The ability to work effectively in teams is a skill that is highly valued by the employers of college graduates. Group projects in college classes, though, are not always designed to develop teamwork skills. In this episode, Lauren Vicker and Tim Franz join us to discuss strategies that we can use to create group activities that help students develop their teamwork skills while addressing complex problems. Lauren is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Media and Communication at St. John Fisher College. Tim is a Professor and Interim Chair in the Psychology Department, also at St. John Fisher College. They are the authors of Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators, which was released earlier this year.
- Franz, Timothy and Vicker, Lauren (2021). Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators
- Making Team Projects work blog
- Flaherty, Collen (2021). What Employers Want. Inside Higher Ed. April 6.
- Olga Stoddard (2021). Gender and Groups. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 182. April 7.
- Lauren Vicker – LinkedIn
- Tim Franz – LinkedIn
John: The ability to work effectively in teams is a skill that is highly valued by the employers of college graduates. Group projects in college classes, though, are not always designed to develop teamwork skills. In this episode, we explore strategies that we can use to create group activities that help students develop their teamwork skills while addressing complex problems.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guests today are Lauren Vicker and Tim Franz. Lauren is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Media and Communication at St. John Fisher College. Tim is a Professor and Interim Chair in the Psychology Department, also at St. John Fisher College. They are the authors of Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators, which was just released earlier this year. Welcome Lauren and Tim.
Lauren: Thank you.
Tim: Thanks for having us.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…. Lauren, Are you drinking tea?
Lauren: I am drinking tea. I am drinking Trader Joe’s Moroccan mint green tea, one of my favorites.
Rebecca: That sounds like something John would rock. [LAUGHTER]
John: I actually have a backup tea here which is Moroccan mint, but it’s a different brand.
Tim: …and Wegmans decaf green for me.
Rebecca: It’s a good one. Wegotta have the Wegmans on…
John: Wegmans has a wonderful collection of teas, especially in the larger stores. And I have ginger peach green tea.
Rebecca: …and I am back to my good old English afternoon, John.
John: It’s been a year. I think you only had that once on the podcast in the last year or so.
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, I know. I was thinking like, I haven’t been drinking it very often. I need to get back to it.
John: Well, we have six boxes of it still in the office for when we return.
Rebecca: I have six boxes in this office too. [LAUGHTER]
John: So, you should be set for the week.
Rebecca: I’m good. I’m good.
Tim: I took all my tea home last August, because I knew it would be a while. I did finish all the office tea.
Rebecca: It’d be hard for us to do that.
John: We have hundreds of teas in the office, so yes. We’ve invited you here to discuss Making Team Projects Work. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project got started?
Tim: Yeah, this was an interesting project, because it’s really been something that Lauren and I have been talking about for years. When I first started here back in 2000, at St. John Fisher, we realized pretty quickly that we offer two similar courses, one in small group communication that Lauren was offering and one in small group dynamics that we were offering in psychology. And so what we did was merge the courses. And then we started team teaching it and have been team teaching for about 20 years together. Over the time of our team teaching, we realized that we were going way beyond with our team projects than most of our peers, most of our colleagues at St. John Fisher. And we realized that a lot of people don’t know all the details about running a team project. So, we wrote the book.
Rebecca: Sometimes students complain about group projects. There’s a lot of strengths and benefits, but also some reasons to maybe not do group projects. So can you talk a little bit about both some of the benefits and some of the weaknesses of doing group projects.
Lauren: So one of the best reasons came out last week in Inside Higher Ed a story about a survey that was done by a AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities) where they surveyed 500 employers, CEOs, and hiring managers, and asked them about the top skills that they were looking for in their new hires. And number one, a top skill turned out to be ability to work in teams. So we really need to be preparing our students for the workplace. And that’s one of the best reasons to use a group project. It’s also a much better way to engage students while they are in the classroom. Get them involved, have them work with other people, give them some of those professional skills that they need, and also keeps them more engaged than say, listening to a passive lecture. So there are a lot of reasons why people don’t use group projects. And it is a lot of work to set up a group project, and to do it well. A lot of faculty think about group projects as a way that they can minimize their workload. So what they’ll do is they’ll take an individual project that they might give to students, and just turn it over to a group and say, “Here, do this.” Give it out. And then you don’t hear anything until the end of the semester or close to the time when the project is due. And that is definitely not the way to do it. And so what we’re proposing is that people follow a very systematic process. And we actually have a model that shows how you can walk through each of the steps and be able to turn what might be an individual project into a really good team project.
