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Collaborate and Conquer: A Master’s Student’s Guide to Online Teamwork

While online master’s programs offer many benefits, virtual learning presents unique challenges for group collaboration. Use the tips and tricks outlined here to facilitate synergy and cooperation within online study groups, group projects, and everything in between.

Author: Emily Towns

Editor: Staff Editor

If you are considering pursuing an online master’s degree, you may be concerned about one specific facet of your learning experience: teamwork. While virtual master’s programs often require group collaboration for research, study groups, and other group projects, prospective students often wonder if an online environment will make it difficult to connect and collaborate with peers.

According to a study by Texas A&M, 61% of virtual graduate students felt they were given ample opportunities to interact with one another during online courses. And since online master’s degree programs admit students from across the country, they allow for collaboration among people from all different backgrounds and lifestyles — something that is lacking in many on-campus programs.

While this is encouraging news, you may still be wondering how to work with other students smoothly and efficiently in a virtual environment. To help you navigate the world of virtual collaboration and benefit from your peers, this guide discusses the types of teamwork you may encounter in an online master’s program, along with challenges you may face and solutions to facilitate solidarity and cooperation.

Online Groups Master’s Students May Encounter

There are many ways online master’s students can interact with peers in a group setting. While some carry across most master’s programs, others may depend on your major, specialization, or current classes. Below are a few ways you may work with other students as you pursue your master’s degree.

Virtual Lectures

During a virtual lecture, students will join in and listen to the teacher as they would during an in-person class, usually via a video chat application like Zoom. While virtual lectures are part of every online master’s degree program, whether or not they are pre-recorded or live will depend on the course or program format. Students can expect to participate during live/scheduled lectures, as the professor may ask questions or break students into smaller groups while the class is in session.

Group Projects

According to the National Education Association, group projects can improve students’ social and interpersonal skills by teaching them how to work with various types of learners and develop their leadership skills. Group projects for online master’s degree students typically involve small teams breaking down their workload into smaller manageable tasks and distributing the work to meet set deadlines.

You’ll likely use platforms like Slack and Google Drive to communicate and collaborate when working on group projects. You can also expect to collaborate during video meetings via programs like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Chances are your university will also have an online learning platform that allows you to communicate with other students via video or chat.

Study Groups

Online master’s students often form small groups with peers to discuss assignments and review academic content. Study groups provide a platform where students can share diverse perspectives on challenging subjects to enhance understanding, clear doubts, and prepare for examinations. According to Harvard, being part of a group engages you with the course material in a deeper way and allows you to set up mini deadlines and build accountability into your week.

As an online master’s student, you’ll often interact with your study group through video conferencing and shared tools like Notion or Evernote. These platforms allow you to share academic materials and collectively navigate complex courses, making your study sessions more organized and efficient.

Online Labs

In some specialized master’s programs — like Purdue University’s College of Engineering — lecturers perform wet lab activities on campus, and students remotely access these experiments through a network of computers and servers. Virtual labs are favorable because students can use them effectively and efficiently to perform lab experiments regardless of their experience level and the course.

Virtual labs use software like LabVIEW or MATLAB, where you can run simulations and collect data. These programs use simulation software or web-based applications where students can manipulate variables, conduct experiments virtually, and observe outcomes.

Peer Reviews

Online master’s peer review programs involve students analyzing each other’s projects, presentations, and assignments to provide constructive feedback. Peer reviewing may be more common in certain master’s programs such as creative writing, journalism, mass communication, architecture, and international relations. Peer reviews promote knowledge diversity and encourage new perspectives. You might use platforms like Turnitin for initial document submissions and video conferencing software like Zoom to discuss your real-time feedback. The “Track Changes” feature in Microsoft Word also lets you add comments directly to your peer’s document.

Research Groups

Research groups are teams focusing on a common research topic. Online focus or research groups can methodologically help perform rigorous and quality research. These research groups commonly apply to master’s programs such as research management (like Rutgers’ M.S. in Clinical Research Management), public health, environmental science, and clinical courses. Students can meet virtually to select the research topic, plan research, and discuss updates. They can also distribute responsibilities such as literature review, data collection, and analysis, which can help the group complete their project on time using online tools.

