Teaching Practice, Student Experience

Teamwork needs to be taught

November 20, 2019
Senior lecturer Shauna Jones (Beedie School of Business) noticed that her students showed an aversion to group assignments. She conducted a study to find out why and uncovered a number of reasons—and possible instructor responses.
By Jackie Amsden, Centre for Educational Excellence

Tell a lecture hall full of students that their grade is going to be based on a team assignment, and the odds are good you will suddenly have a lot of really grumpy people staring back at you. Shauna Jones wants to change that.

Jones, a senior lecturer in the Beedie School of Business, hopes that a study she recently conducted examining how her Faculty makes use of team-based assignments will provide new insights into ways instructors can better equip students with the skills required for successful collaboration.  

“Teamwork is important for our students. The ability to work effectively with others is one of the top skills that employers are saying they want in our graduates. However, I saw that a lot of my students were not having positive experiences working in teams, and would have this ‘yuck’ reaction whenever I brought up the idea. I wanted to know why and what we could do about it.”

Three kinds of teamwork

Jones’s study, funded by a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines, found that the majority of team activities in Beedie courses could be described as either “minimal” or “implicit.”

“In the minimal category, assignments can be divided and completed individually,” explains Jones. In other words, collaborating with team members is not actually essential to completing the assignment, and therefore students who feel they could do it better on their own often resent the requirement to work together."

“In the implicit category,” she continues, “although the assignments are designed to require interdependent work, students are not explicitly taught teamwork skills.” As a result, they work in teams, but without necessarily understanding what makes them work well and without explicitly improving their collaborative skills.

“Explicit” team learning occurs when there are learning goals related to teamwork skills and students work interdependently to achieve a common goal while managing their own process. Most importantly, they receive explicit instruction in the skills required to work well with others.

Become more intentional

So how can instructors better equip their students to succeed in team settings? 

“Perhaps it is time we re-look at how we teach teams in post-secondary and become more intentional about our use of teamwork,” says Jones. “We should ask ourselves if it will support the students’ learning in the course. If so, create meaningful and challenging assignments for the teams where they must work interdependently. Decide whether it is best to use implicit or explicit team learning.”

If instructors choose to use explicit team learning, continues Jones, they should identify the ability to work collaboratively as an explicit learning goal and provide students not only with training in the necessary skills, such as conflict resolution, but also with feedback on how they are practicing those skills.

For example, “provide regular check-ins to understand how the team is dealing with conflict.”

She also suggests that in addition to providing resources such as team charters (frameworks that can help the group identify goals and roles), instructors should show students how to use them.

“The student surveys indicated that students feel team charters aren’t valuable, but the literature and my own practice show the opposite. I think the real problem is that we aren’t properly guiding students on their use.”

A trade-off between content and process

That observation is related to another finding from the study. 

“The survey results suggest that students’ preference for teamwork decreases as their course load increases. I think this speaks to the fact that it can be very time-consuming, so it's important that students have in-class time to work on their team assignment. This may require reducing some material, but sometimes letting go needs to happen so that learning occurs.” 

Jones adds that other benefit of providing in-class time is that it provides instructors with the opportunity to observe and support the teams. 

Above all, fostering acceptance of, and comfort with, teamwork requires time and resources, says Jones. What is her advice for instructors who may be short of both? Get help.

“Ask for support from your Faculty and departments to help you do it well, such as training on how to support students to work through conflict or TA support. Argue for what you believe is important for your students’ learning.”

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