Tim: Rebecca, there are other reasons why faculty think you shouldn’t run group projects… for example, student complaints, sometimes you get some pretty serious student complaints about a project, or the problem with so many projects and so many team projects, especially, is social loafing, where one person just sits back and lets the other do it, or conflict, or all these other problems that teams can run into. But the reality is that the well designed team project can help to minimize a lot of those problems, especially if the faculty member uses a structured process, such as we suggest in our book, where there’s lots of steps involved, and the faculty members are checking in regularly with the team. Now, the other problem is that does take a little more work. But with good planning and practice, team projects can be really effective.
Rebecca: I’m certainly an advocate for collaborative work. I do a lot of team projects in my own classes and know there are a lot of planning things to do at the beginning. Can you outline some of the key things to think about before introducing a collaborative project to your students,
Lauren: We talk about an input-output model. So let’s start maybe with the inputs to the group. A lot of people think that they can, as we said before, just take an individual project and make it a team project. So attention to the task is really important. And we can talk about that more if you want to talk about what makes a good team task. But also, the people are a huge input. And one of the biggest mistakes that faculty make is allowing students to choose their own teams and just to say, “Okay, everybody break up in groups of four, or five, or six,” and go ahead and do it. And that is the worst way to do it. Because you are not going to get any heterogeneity, you’re not going to get people with diverse viewpoints and experiences, people are just going to be working with their friends. And the final input is actually the context. A lot of people overlook that, but it depends on what kinds of experiences do students have with working in teams. And there are some colleges and universities that have a lot of teamwork going on, and others that are still using a lot of lecture-based sage-on the-stage type of teaching. And so if the culture of the school isn’t used to doing teams, or if you don’t even have a physical setup for teams, where people are in kind of an amphitheater classroom, and it’s hard to move around into groups, all of those things can actually thwart it. And you have to also consider what else is going on at the time. So those of us who were using teams when the pandemic hit know exactly the challenges that that entails. So what we find is that you have to start at that very beginning in the planning… on planning your task and planning the people who are going to be there and then looking at the context that you’re going to be considering.
Tim: If I can follow up on one thing, Lauren, this idea of picking your own teams that so many people, and in our presentations, we’ve gotten some pushback on this, that “Oh, the students love picking their own teams.” But number one, and we’ve seen this in our class, and we both seen it separately. Sometimes friendships break apart in those teams, because the friends realize they have very different working styles and get very frustrated with one another. And then the other problem with letting people pick their own teams is the elementary school kickball on the playground problem where somebody is the last to get picked. And honestly, I had somebody in tears in my class a couple of years ago, when I did a very short project and decided I don’t have time to do all that. And the person didn’t get picked until very last. And that was awful. And this is not the way we want people in college to be picking their teams. When they get out in the workplace, they’re not picking their own teams there either.
John: I’ve had a similar experience when I’ve used group projects in my classes, and students will always say, “Can we make our own groups?” And what I’ve done the last several times I’ve done it, and it’s worked really effectively, is to ask them how they knew each other. These are upper-level classes, primarily, where I’m doing this. And they’ll say, “Well, we’ve taken a lot of classes together.” I said, “So we’d like to have teams where everyone has a good mix of experience on all the teams. But if you know these people because you’ve taken a lot of classes with them, that means you’ve probably taken more courses in the discipline than other people have. So if we put everyone together who has the most background in the material, we won’t get as much diversity in the group, but we’ll also end up with some teams having some really rich backgrounds in the discipline, and others having a somewhat weaker background. And that may not be the most equitable way of creating teams.” And once you say that to students, you get much more buy in and they’ll generally accept it. And then I’ll often ask them, “What might we use as a criteria to balance the teams?” …and they’ve come up with some good suggestions. And that’s worked pretty well.
Lauren: You’re absolutely right, John. We’re a really big fan of the team-based learning approach to forming teams, which is: make the criteria very transparent. So if you say “I don’t want you with people that you’ve had two or three classes with,” or “I don’t want you with people who are in the same major or at the same level,” that’s great. We’ve done a number of different things. Sometimes faculty can pick the criteria as you have done, John, other times I know Tim has used a questionnaire that he’s had students fill out like a self assessment of their skills, and then he’ll put the teams together that way and tell the students this is how you were put together. I actually had one class where I did let them pick the criteria, or suggest the criteria, and I said “That sounds like a good idea. Let’s give it a try.” And when we put the teams together, we realized that they were perfectly balanced. And it was one of the best TBL classes that I had. And when we went online during the pandemic, it was almost seamless, because the teams had already really been formed, and they had an identity, and they’d had successes together. And so it was a really great way to do it. So we’re a huge advocate of not letting students pick their own teams,.