Overcoming Challenges in Virtual Groups

Although working in groups inspires an exchange of ideas and division of tasks, it also comes with challenges; group members often have different communication styles, ways of approaching tasks, and schedules. For example, online interactions can make it tough to read social cues, making conflicts harder to resolve and tasks more difficult to coordinate. This section discusses strategies to help you overcome the unique challenges of virtual group work.

Challenge 1: Communication Barriers

Virtual communication lacks the nonverbal cues and immediate feedback that in-person interactions provide. Misinterpretation of messages, language barriers, and difficulty conveying emotions can lead to misunderstandings among group members, especially when communicating via email or other written mediums.

Solutions to Communication Barriers

  • Speak via video or phone when possible. Seeing or hearing the person you are speaking with allows you to pick up on tone, body language, and other nonverbal cues, adding context to conversations that can help avoid confusion or misinterpretation.
  • Determine communication expectations. If you receive a message you perceive as negative, avoid jumping to conclusions. Assume positive intent on behalf of the sender and give them the benefit of the doubt — perhaps they were in a rush or had some other mitigating circumstance that made their tone seem short or abrupt.

Challenge 2: Coordination and Timing

Coordination and timing issues can make tasks last longer than expected or cause procrastination. As many virtual master’s degrees offer enrollment to qualified students worldwide, differences in time zones can create some difficulties in coordinating virtual groups. Inspired by the pandemic, international students are increasingly interested in studying online, contributing to the time zone challenge in group projects. Master’s students also frequently have other commitments outside of school.

Solutions to Coordination and Timing Barriers

  • Schedule set meeting times. Conducting a virtual poll can guide you in determining each member’s time preferences, helping you choose meeting times that accommodate schedules as much as possible.
  • Use coordination and timing tools. Consider a shared digital calendar to pinpoint times that work for all team members across different time zones and provide reminders for upcoming group meetings.

Challenge 3: Difficulty Making Decisions

Virtual groups limit nonverbal communication. The lack of face-to-face interaction and physical cues can create challenges in gauging agreement or disagreement, making it difficult to reach a consensus. The unclear distribution of roles and responsibilities among virtual group members can create confusion regarding who has the authority to decide or delegate tasks, contributing to indecision.

Solutions to Help with Decision-Making

  • Set shared goals. Identify the project’s key goals, discuss how everyone can contribute, and highlight the benefits of achieving them to motivate the team members.
  • Designate a leader. Select a group leader to decide on issues the group doesn’t agree on and to liaise with the lecturer for information that can influence the decision.
  • Take a group vote. Consider doing a group vote, which helps contribute to inclusivity in decision-making. It’s also important to integrate some ideas from the minority to minimize conflicts.

Challenge 4: Group Conflict

Conflicts may arise during online team activities like in-person group work, and members bring different conflict styles to the team environment. The absence of social contact in virtual groups makes it difficult to interpret tone and intent, which may exacerbate team dynamic challenges. A 2020 study reveals that conflicts are more prevalent when the project is 75% complete, at which point members or instructors expect results, but one or more members are yet to deliver.

Solutions to Mitigate Group Conflict

  • Allow everyone a chance to be heard. During discussions, ensuring each member expresses their opinions can mitigate online group conflicts by promoting equal participation.
  • Set ground rules. Develop group communication guidelines that include behavior expectations, regulating actions, and penalties for violations.

Challenge 5: Lack of Accountability

When working on group projects where the final grade is equally awarded to each member regardless of individual effort, some members put in minimal input, relying on the efforts of the rest of the team. Lack of accountability is a common challenge in online master’s programs, as students who are new to each other or aren’t familiar with technology can feel a lack of responsibility, commitment, and attention.

Solutions to Hold Team Members Accountable

  • Set milestone deadlines. Establish deadlines for each member’s tasks and the group’s milestones and remind each other to ensure you complete the work on time. You’ll also need to ensure you have a plan in place for when deadlines are potentially unmet.
  • Determine communication expectations. Conflict about accountability is common, so assume you’ll encounter the situation and set communication expectations in advance. This includes how to address the situation, steps to take to resolve it, and team rules about tone and approach.

