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Teaching teamwork

The capacity to work in teams is a vital skill that undergraduate and graduate students need to learn in order to succeed in their professional careers and personal lives. While teamwork is often part of the curriculum in elementary and secondary schools, undergraduate and graduate education is often directed at individual effort and testing that emphasizes solitary performance.

I think we can improve undergraduate and graduate students’ educational experiences by giving them the benefit of working in teams. This can be implemented in short-term (two-hour to two-week) or longer term (2-12 week) projects. I believe that working on a larger project with 2-4 other students, for at least 15-35% of their coursework in several courses, would build essential professional and personal skills. I agree that it is easier to plan and execute team projects in smaller graduate courses than larger undergraduate courses.

Unfortunately, many faculty members were trained through lecture, individual homework, and strictly solitary testing. They have weak teamwork skills and are little inclined to teach teamwork. In fact, they have many fears that increase their resistance. Some believe that teamwork takes extra effort for faculty or that teams naturally lead to one person doing most of the work.

Teamwork projects may require fresh thinking by faculty members, but it may be easier to supervise and grade ten teams of four students, than to mentor and grade 40 individuals. Moreover, well-designed teamwork projects could lead to published papers or start-up companies in which faculty are included as co-authors or advisers. In my best semester, five of the seven teams in my graduate course on information visualization produced a final report that led to a publication in a refereed journal or conference.

Another possible payoff is that teamwork courses may create more engaged students with higher student retention rates. Of course teams can run into difficulties and conflict among students. These are teachable moments when students can learn lessons that will help them in their professional and personal lives. These difficulties and conflicts may be more visible than individual students failing or dropping out, but I think they are a preferable alternative.

So if faculty members are ready to move towards teaching with team projects, there are some key decisions to be made. Sometimes two-person teams are natural, but larger teams of 3-5 allow more ambitious projects, while increasing the complexity. I’ve also run projects where the entire class acts as a team to produce a project such as the Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments (EVE), in which the 20 students wrote about 100 web-based articles defining the topic. Colleagues have told me about their teamwork projects that had their French students create an online newspaper for French alumni describing campus sports events or a timeline of the European philosophical movements leading up to the framing of the US Constitution.

Image Credit: Students collaborating at Albany Senior High School in New Zealand by Mosborne01. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: Students collaborating at Albany Senior High School in New Zealand by Mosborne01. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Team formation: I have moved to assigning team membership (rather than allow self-formation) using a randomization strategy, which is recommended in the literature. This helps ensure diversity among the team members, speeds the process of getting teams started, and eliminates the problem of some students having a hard time finding a team to join.

Project design (student-driven): Well-designed team projects take on more ambitious efforts, giving students the chance to learn how to deal with a larger goal. I prefer student designed projects with an outside mentor, where the goal is to produce an inspirational pilot project that benefits someone outside the classroom and survives beyond the semester. I’ve had student teams work on software to schedule the campus bus routes or support a local organization that brings hundreds of foreign students for summer visits in people’s homes. Other teams helped a marketing company to assess consumer behavior in a nearby shopping mall or an internet provider to develop a network security monitor. Two teams proposed novel visualizations for the monthly jobs report of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which they presented to the Commissioner and her staff. I give a single grade to the team, but do require that their report includes a credits section in which the role of each person is described.

Project design (faculty-driven): Another approach is for the teacher to design the team projects, which might be the same ones for every team. With a four-person team, distinct roles can be assigned to each person, so it becomes easier to grade students individually. Just getting students to talk together, resolve differences, agree to schedules, etc. gives them valuable skills.

Milestones: Especially in longer projects, there should be deliverables every week, e.g. initial proposal, first designs, test cases, mid-course report, preliminary report, and final report.

Deliverables: With teams there can be multiple deliverables, e.g. in my graduate information visualization course, students produce a full conference paper, 3-5 minute YouTube video, working demo, and slide deck & presentation.

Teamwork strategies: For short-term teams (a few weeks to a semester), simple strategies are probably best. I use: (1) “Something small soon,” which asks students to make small efforts that validate concepts before committing greater energy and (2) “Who does what by when,” which clarifies responsibilities on an hourly basis, such as “If Sam and I do the draft by 6pm Tuesday, will Jose and Marie give us feedback by noon on Wednesday?” Teamwork does not require any meetings at all; it is a management strategy to coordinate work among team members.

Critiques and revisions: I ask students to post their preliminary reports on the class’s shared website two weeks before the end of the semester. Then students sign up to read and critique one of the reports, which they send to me and the report authors. They write one paragraph about what they learned and liked, then as much as constructive suggestions for improvements to the report’s overall structure, to proposed references and improved figures, to grammar and spelling fixes. When students realize that their work will be read by other students they are likely to be more careful. When students read another team’s project report, they reflect on their own project report, possibly seeing ways to improve it. I grade the critiques which can be 3-6% of their final grade. My goal is to help every team to improve the quality of their work. Sometimes the process of preparing their preliminary reports early and then revising does much to improve quality.

Concerns: I know that some faculty members worry that one person in a team will do the majority of the work, but if projects are ambitious enough then that possibility is reduced. Grading remains an issue that each faculty member has to decide on. I find that having students include a credits box in their final report helps, but other instructors require peer rating/reporting for team members.

In summary, anything novel takes some thinking, but embracing team projects could substantially improve education programs, engage more marginal students, and improve student retention rates. Learning to use teamwork tools such as email, videoconferencing, and shared documents provides students with valuable skills. Working in teams can be fun for students and satisfying for teachers.

Featured image credit: Harvard Business School classroom by HBS 1908. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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