Tim: …and letting it be that transparent process. That transparent process is so important.
John: I’ve used a Google form in the classroom, where, when it’s in the classroom, where it’s displayed on the screen, they submit their responses, I’ll sort them from highest to lowest according to that criteria, and just go down the list assigning the teams 1-2-3-4, etc., and it’s worked really well. And another nice thing about it is when the teams are formed with this sort of criteria, instead of by social network, the team has been created for a specific purpose and they tend, when they’re working together, to focus on their purpose, rather than talking about what they’re going to do that weekend and other things. I found that the students tend to be much more on task when the teams were created to be balanced, separate from any friendship relationships. They tend to separate it from the social networks that otherwise might tend to dominate some of the discussions when they’re in a physical classroom. The groups have been really productive that way.
Tim: That’s a fabulous point.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had very similar experiences in my classes as well. I tend to have a lot of different majors that come together and so I often use that as one way of dividing up the differences of experience for these collaborative projects, and it tends to work out well, and they tend not to know each other, as a result. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Well, and then on certain teams, Lauren, I don’t think you even know this, but two of the students in our last class, our last group dynamics class, are now the closest of friends. And they didn’t know each other before a class, so that division can actually open up the doors to new friendships as well.
Rebecca: One of the things that you talk about in your book, and this seems like a good moment to bring it up, is that teams need to form and get to know each other, understand the project, understand what each member’s expertise might be, what the tasks are at hand, and also a need for someone to kind of step into a facilitator role. We might call it a leader, we might call it a facilitator, whatever that might be, can you talk about how to make that process go smoothly? …because if that process doesn’t happen, as you indicate in your book, the team doesn’t work, because nothing ever gets done. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Right. And the team can take so much longer to get to a level of performance. When we talk about team performance, the key theory of development is Tuckman, where most people have heard this… that forming, storming, norming, and performing… and we want to get our class projects right into that performing stage as quickly as possible, and a team charter can do that. And in that team charter, it’s allowing the team to create some guidelines. In those guidelines should be things like attendance and deadlines, how to deal with conflict, the levels of participation that they expect from one another, their communication standards and rotating responsibilities, as you said, Rebecca, who’s going to be taking notes at the meeting, who’s going to be facilitating the meeting, when is each person going to be taking the lead on each thing, meeting times and places and then even things like decision rules and ways to solve problems when they occur. Those are all things that we encourage our teams to develop upfront ahead of time so those discussions are productive, rather than during a time of conflict.
Lauren: And if some people think that a team charter is too formal, we’ve actually had the class as a whole agree on: What are the norms for the class? How are we going to run this class? …kind of giving them ownership. And we have all the teams get together and generate different rules for the class and then we post them up on our course management system. And so when there’s an issue, we say, “Hey, look, we said that people were going to answer any texts or email within 24 hours, or within 12 hours, or everybody was going to show up prepared to meetings.” So we can actually point to those. But I want to back up before we actually start the team charter, we are huge fans of icebreaker exercises. And I know one of the things that we had the luxury of doing in group dynamics was we were teaching about groups, so we could spend a lot of time talking about these issues. However, most faculty have content that they need to cover. I also teach a course in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy and I know how much content people in the sciences and the humanities… they have so much to cover. They don’t really have a lot of time to talk about the group dynamics. And so they might assume that just because you’re working on a team project, you’re learning to work in a team, but we really want the teams to be able to do some icebreaker exercises in the beginning, even if it’s just fun stuff, you know, like what do you binge watching? What kind of pets do you have? Where are you from? …just getting to know each other. We think that that is hugely important. Just to get to know each other on a personal level, and then they get a little bit more ownership of the team. So while John’s right that not knowing people may be good and make you a little more task oriented, you still have to be concerned about all the people. And we know that, like this past year, a lot of students have really suffered from some anxiety and mental health issues. So we want them to feel comfortable talking to the group when they need to, we think that that is an important piece. So starting with that, and then they can constructively work together on that team charter.