Challenge 6: Staying Focused

Students can have a challenge regulating their attention and effort in remote learning, which can minimize the benefits of group work. The temptation to multitask and engage in unrelated activities, which can reduce your focus on the subject matter during online meetings, is significant because of the lack of physical presence. Online group communication typically relies on devices such as smartphones, so when digital distractions like social media notifications pop up, it can be difficult to remain focused.

Solutions to Stay Focused

  • Set meeting agendas. Create agendas that include topics to discuss or research to review to ensure you remain focused.
  • Designate leaders for meetings. Choose a leader to facilitate group conversations, such as introducing topics and designating time for each member.

Challenge 7: Technology Issues

Virtual groups rely on the internet to access online communication tools. Various technological issues hinder the progress of online group work. Research from 2022 reveals that students face technology issues like poor signal quality and being unfamiliar with various software and systems. The study also shows that they experience a lack of confidence in technology and privacy concerns. Some members may experience platform or software tool incompatibility because of the differences in operating systems on the devices they use.

Solutions to Technology Issues

  • Use the same programs and software. Selecting uniform programs and software tools for all members can minimize compatibility issues, enabling seamless sharing of files and documents.
  • Test tools before meetings. Before the meeting begins, make sure your webcam, internet connection, device charger, and microphone are in working order to avoid technology interruptions and create an environment for optimal collaboration and concentration.

Challenge 8: Uneven Skill Sets

Graduate students bring to their master’s programs a diverse set of skills — many earned during undergraduate education, and some from working in their field. Regardless of level of skill, a 2023 study emphasizes the need for adaptability as a critical skill for online learning success, and this can also relate to accommodating the skill sets of your peers. In addition to background, students also bring different learning styles to their study, which could also lead to uneven skill sets.

Solutions to Managing Uneven Skill Sets

  • Delegate tasks based on strengths. You can assess members’ skills by providing surveys or asking them to self-identify strengths, then delegate duties depending on these capabilities.
  • Pair members in assigned tasks. Once you’ve assessed each member’s skill level, assign tasks to members with complementary skills to cover each other’s weaknesses and promote peer learning.

The Benefits of Working in Virtual Groups

Group work is a complex undertaking, and while it can present some challenges, working in teams provides significant real-world benefits. For example, you can learn new skills and knowledge from your colleagues as you work, which can benefit you during your master’s study and in your future career. Let’s dive deeper into some of the key benefits of working within groups — both in-person and online.

Create Accountability

Working in groups can make you more accountable and responsible, as your colleagues count on you to contribute and deliver individual responsibilities on time. This means you may find yourself taking more detailed notes or asking key questions to fulfill your team obligation. Online groups often hold regular meetings where each member presents their progress, which may increase your sense of responsibility to deliver. Group members can also serve as accountability partners, encouraging you to meet your deadlines.

Divide Responsibilities

Group work also involves sharing responsibilities, especially in online teams where members have varying schedules. For example, you can share a Google Doc with your colleagues, and each member can take turns updating their contribution or compiling notes. Group leaders often assess the group’s skill distribution before assigning tasks, which improves the quality of your work and your performance in the group work. It also allows you to share what you learned as you fulfill your duty and reduces the overall project workload.

Gain New Perspectives

Your graduate study is likely to bring together students with different experiences, cultures, and backgrounds. For example, a Master of Business Administration program may include students with undergraduate degrees in economics, human resources, and accounting, allowing you to analyze problems from different angles and challenge your thinking and biases. As you learn new perspectives, you also learn how to work with people from different backgrounds, further enriching your experience; research shows that you can develop greater intercultural competence when you collaborate with team members from different cultures and nationalities.

Hone Communication Skills

Interacting with group members can help inspire healthy communication skills using a mixture of writing, listening, and speaking. Primarily, you’ll develop enhanced written skills as you learn to convey complex ideas via emails and team communication like project outlines. You’ll also develop active listening skills, which enrich discussions by helping you dig deeper into the nuances of what you’re learning — especially as you participate in virtual meetings. As a result of your master’s group work, you’ll also develop speaking skills, as you’ll be expected to articulate ideas clearly during group presentations or discussions.

Learn New Skills

Group work enables you to learn new skills as you collaborate and share with other group members. For example, peers may share their study habits, problem-solving techniques, or knowledge using specific software. Interacting with colleagues also helps you develop interpersonal skills such as teamwork, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution. You can also apply these interpersonal skills in your career to help build and maintain professional relationships.

