June 19th, 2013

Defining and Promoting Teamwork in the Classroom


Group work and teamwork. In college courses the terms refer to students working together, often on an assignment or an activity. Group work is the more neutral term, whereas teamwork implies something about how the students are working together. And although teamwork is easy to identify when we see it on a playing field or court, what does teamwork look like in a college classroom?

I found a useful answer in an article by Deeter-Schmelz, Kennedy, and Ramsey. They propose a list of behaviors which can help students and teachers understand what teamwork looks like when it happens in a group. Here’s a slightly edited version of what they propose.

A good team player:

  • Works toward the understood goals of the team
  • Contributes to an informal, comfortable, and tension-free work environment
  • Is enthusiastic about working with the team
  • Follows through on commitment
  • Takes pride in the team’s work
  • Shows interest in other team members’ achievements
  • Readily accepts feedback on performance
  • Encourages others to achieve at high levels
  • Is able to stay focused on team tasks
  • Openly communicates with others in the group
  • Is sensitive to the feelings of other group members
  • Is able to resolve conflict effectively
  • Is eager to try new approaches.

A list like this can be given to students when a project begins and used to start a discussion of how you would like the group to work together. McKendall proposes an activity that might really give this discussion legs. When her students first meet in their groups, they are given a canister of tinker toys and told they have 15 minutes to build the best structure they can. A group spokesperson will then try to convince the rest of the class that his or her team’s structure is the best. She writes, “The teams make very predictable mistakes: They never discuss what ‘best’ means, they don’t solicit several ideas before starting, they don’t plan or organize their work, they don’t watch the time, and they don’t appoint or coach a spokesperson.” (p. 278) After the activity, she facilitates a discussion of “why teams often do not perform optimally.”

But it’s McKendall’s next activity that really helps the group solidify how they plan to work together. Each group must write a contract that describes how they will operate as a team. They address expectations about attendance, preparation, division of the work, decision-making processes, and what the group plans to do about leadership and other roles. They also discuss how disagreements will be handled, how group members will treat each other and what actions the group will take if the terms of the contract are violated.

McKendall encourages students to regularly revisit and revise this contract. For example, she says many of the teams in her course on teambuilding start out with a statement in their contract saying they will make all their decisions by consensus. Once they discover how much time it takes the group to reach consensus, they revise their contract. Groups also tend to not want to designate a leader, but then frequently discover that operating without one is difficult. Revising the contract encourages them to confront the leadership issues that may be emerging in the group.

The list of behaviors describing good teamwork and a group-authored contract can be used at the end of a group project. The behaviors can be transformed into the criteria members use to assess each other’s contributions and the contract can provide the basis for individual analysis of how the group functioned. Making behaviors and working relationships explicit doesn’t guarantee group productivity, but it does make it much more likely. Moreover, approaches like these are what develop the skills students need to take them with to subsequent group work in other courses and their careers.

References: Detter-Schmelz, D. R., Kennedy, K. N., and Ramsey, R. P. (2002). Enriching our understanding of student team effectiveness. Journal of Marketing Education, 24 (2), 114-124.

McKendall, M. (2000). Teaching groups to become teams. Journal of Education for Business, May/June, 277-282.

  • Keila Lopez

    Very interesting. Can you give us an example template about an activity to promote teamwork?

  • ntwigg

    The one aspect of a TEAM most often missed, in my opinion, is compensation. In a true team the members reap the same rewards and suffer the same consequences. Therefore, I give the "team" a grade – everyone gets the same grade for the project (even if they didn't or couldn't contribute). The individual members of the "team" can affect each others grades through a separate and equal grade based on peer reviews (hopefully one can learn about evaluations this way). Some "students" have a big problem handling this aspect as they have been trained in a pedagogy which states the "student" can only receive a grade based on individual work and effort. Just as on a production line, an individual may have to "sub optimize" in order for the "team" to reach maximum potential. Just a thought.

    • Marsha Orr

      We use this approach as well and "adjust" the group grade based on private feedback from group members. I have been impressed that there is often general agreement among group members about who did not contribute at an acceptable level. I was originally decreasing the score when at least two group members identified a problem member (trying to avoid individual vendettas) but I was advised by a fellow faculty member that she just averages in the score deduction based on one or more instances of feedback.

  • Love the first tinker toy exercise you cite here. Certainly generating a group-authored and -authorized contract is a great idea for any sort of collaborative project (ie., even just being in a classroom together), but the specific learning outcomes that the authors of the article suggest result from the tinker toy exercise are perhaps more instructive to people in general trying to learning now just how to be a good teamworker, but what a good *team* does as a whole. I'm thinking of the following quotation:
    "The teams make very predictable mistakes: They never discuss what ‘best’ means, they don’t solicit several ideas before starting, they don’t plan or organize their work, they don’t watch the time, and they don’t appoint or coach a spokesperson.” (p. 278) .
    Seeing these guidelines listed here, alongside the more traditional group contract exercise, is very enlightening. It makes me realize that effective group work requires people to think through what it means to be a "team-player," but that in order to be able to do that effectively, they must first establish what it is that makes a good team–and not just in terms of what the team might achieve, but in terms of how it operates, and how it feels to be a part of that operation. Thanks so much for another fantastic post, and a nod towards and summary of another intriguing piece of research.

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  • antonemgoyak

    Valuable post – as a college teacher, I love ideas that help expose faulty thinking so that correct thinking can take place. This makes for great class discussion. This has so much more value than a teacher merely stating "please make sure and think through your game plan before proceeding." Our culture of education is so stuck in the mindset that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, that we are impeding our kids by not forcing them to work with others, and not only work with others, but intentionally work with those who think very differently than they do.

    One idea that I came across that has been helpful is to have students assess each other in their "teamwork skills" as part of their grade – each assessing the other members of the group. The rubric looks like the following:

    1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1

    where 5 is "assisted the right amount" and 1 on the left is "was unengaged with the team" and the 1 on the right is "had to control the project and did not let others help." Either end is damaging to a team dynamic and forces the team members to think of what makes for balanced contributions. And guess what? They will have to think through these things in real life one day! 🙂

    As teachers, we need to be willing to move away from the "sage on the stage" and embrace the "guide on the side" mentality.

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  • Lori

    Promoting teamwork has been a common problem at the school I teach at. Unfortunately, we have students that end up riding on the coat tail of their peers. Initially, all of the students received the same grade. However, now since multiple issues have been brought to the faculty about some students not providing initial work or even feedback, we have decided to also implement peer evaluations, which will end up effecting the overall grade of each learner. I also like the idea of providing students with a list of the attributes of a good team player. I do think that some students need a reminder.

  • Lori

    Promoting teamwork has been a common problem at the school I work at. Some students have evaluated the group work required for some courses stating that some students are not providing initial work or even feedback to the team members. Previously, the faculty would give the same grade to all the team members. However, now we are going to start peer evaluations that will affect the overall grade of all the learners. I also like the idea of providing all of the students a list of the attributes of a good team player. Some people do need a reminder.