Rebecca: To take one of those icebreaker activities that I’ve done in my classes that’s been really fun is to design an emoji. Of course, I teach a design class, so it’s related, but the students have had a lot of fun doing that activity, but it immediately gets them figuring out a way to work together and just talk a little more socially. So it’s kind of a task to do, it doesn’t really matter what the outcome is.
Tim: Some of the best icebreakers are actually relevant to the course or relevant to the team project. If you can make them relevant, they’re even better. And so I think that’s a perfect one.
Lauren: Yeah, emojis or I have them design a logo for their team… come up with a team name, and then a logo, and in the olden days, I would print up the logo and put it on their team folder. Now we have to do that virtually. [LAUGHTER]
John: One of the issues that, as you mentioned before, often shows up for students in terms of past experience with groups, are those people who may be sharking. In your book several times you mentioned the student named Fred. Could you tell us a little bit about Fred and how to deal with students like Fred.
Tim: Fred is actually a real student. This was not a hypothetical story. I think we embellish a little, but you saw us both laugh when you mentioned, Fred.
Rebecca: I think I’ve met Fred. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think we’ve all met Fred. [LAUGHTER]
Lauren: So again, we go back to what’s happening with this project? What is Fred doing or not doing? What has the team decided on their norms, or their roles for the team? And what are the sanctions for someone who is social loafing and not pulling their weight in the team? And one of the things that we talk about extensively, and this is also a big part of team-based learning, is peer evaluations. People who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing on the team should be getting feedback from each other, and not just at the end of the project. Very often, we wait to the end, and we say, “team evaluations.” And all of a sudden it says, “Wait, Rebecca didn’t show up for any of the meetings. John wasn’t prepared for the presentation.” We need to know that along the way, and we recommend check-ins frequently with the groups. So we spend time informally checking in with the teams, meaning just wandering around the class or, if they’re in breakout rooms, popping into the breakout rooms to see what they’re doing, or actually having formal check-in times. We’ve sometimes given surveys to the class to find out how things are going, sometimes we make them anonymous. So we find out where are you on the project? How is everybody doing? And other times we ask them to specifically evaluate the contributions of each member. Another thing that we’ve done in the past is actually set up Google folders for all of the teams with instructor access. And that way we tell them, “Okay, everything that you do is going to go into that Google folder.” So the instructor has a way of looking in and saying, “Fred, it’s been three weeks, and you have put nothing into the Google folder, what’s going on?” So we can talk to the teams individually, but also talk to Fred individually, as well.
Tim: Yeah, and just as instructors, it’s our job to give students those skills for teamwork, because that’s what their employers and grad schools want. It’s also our job as instructors to develop our students. And that process of multiple check-ins, though, that’s one of the areas where it does take more work, we need those multiple check-ins to see how things are going. And Lauren, I think you emphasized and I can’t stress enough, the importance of these formal and informal peer and instructor evaluations that are going on throughout the process of this team project to keep them on track and develop their skills so that they can improve and be better team members when they leave our campus.
Rebecca: You have a couple other scenarios of student or learning situations around leadership that I think are maybe important to address as well, the idea that the team seems it’s going great, but come to find out it’s the one person doing all the work and no one else is allowed to do anything. And then there’s also the opposite where just nobody’s doing anything because nobody knows who’s in charge. Can you talk a little bit about how to make sure that there’s maybe a leader who’s not a dictator? …someone who’s really acting more as a facilitator within a team.
Tim: Well, I think this is another area where it does take a little extra time. And if we want to develop these teamwork skills in our students, we need to teach to the teamwork skills and teach to the leadership skills, at least a little time …and I’m not talking taking whole weeks of class but 15 to 20 minutes to put our expectations down and have them help get those expectations out there so that they know what it means to rotate through leadership. They know what the five or 10 top leadership characteristics are that their team expects of them when they’re leading. And we do emphasize the importance of rotating in the leadership role. That is important because we want everybody to lead team meetings and everybody to take notes at team meetings, not leave all that to one person.
Lauren: And students are really reluctant to take on the leadership role. They don’t want to seem like it’s a power grab sort of thing. And so it’s important for them to understand the nature of leadership, that it isn’t one autocratic person telling everybody what to do, that they understand the different perspectives on leadership. And again, we have the luxury of being able to talk about that, about different types of leadership, and we have our students do leadership assessments. And it’s helpful for them to be able to talk about when they go to a job interview. They’ve got something where they can discuss how they see themselves as leading the team.
Tim: Right, those demonstrable activities that they can actually show on paper in a portfolio, I say on paper, but it certainly could be electronic in these days.