Motivate Each Other

Research shows that motivation is a benefit of group work, alongside benefits like boosting your creativity and exchanging ideas. Your group members provide a mutual support system that can help you overcome academic and personal challenges. You may also get motivation from achieving group milestones and encouraging each other to complete bigger tasks. Your group members’ performance, knowledge, and skills may motivate you to achieve personal study goals.

Practice Problem-Solving

Working in small online groups helps students develop problem-solving skills. Students develop problem-solving skills when they brainstorm group challenges to identify problems or expectations, determine causes or reasons, discuss solutions and plans, implement ideas, and evaluate their impact. Beyond academic challenges, working in groups also exposes you to interpersonal dynamics that require problem-solving, such as resolving conflicts or navigating different communication styles.

Prepare for Your Career

Taking part in online group work prepares you for your future in various ways, as it’s highly likely that you’ll work with diverse people throughout your career. Interacting with group members can help build transferable skills you can take to any job, such as teamwork, leadership, and communication approaches that can help you collaborate with your colleagues in the workplace. You’ll also be skilled at building relationships with colleagues, which may develop into professional networks

Online group work prepares you for remote work, which is becoming more prevalent. Research shows that at least 58% of employees in America work remotely at least once a week.

Socialize with Peers

Group work provides opportunities for master’s students to socialize, which helps build relationships. It also helps you overcome feelings of loneliness, especially in online learning, where you only interact with colleagues and lecturers at specific times. Online learning features various tools to help you socialize with peers, including instant messaging and video conferencing platforms. Online group interaction develops a sense of community, an educational benefit more commonly associated with in-person classes.

Resources to Help Facilitate Online Collaboration

In online master’s groups, there are different tools you can use to facilitate collaboration and accomplish common objectives. The list below encompasses diverse tools, apps, and informational sources to bolster group work and help you work more effectively with peers in group settings:

  • Asana – Asana is a task management tool that helps you plan, organize, and execute group projects. You can use it to assign tasks, set deadlines, and monitor progress seamlessly.
  • Calendly – This appointment scheduling software allows you and your group members to find commonly available times for group meetings without sending many emails.
  • Discord – Discord was initially designed for gamers, but the platform allows you and other group members to engage in voice, video, or text chat, streamlining group communication.
  • Evernote – Use this note-taking app to compile and share lecture notes and research materials. You can also use it when brainstorming ideas within groups
  • Google Docs – Google Docs provides collaborative real-time document editing to help team members contribute to writing projects. It enables you to share feedback easily using the comment feature.
  • Google Workspace Learning Center– This resource from Google guides you through the use of Google Workspace tools like Google Docs, Sheets, and Meet.
  • Khan Academy – This popular educational platform provides groups with supplemental learning resources. During research, you can access tutorials on many subjects, such as economics, computing, science, math, and life skills.
  • MindMeister– MindMeister is an online mind-mapping tool that allows you to visualize, organize, and share information, promoting creative brainstorming.
  • Miro– Miro is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform that lets you brainstorm ideas, draw diagrams, and mind-map. You can also host meetings while team members interact with features like sticky notes.
  • Onlinemastersdegrees.org – This platform guides master’s students in various ways, such as providing information about various master’s programs and relevant information to help improve your flexibility and study quality.
  • Padlet– Padlet is an interactive digital board that lets you and other group members collect, organize, and share notes, links, and images. You can create presentations, timelines, portfolios, and Q&As.
  • Slack – Slack is a messaging app that promotes teamwork. You can create channels for different projects to organize group communication, send text messages, communicate via audio and video calls, and share files.
  • Todoist– Todoist is a task management tool that helps you share and track tasks, deadlines, and projects to improve team productivity. You can also integrate various apps like Google Calendar to boost your efficiency.
  • Trello – This technology tool features boards, lists, and cards that let the group members visualize tasks. You can use it to assign roles and set deadlines to maintain positive progress throughout the project.
  • Twist– Twist is an organized alternative to email and chat. It features threaded conversations, making it easy for you to track important discussions.
  • Zoom – Zoom is an audio and video-conferencing tool that allows you to hold group meetings or presentations virtually.