned to the team to be the counselor.  Just be polite and provide general encouragement.  Being a role model and collaborating on a task an be effective as well.