Rebecca: I think one thing that comes up frequently when we talk about groups and group dynamics is setting on and establishing roles. And I’m hearing you both emphasize the idea of rotating some of those roles. And I think this is a place where faculty struggle to set up good structure. Can you talk a little bit about some of the rotating roles that should be there and how do we encourage students to rotate over the course of a semester?
Tim: Some of those roles I think we’ve already mentioned, certainly leadership should rotate at meetings. A lot of those roles occur in meetings. So, at a meeting, you want somebody who’s leading or facilitating, we often prefer the term facilitating, because that is somebody who’s just leading that meeting, then you need a note taker, then you need on top of that a timekeeper, somebody who’s keeping that team on task. But even beyond just the simple meeting strategies, where everybody should be getting some practice and learning opportunities throughout all those, when you’re thinking about roles, there’s also those informal roles, like somebody who could be the cheerleader for the team and trying to get people to feel better. And somebody who could be the one who’s asking the questions or giving the task-based answers, keeping them on track during their problem solving or decision making. These are all roles that each person should be practicing. We all tend to fall into our own roles that we are used to. And by forcing them out of their comfort zone and into some of these other roles, they can get better at being a team member, and bring more inputs, as Lauren introduced at the beginning, into the team project.
Lauren: But having said that, it is a lot more challenging to do when you’ve got an online class or online team projects, because, especially if it’s an asynchronous class, so it really depends on your circumstances. And another thing we found is that as the project progresses and students are getting closer to the deadlines, they definitely have to start solidifying their roles, they need one person who’s going to collect all the data and one person who’s going to do the data analysis and one person who’s going to organize, whether it’s a portfolio or slides or whatever that they’re going to do. So that part becomes important as well. And so one of the things we’re teaching them is to be flexible in their roles and realize that maybe you were a leader on the last project, but you’re not the expert to be the leader of this particular project. Or maybe you’re a really good graphic designer. And so you should do our slides for our presentation or design the portfolio. So trying to make sure that everybody gets a chance to show their strengths, as well.
John: I know when Rebecca and I have presented together jointly, she was always very quick to volunteer to do it, [LAUGHTER] because she wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing it. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Well, Lauren and I have the same exact relationship, because I’m going to give Lauren some credit here, [LAUGHTER] she is way better at doing slides. And now when I’m doing the slides, I do my outline and hand it over to Lauren electronically to clean it up and make it look nice. [LAUGHTER] And it looks a lot better when we get it to the point where we’re going to use it.
John: So that does suggest though, that using the expertise of some of the group members can be helpful. But you do also want to provide some rotation in tasks. And that could be a bit of a challenge. Would you recommend instructors giving students are a rotating list of at least some of those positions? Or would you encourage the teams to do that on their own, such as the leadership role and other roles?
Tim: Well, I think the areas where you have expertise, you should certainly…. that’s the advantage of teams… you can spread the work out but you can also at least get closer to that idea of team synergy because you’re pulling together all those diverse views, all those diverse backgrounds, all that diversity in expertise. And oftentimes when we use the term diversity, we use it to mean race, but diversity is much, much broader than that. And so you can pull together that diversity in expertise and come up with a much better outcome, a much better product that the students are proud to share, and show off in the future. So yes, you certainly want to leverage the expertise of your students. But there are certain areas where you want the students to get some practice with those roles, as you pointed out, John.
Lauren: And I think if we don’t set them up, they probably won’t happen naturally. And so we need to be talking to them about it, giving them some experience doing it. A lot of it is putting the responsibility on the team and the students to say, “Okay, here’s something that we want to see you doing,” and have them explain to us how that happened. So one of the things that we’ve done when we have students give team projects is not just talk about what they found out when they did the project, but what was their process like? …and describing that, because you can learn a lot from hearing how other teams managed it. And you can actually see, during presentation time or reading portfolios, how they approached it, and which processes were most successful.
Rebecca: One of the things that we do in our design classes is something called a process video for just that. So if they’re working collaboratively, they describe and show their process for the project in a short video, like a three- to five-minute video. And it’s really interesting sometimes to see the way that different team members describe the same process.
Lauren: I love it. I love it.
Tim: That’s fabulous. The importance of reflection on their group work, it can’t be understated, because a lot of times is, Professors, we focus on the task outcome, but what we want for our students is also all the other stuff that comes along with teamwork, where they learned what it means to be a team member. And it’s those reflective activities at the end: “How did you get to this? Where did you help? Where could the team do better?” Those are the things that can really help our students develop those teamwork skills in the future.
