GBSN’s latest webinar, Tips and Traps of Using Student Teams presented by Margaret Andrews was wonderfully informative. As a third year undergraduate student, I wish some of my professors employed the techniques discussed by Prof. Andrews. At one point or another during our academic careers we have all been forced into group projects, and if we are being honest they don’t always work well. If properly managed, student teams can be more effective than individual projects. Students collaborating on small group projects tend to learn more and produce higher quality work than they would if they worked on their own. This is because small group work facilitates dynamic learning and teaching; during the course of the project students engage in both active learning and teaching instead of simply absorbing information and producing a report.
The pros and cons of student teams are below.
- Students can teach and learn from one another
- Students can tackle harder assignments as a group
- Students produce higher quality work
- Students learn team skills that they will apply in the workforce
- Instructors need to teach team skills
- Some projects are not appropriate for teamwork
- Larger teams are hard to work with
- Free-rider problem and plagiarism
What are the key elements of effective student teams? When working with any group there must be clear interdependence; if the project can be completed independently there is no need for collaboration. There must also be clear accountability. Establishing individual roles, group rules, and consequences help reduce the free-rider problem. One effective way this can be done is by drafting a group charter at the beginning of the project. This charter gives the group direction going forward and ameliorates conflict throughout the course of the project.
Conflict in teamwork is almost inevitable, but not all conflict is bad. Healthy conflict regarding the projects subject matter and procedure will almost always result in a stronger-tested end product. In fact, groups that are too congenial may fail to see weak points in their own work. Prof. Andrews recommends that groups appoint a “black hat” or “devils advocate” that purposefully picks holes in the team’s work. Unhealthy conflict on the other hand can be destructive to a group’s dynamic and end product. These conflicts focus on the character or actions of individual group members rather than the subject matter. This is where a thorough group charter may help resolve disputes. Evaluations are another key component of group projects. Teaching students how to give critical feedback and analyze performance offers valuable insights for both instructors and students alike.
Another helpful tip is the necessity for team building and social interaction, preferably face-to-face. Team members should build a working relationship outside of the goals of the project. Collaboration is much stronger when teams have a cohesive foundation built on mutual trust and respect. There is often some debate over how teams are chosen, Prof. Andrews recommends randomly selecting teams rather than letting the students choose their partners. Group diversity has shown to lead to higher quality outcomes in both student work and group performance.
The most important reason why using student teams adds value to education is because it prepares students for real work. The skills they gain collaborating with their peers improves their communication, social cohesion, and challenges them through conflict resolution. I would highly recommend this webinar for students, faculty, and all professionals.
Webinar Attendees Best Practices:
- Give teams class time to work together so the instructor can consult and advise on group dynamics and semester progress.
- At my business school, NUCB, for the global MBA program I set the groups for each class. We have over 30 nationalities among all the students each year; I break down groups into status (balance of regular and international exchange), gender, and nationalities. I focus on diversity in groups. I also hold a meeting with our regular students to set their expectations to be leaders in their groups – this is because they will earn a degree from NUCB while exchange students stay for a semester. This works when we have a little less than 100 students per year. The feedback from faculty has been great so far.
- Student teams present cases to the class at the end of the year. The class as a whole will rate the student presenters, and the individual team members also rate their peers.
- Best practices for using student teams: Process work (understanding work and personal styles; understanding cultural differences); peer evaluations/surveys; reflection papers with prompt questions done monthly- identify and challenge assumptions/”ladder of inference”; mid and final course evaluations; asking team to identify roles and responsibilities upfront/before work starts and then they take note as their responsibilities change over the course of the project.
- Incorporating a coach/mentor; ideally combination of academic and industry subject matter expert (matched based on project content). Very clear project definition process w/organization–utilizing a project charter process developed when at GE’s student learning lab.
- Specific milestones for student team/client interaction and deliverables. Manage realistic client expectations. Ensure the connection with or application of academic frameworks/conceptual models and the project without losing sight of project goals/objectives.
Watch the webinar below:Brennon Thompson is the Communications and Event Planning Intern at the Global Business School Network