Teamwork in Courses

A team is more than a group of students working together for class. Teams are organized and goal-oriented groups of 3-5 students working together for a relatively longer period—compared to groups that work on short in-class activities—to complete major course assignments. For this reason, instructors should form groups and not allow students to group themselves by friendships. A ready justification of teams’ being formed by the instructor instead of self-selection is that, in the workplace, teams will be assembled by skills needed, not by friendships. (Friends will likely work elsewhere.)

Before forming groups, the instructor should explain to students that they will be working together in teams over the course of the semester. To make good mixes of skills and abilities in divers teams, the instructor should ask some general questions on the first day of class.

  • Contact Information
  • Academic Major & Year of Study
  • Grades in any Prerequisite Courses
  • Times when the student is NOT available to join teamwork outside class
  • Approximate Residence Address (for grouping by proximity)
  • Other questions such as: study habits, study preferences, hobbies, interests, etc. These help students share information that makes becoming better acquainted and setting the stage for collaboration less threatening.

You can later read through collected information sheets and form teams at leisure. Some criteria to bear in mind for team formation:

  • Seek a good mix of skills and abilities. Grades in prerequisite courses give clues. Instructors might like to use other questions that gauge necessary skills.
  • Try for balanced diversity in the team. (Gender and ethnicity questions give guidance, but not all students will respond to those questions.) Avoid lone minorities in a team (e.g., only one female, only one African American).
  • To the extent possible, take stock of the times they list as NOT being able to meet and the area they live in. Doing so minimizes time conflicts and travel.

List in your syllabus teamwork expectations, team guidelines, and the consequences of team dysfunctionality. Teamwork rules and policies should be fine-tuned by team members and stated in writing. A Team Agreement Form will help students in a team to exchange ideas and to set some basic ground rules for working together as well as listing agreed-upon consequences of a team member’s failure to complete an assigned task. The instructor should keep a copy of each team’s agreement form for future reference. In the event of teamwork issues, the Team Agreement Form is the instructor’s first reference.

A name for the team lends identity and builds cohesion. Ask each team to pick a name and set defined roles for each member. Help students understand that setting up roles will make them more efficient, as well as give them a defined structure of what concerns whom and who needs to do what. Roles may change as tasks and the semester evolve.

Make students aware that conflicts typically follow time-worn dysfunctional roles: Couch Potatoes—“No hurry … let time go by … tomorrow”; Dominant Leaders—“Listen to me I know better”; Hitchhikers—After not completing the work, they claim to have worked very hard and request the same grade; Resistant Members—“My way or no way”; Divergent Goal Seekers—“I must get an A in this class” against “Who cares”. If you allow students to use the “firing rule,” describe it in your syllabus in detail: The team can request a team member who does not contribute be removed from their group. "Fired" members must find another team willing to accept them. Failing that, the individual member must complete all remaining tasks solo and be graded accordingly.

Helping your students develop teamwork skills and set up some teamwork rules is a good start, but one more thing: for fairness, look into the work each student put into the team. Make clear in the syllabus what percentage of the course grade derives from teamwork. Give students up-front access to the grading rubric you use for teamwork. The content and presentation of the final team project is only a part. The process behind the final team project is no less important, especially if your stated Student Learning Outcomes include development of teamwork skills. This Teamwork Evaluation Form helps reveal the way team members regard each others’ contributions. Students should understand that you expect the evaluation to be professional. Forming a mutual admiration society is not the point. Their honest and critical feedback is a must.