Rebecca: Sometimes those things are so invisible too, unless we directly ask them to explain or narrate. I’ve been surprised often, in watching the process videos like”Oh, is that how you did that? I didn’t realize.” [LAUGHTER] It’s really interesting sometimes to see how they did something technically or how they arrived at a particular idea which hadn’t been explained to me in a one-on-one meeting or something or with a group meeting.
Lauren: And one of the things that we have done at the end of a big project is we have asked the teams to self assess, and actually tell us verbally, in front of the whole class, what they think they did well, what they’d like to do if they were going to do that project again, or going forward, how they will use that. And then we have other teams give peer feedback too, so it’s a good discussion. And it’s after they have finished the project, so there’s a sense of relief. But also, it’s important to say “Just because you turn the project in, that’s not the end of the process, you’ve got to look back and take those lessons with you to the next group experience.” And we should point out that there are some programs, especially in graduate programs, where people are in the same teams for a year or even two years. And so if you’re going to be doing more projects with the same team, it’s just invaluable to be able to learn from each of those experiences and take it forward.
John: One of the issues along those lines that came up with a podcast we did earlier with Olga Stoddard was an examination of long-term group projects and leadership roles in terms of gender. This was in an MBA program, which was disproportionately male dominated. And one of the things that happened in groups where women were in the minority, their leadership tended to be undervalued, or their rating of their leadership skills tended to be rated relatively low, while in groups where they were the majority or represented the whole group, their leadership evaluation was quite a bit higher. So one of the things, in terms of roles, that could be an issue is gender bias, and so forth in constructing the group. There’s also lots of research that shows that women are more likely to be asked to take minutes in meetings or to be the recorder in groups. Might it be worthwhile to address some of these issues with the groups before the groups create their charter or before they start their processing?
Lauren: Absolutely. And we do talk about implicit bias, not just gender, but on other factors as well, that it is important for students to have that call to their attention. Fisher has more females than males. So we haven’t had that much of an issue in classes. But I have seen that happen. I taught at the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester for a while and you see that sort of thing happening, but students may not even realize what they’re doing. And so calling it to their attention is really important. I recently hosted a DEI panel at the TBLC conference. And one of the things that came out was, if you only have a few people of color in the class, don’t spread them out. So each group has one person of color who has to represent their entire race. And it’s that sort of thing students don’t really understand. And I think sometimes faculty don’t even understand what the implications are. But how valuable that lesson can be for the students going forward.
Rebecca: We spent a lot of time talking about interpersonal relationships in groups in our discussion today, but maybe we can also talk a little bit about the kinds of activities that might be appropriate to do as a group, as opposed to what might be more appropriate for individuals.
Tim: Well, there are definitely tasks that are not appropriate for teamwork. For example, writing a paper, if you want people to write a paper together, that’s a task that really isn’t a typical team task. A team task, one that’s designed for a team, should be complex, it should be challenging, it should require lots of ways to solve it, and it should force some level of cooperation. And I wish we could give some examples. But the problem is that the task is very discipline dependent. And what task works for one discipline is different for another. But if you’re trying out a team task, then you can use it, you can see what works and see what you need to change or have some of your colleagues and peers review it and see what they think is relevant and what they think works and what they think might not work about it. Because we’re all trying to improve. We’re all lifelong learners. And so we can improve ourselves, too.
Lauren: And that’s another reason why you don’t want to take an individual project and turn it over to a group. Because those cooperation requirements are so important. They’re valuable for the students learning the content for the course, but also learning how teams work and how they can develop in those.
Tim: And back to those multiple check-ins. Once you start to force people to cooperate in a complex and challenging task, then it’s really difficult for certain students to let go their control and let others do it. But if you’re doing the multiple check-ins, you’re getting the information about which members are doing their work, and which members are not in time so that they can change and improve and develop.
Rebecca: Although cooperative tasks are different in different disciplines. Can you give an example from the classes that you’ve taught together, of where cooperation becomes an important key or important element to a project that you’ve assigned?
