Taking Collaboration Seriously

Students give high five to each other

This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on July 17, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Like many professors, I use group projects in my classes. When my students work together on a project, I’m hoping they’ll be able to accomplish complex instructional tasks and support each other’s learning on the project and in the course. In my experience, I’ve found that many student groups function positively and productively, but there are always some groups that do not. In those groups infighting occurs, which negatively affects the students’ work in addition to their learning, their connection to course content, and their overall impression of the class.

Over the years, I’ve tried different ways of forming student groups. I’ve put students in groups based on their schedules, their interests, and their majors. I’ve allowed students to choose their own groups and even used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (www.myersbriggs.org) to form complimentary teams based on students’ personality types. Regardless of the system, I still have a few groups that just don’t function well. To work on this, I’ve attended different conference presentations over the last year where colleagues shared their grouping strategies. One presenter used a compatibility quiz similar to those used on online dating sites. Another described a complex online system called CATME (info.catme.org) that puts students in groups based on a series of survey responses. I was happy to discover that I wasn’t the only one interested in the best way to form groups.

I came to an important realization a few months ago. I was leading a faculty learning community centered on the Carol Dweck book Mindset. In the book, Dweck discusses how fixed and growth mindsets affect people’s approaches to life, work, and learning. Persons with fixed mindsets tend to see abilities and talents as innate qualities that are relatively unchangeable. In contrast, persons with growth mindsets tend to see abilities and talents as functions of hard work and dedication. Although I consider myself a growth mindset educator and stress growth qualities in my classes, I realized that I was approaching teamwork and collaboration from a fixed mindset perspective. I was grouping students based on perceived fixed abilities such as personality and interests. With a new semester just ahead, I decided to read just this approach so that it better supports growth in students’ abilities to work in a team and to teach collaboration skills throughout the course.

I began the semester by introducing the idea of mindset and having students self-assess to determine theirs. I explained that we’d be embracing the growth mindset during our course, and I would provide feedback to help them improve and grow during the semester. I noted that this focus didn’t just apply to our academic content; we’d also be growing as team members during our semester-long group project.

I then had the students form groups to discuss the qualities of good team members. They shared descriptors like “trustworthy,” “respectful,” and “dedicated.” They also observed that supportive team members contributed to the group and could be depended on to complete their assigned tasks. I asked whether the items they listed were fixed qualities or could be learned and developed. The class agreed that they could be developed with hard work. I then introduced the group project and randomly broke the class into project teams. Besides working on the course content in the project, each group was also charged with supporting team member development.

To do this, students would need to provide each other feedback. To help them do that I introduced the Teamwork Value Rubric, developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and available for free on their website (www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/teamwork). At several points during the semester, the students used the rubric to assess their group members and themselves. To make the process efficient for students and for myself, I developed an online spreadsheet that enabled us to quickly share the feedback digitally.

After each assessment point, I met with the group members individually and collectively to discuss how their ratings might be improved. At times, these conversations were challenging. Reminding the students of the growth mindset seemed to reduce some of the personal accusations and attacks that can emerge when students are working on course-long projects. During these conversations, I reminded students that this was a learning process and the skills they were working on would improve collaboration within their groups.

I’m currently ending the second semester of teaching group collaboration using this approach. Although the process hasn’t solved all of the problems that occur in student groups, it has provided students with a way to measure how well they’re collaborating and a vocabulary they can use to talk about it. That has motivated them to resolve issues in ways that support one another’s growth. The Teamwork Value Rubric gives me the opportunity to take the temperature of each group and to offer feedback that helps them function more effectively. This approach is time consuming, but it better reflects the growth mindset I’m committed to promoting in my classes.

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