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For the past decade, I have been teaching international development and global affairs classes that focus on student teams working together over the semester on a challenge presented by an international organization. Effective teamwork is key to the success of those projects.

Working in teams has many benefits. Teamwork taps into the diverse backgrounds, skills, knowledge and experiences of each person in the group. It allows students to use their creativity and build on one another’s ideas. Through teamwork, students learn how to explore expansively what a good product might look like and design thoughtfully how to get there.

Yet at the beginning of the semester, I often ask students three questions about their experiences on teams, and their responses are often disconcerting.

First question: How many of you have had experiences in college working on a team-based class project?

Typically, almost everyone answers yes. This semester, when I asked this question in an undergraduate international development class made up of majors from across the university, 18 out of 20 students raised their hands -- that is, 90 percent had been required to be on a team as part of a college class.

Second question: If you’re honest, how many of you like to work on teams in a class? In other words, when your professor says, "We will have a team project," are you pleased with the prospect of working with your peers?

Typically, I get a few tentative hands. This semester, one student enthusiastically raised his hand, and I got two tentative, so-so hand raisers. That is, 85 percent would not be pleased with the prospect of working on a team.

The final question: How many of you have received training and advice, or reflected on the process, for ways to make your team-based experience more effective, enjoyable or productive for a class project?

On this final question, almost no students typically raise their hand. This semester, just two students out of 20 said they had been given some kind of training about effective teamwork in a class situation.

So while clearly not a rigorous study, I have found relatively consistent responses to the three questions from semester to semester. For an educational institution that is regularly assigning team-based projects, the last response is the killer.

One assumes educators regularly assign students to work in teams because we believe it helps them develop important life skills and also allows them to get to know their classmates. (A less charitable explanation might be that it is easier to grade fewer team-based assignments than one for each student.) But we often assign teamwork without offering any explicit rationale for why we are organizing teams -- as opposed to simply asking students to do the work individually -- or providing suggested strategies for a better teamwork process. And while we typically grade and provide feedback on the final team product, we frequently don’t ask for or provide feedback on the team process. So we don’t often see how badly such processes can go or how much most students dislike team-based projects.

Three Important Elements

When I first started using team-based projects, I didn’t spend much time talking about teams, believing that figuring it out was part of the students’ learning journey. Over time, however, I’ve learned the value of asking students to examine their own past experiences working on teams -- both good and bad -- before assigning them to one.

Students describe how team members often bring very different assumptions and preferences to the team process. In my class, for example, one student believes that teams work best with a clear leader, while another believes that the work should be shared fairly and democratically. Another works best under the pressure of a deadline, while her teammate hates waiting until the last minute. But if team members don’t talk about those different assumptions and preferences, frustration is probably inevitable.

Students suggest that sometimes it's the nature of the assignment itself that makes the team process hard. A short, high-pressure time frame for a teamwork assignment often leaves little space (or incentive) to get to know one another or to spend time on process. A regular response to it is a divide and conquer strategy: “I’ll take part A, you B, you C and you D, and we’ll put it together on Thursday night before it is due Friday morning.”

That approach often leads to disjointed results, with different writing styles building on different assumptions that somehow need to be melded into one final product in short order. Conversely, if students try to do everything together as a committee, including editing, it is an incredibly inefficient and even painful process. Neither of these examples leverage the potential benefits of working on a team.

So how can you as an instructor enhance learning in teams for your students? Thinking about teamwork systematically, in an integrated way, has proven to improve both the experience and the outcome of a project. I have found it’s important for students to pay attention to three key things.

People. At the beginning of a team assignment, students often introduce themselves to those they don’t know by stating their major and where they live, and then they get to work. Building relationships with teammates and knowing something about each of them a person helps produce a better outcome. In fact, a lot of evidence suggests that diverse teams can be more creative and perform better than homogeneous ones. But that diversity works only if the team members get to know one another and learn something about their teammates’ different vantage points and experiences and the benefits that they can bring to the project. To encourage that approach, ask your students to address some of the following questions:

  • What has been your best experience on a team, and what helps you bring your best self to a team project?
  • What is hardest for you about group work?
  • Do you have any constraints right now that might make this project hard?
  • Would you like to build new skills through this project?
  • What do you like to do?
  • What do you personally hope to get out of this project?

I would even suggest they write the answers to these questions, discuss them in their group and then host a session where these insights are shared for the benefit of the whole.

Process. Students tend to want to skip over the process; they often considered it “soft” or don’t think about it at all. They like to get to the substance -- and get the assignment done. Yet it’s important that they recognize that process matters and that what seems like the most efficient way forward -- going immediately to divide and conquer -- often leads to frustrating, suboptimal results. Some questions to ask your students on process might include:

  • Having learned a little about your teammates’ assumptions, preferences and experiences, how can you bring some of their best experiences working on teams to your own team process?
  • Can you explore a process to brainstorm ideas first -- without critiques -- and then decide later the distribution of labor (or as they say in negotiation theory, separate inventing from deciding)?

Feedback. Students sometimes express frustration that everyone gets the same grade on a team project, regardless of how much they each contribute. Letting students know that their contributions to the team matter, and that they'll have opportunities for feedback, can both change their sense of the fairness of the process and create additional opportunities for learning. One feedback model that I have used is to ask students:

  • How would you evaluate your overall contributions to your team and your project?
  • What have you done particularly well?
  • Do you see opportunities for growth?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), how would you rate your contributions?

I then ask them to apply the same set of questions to their teammates. Since my team projects last the full semester, students will receive both midterm and end-of-project feedback. The midterm feedback, in particular, provides opportunities for course corrections. We spend time in class discussing effective feedback loops, and in that context, share feedback with one another. This feedback -- both their own and their peers’ -- is part of the final assessment and grade for each student. That helps incorporate a sense of fairness and shows the teams that the process is in many ways as important as the outcome.

How much time you as an instructor spend on these three ideas might well be a function of how significant the team project is in the context of your class. But investing even a few minutes focusing on why the assignment is designed for a team -- and especially on the people, process and feedback -- has the potential to make a big impact on the final product.

Bottom line: many of our classroom teamwork assignments bring out the worst elements of teams. But acknowledging that teamwork isn’t easy, tapping into students’ own experiences working on teams and helping them focus on the three key areas I’ve outlined can produce both better products as well as insights into how teams themselves can work better. And no matter what they’re studying or whatever career they’re training for, insights into how teams can work better is a skill they can use for the rest of their lives.

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