Tim: Oh, yeah, we’ve got quite a few of them, because we use team projects, not just together in our group dynamics class, but in many other classes. And so I ‘m going to pick my industrial and organizational psychology class. And in that class, they do a client project where they go out and they do a survey within an organization. And when they do that survey in an organization, I have them divided up to one person who’s the main client contact, and one person who does the data analysis, and one person who’s the lead for the first half of the project. And the project takes a lot of steps, I give them a stepwise document for what they should do, but there’s a lot of steps involved. And it’s something they’ve never done, writing a client type report instead of…. I’m in psychology… that dreaded APA-style paper that is [LAUGHTER] so frustrating for so many students. And in this case, they haven’t done this, so they’re trying to figure this out, dividing it up, and then coming back together and building on each other’s work to do this client survey.
Lauren: Now another project that we did in our group dynamics class was we had students actually do an observational report on a real-life group on campus. And so they had to choose a group, they had to get permission to observe the group, they had to observe the group at least three times, they had to give a certain number of instruments, whether they were things that measured interpersonal skills, leadership skills, roles, conflict resolution, that sort of thing. And then they had to go and observe the group and do a post-meeting analysis and ask people to say, “How did you think the meeting went?” So it required a lot of coordination, because they had to find a group that would give them permission to observe. And then they had to come back and figure out how were you going to collect this data, who was going to be responsible for doing that. When a meeting’s over, most of the time the students all get up and they want to leave the meeting, get to class or whatever. So they had to figure out how they were going to get that information from people. And when it was all done, they had to put it together and display their data. They had to show the results of all of the surveys they had done, the observations, they had to look at the task, the people, the contexts, and analyze those things. And then they were asked to analyze all those things that happened when the group got together. How was their communication style? What kind of norms did you notice? And it became really interesting to watch the students recognize things that they had done, and maybe not even realized, that they were either supportive of the group goals or not so supportive of the group goals, depending on what was happening. And then they had to come and give recommendations. And the groups that they observed were told that, if they wanted the recommendations, they would give them the executive summary from their report. So that was a task that required everybody being involved because they couldn’t all do all of the things. And it was pretty complex, and a long semester project.
Rebecca: So it sounds like scope is an important piece of the puzzle with collaborative assignments.
John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners?
Lauren: One of the things that we haven’t talked about was making sure that everybody is involved in the group. And it’s easy for people in groups to get lost if they don’t know the people well, if they may be shy and not comfortable speaking up… maybe it’s their first class in a particular subject matter. And so we’ve talked about this idea of checking in and making sure that everybody’s involved and that’s one thing that you can do is to encourage that sort of feedback, and making sure that everybody understands that everyone has to be involved, that that’s part of the requirements for the group tasks. Starting off with those icebreakers is just great, because it gets you to know everyone, and so people start to feel more comfortable. And especially again, I’ll say with online classes, it’s an issue because people don’t put their cameras on, they mute their microphones, they don’t show up for team meetings because of a scheduling conflict, and that sort of thing. So it makes it difficult, but you’ve got to make sure that with formal and informal check ins that everybody is involved and know what their role is and what their deliverable is going to be for the project.
Tim: And if I can follow up on a different thing, but it’s related to what Lauren finished on, in the online environment. We are all teaching in this different environment now, getting used to teaching online. And that’s difficult. And it’s difficult for us, it’s difficult for our students. What we found is our students often don’t know all the tools available to them, nor do they know how to use all those tools that are available to them. And so helping, especially on a team project, helping them realize all the different ways they can communicate, because if left to their own devices, it’ll be primarily by text, [LAUGHTER] and if other students are like ours. And so helping them to see that they have all these other things available that are both things they can do at the same time (synchronous tools), and asynchronous tools (things that they can use that drop information where other team members can get to it later).
Rebecca: I think that’s a really important point, Tim, not just in the online environment, just generally when students are collaborating, because they may not always be able to be in person together at the same time in any context. So having strategies to deal with communication or deal with sharing materials can be really helpful. And sometimes that means, in my experience at least, doing some little activities to introduce them to those tools so they can kind of level up in the technical skill sets that might be necessary before expecting them to be using it in their teams.
Tim: Absolutely. What’s interesting is, I’m going to date myself here, and sorry, Lauren, you’re coming along on the ride with me on this one, [LAUGHTER] but when Lauren and I first started teaching group dynamics together, we used to talk about teams that were either virtual or not virtual, because that’s the way it was at the time, your team was one or the other. And now in today’s environment, no team is all face to face, and no team is all virtual. I have a colleague next to me that I’ve texted, emailed and called and her office is right next to mine. And so we have a lot of computer-mediated communication, even in face-to-face teams now. So it’s the level of virtuality, everybody is using these tools. How can we use them to match the task and to match the skill set that the people on the team have?
