Providing students with useful information about how to function effectively when they work in groups stands a good chance of improving what the group produces. It also helps students develop important skills they can use in group activities in college and beyond. Providing the information doesn’t guarantee that students will make use of it, but it’s a better option than not providing it.
Much of the information that can help students work better in groups is straightforward. It’s not rocket science, conceptually difficult, or hard to implement. Take the study below, which arrived at advice for students via an interesting empirical design. The researchers started with six components of teamwork identified elsewhere in the literature:
- contributing to the team’s work;
- interacting with teammates;
- keeping the team on track;
- expecting quality, as in having high expectations for what the group produces;
- having relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities; and
- conflict resolution, as demonstrated by respect for the ideas of others and active involvement in problem solving.
Eight hundred students in three different business courses, each taught more than once over a three-year span, used these criteria to assess peers in their groups, in some cases twice during lengthy group assignments and once otherwise.
After group activities ended, students responded to these statements about each individual in their group:
- I would like to be on a team with him/her again;
- If I were choosing my team, he/she would one of the first people I’d choose;
- I was satisfied with his/her contribution to the team;
- I was overall satisfied with his/her performance as a team member; and
- Grade this person’s teamwork from 1 to 100 with 100 being an amazing team member and 0 being ‘Is that his/her name?’
The researchers believe more emphasis should be given to these “critical outcomes of team effectiveness.” (p. 287) They then used regression analysis to assess the impact of the six criteria on scores individuals received on the five outcome measures. And here’s where the information gets useful for students. For example, “the interpersonal constructs of contribution [the first criterion], communication and conflict resolution variables were all significantly driving whether a student would want to be on a team again with this particular teammate.” (p. 290) So, what were the most sought after characteristics? “The person whom others want to choose first tends to be reliable, pursues excellence and is engaged. This person is more than a good team member, he or she stands out as a mature leader.” (p. 290)
Here’s their overall conclusion: “As a result of this research, we would recommend to be assessed highly by their peers that team members should focus on contributing to the team’s work, communicating effectively with teammates, caring that the team produced high-quality work, pulling his or her own weight, and being actively involved in solving problems that face the team.” (p. 290)
The results aren’t all that surprising. Those of us with lots of experience working in groups (given the plethora of faculty committees, does that leave any of us out?) could have predicted the results, but most students don’t have extensive group experience or haven’t had good experiences, so they don’t have this insight.
Do you have to spend time in class covering this content? I don’t think so. A single-page summary culled from material here could be posted on the course website, or given to groups for discussion as they start working together. The article elaborates on the six contributions made by effective team members and summarizes with two specific dimensions for each criterion. These could easily be reformatted as a peer evaluation form.
I’m getting close to completing a book on group work, and I’m amazed at how much work researchers have done in this area and how many good resources are available. The works make very clear that students don’t learn to work well in groups simply by doing group work. They need direct instruction. It’s up to faculty to design group activities that advance content knowledge, develop the skills of the discipline, and teach students how to work effectively with others.
Reference: Crutchfield, T. N. and Klamon, K., (2014). Assessing the dimension and outcomes of an effective teammate. Journal of Education for Business, 89 (6), 285-291.