Lauren: So at the beginning of this conversation, we talked about our book being based on a model that was an input-output model. And so we talked a little bit about the inputs, the things that happen in the middle are the communication and the conflict and the norms and roles, but to really be aware of what the outputs are. And faculty need to be aware of those before they assign the project. As much as we hate having to put together rubrics, it’s something that students need to have, they need to know how are they going to be evaluated. So we tend to focus, though, a lot on the task rubric. And that’s important. Obviously, we want students to get the content that relates to the course material, but we also need to have a rubric for those self and peer evaluations. And so the output is not only the task output, how did they do on the task? …but what did they take as a result from working on that task together? What kind of feedback did they get? How are they seeing themselves? …and actually having structured rubrics not just saying, “Well, what do you think? How did you do?” actually giving them a form to fill out and we’ve got some examples in the book and on our website too, that show what people can do. We’ve even got some from high school that were not as detailed as the ones that we gave our college students, but it’s important that they see the output of it is not just what the grade was on the project. But there’s more detail for that.
Rebecca: Students have a tendency to think that the output is the thing that the most weight or value was placed on. And I know, in my classes, it’s really the process. [LAUGHTER] So when I show them those rubrics and show them the weighting between the task versus the actual process of making the thing that you’re outputting, they’re often surprised. And I have to remind them constantly throughout the process, or through the project, that this process piece is important, you need to stop shortcutting this, this is the thing that actually matters the most, this is where the learning is happening.
Lauren: This is so true, I teach public speaking, and students think that the person with the best delivery is going to get the best grade. And I said, but look at the rubric, delivery is only 15% of the grade, you’ve got to do research, you’ve got to do organizing, you’ve got to have your citations in there, and you’ve got to have visuals, and how you handle Q&A, and all of those sorts of things. So it is a good example, Rebecca, of how there’s a lot more to it. And we need to lay it out so students know what it is.
John: And sharing those rubrics in advance with students in the learning management system or in person if it’s face to face, but preferably in the learning management system, so they have access to them anytime, and referring back to them regularly, will help remind them and help you be more transparent and how you’re assessing student work.
Tim: We remind our students: we want to start with the end in sight, what is it that you need at the end and build the project based on that end goal. So if we can provide those rubrics and those processes through which we’re going to be evaluating them, we get better work from our students. And that’s what we all want is better work for our students.
Lauren: And from time to time, we actually pull the rubric up during class and say, “Does this look familiar? Did anybody notice that this is the way you’re going to be evaluated?” …because they get involved in their project and then they lose sight of some of those details that are going to be important. For example, we had a project where students had to use two synchronous tools and two asynchronous tools when they were working on their project. And we went around and started asking them well, like, “What’s one of your synchronous tools?” They were saying: “Well, we’re using Google Docs.” We’re like, “Well, wait a minute, just because you’re both on the Google Doc at the same time, doesn’t make it a synchronous tool,” [LAUGHTER] and so it gave us a chance to really give them some clarification about what they needed to do. And so that’s why the rubric at the beginning is so important.
Rebecca: I think this is a good moment to wrap up in some ways, because it’s like we’ve got our end in sight, we’ve got a process in place. And so we always wrap up by asking: what’s next?” (that nice reflection kind of question) [LAUGHTER]
Tim: That’s a great question, because we do have the “what’s next.” Number one is we post blog posts on our LinkedIn sites every Tuesday. So we’re constantly developing content. For example, on May 18, we talked about giving feedback and peer evaluations, we have something about how to teach peer evaluation, so your students do a better job at it. That’s on our blog posts. And we also have a student version of our handbook coming out in September. It’s going to be matched to the professor version, the handbook for the instructor, except it’s going to be more student friendly, a lot less writing a lot less “how to” in the text and a lot more based on checklists and exercises and guidelines, rather than simply explaining the things.
John: That sounds like a great project.
Tim: Thank you.
Lauren: Thank you. And we’re looking forward to being able to get more feedback from educators. We have a lot of professionals who follow us on LinkedIn as well, and so respond to some of those topics. And we’ve done a number of professional development seminars for different colleges and universities that have been pretty well received. So we’re looking forward to it. But we’ve got a lot of resources on our website, which we can put in the show notes and people can find a lot of information there and just get an idea of some tools they can use as well as contact us if they want more information.
Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks so much.
John: Thank you.
Lauren: Thank you so much for having us. It’s been a lot of fun.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.