Faculty Guide to Team Projects

Five students working together around a laptop computer.

Are you considering using a team project in your course? Have you used them before but feel that there’s room for improvement? Wondering how to address a challenge you or your students face?

This resource provides effective, research-based practices and resources to help you create, support, and assess team projects in your class, whether it’s online, face to face, or hybrid.

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Successful Project Characteristics

Effective practice: Design an authentic task that requires both collaboration and distinct contributions.

The design of a team project is crucial for student success. Research on successful team projects has identified a number of elements that are important for project success. Below is a summary of some of those elements.

Characteristics of successful team projects

  • Relevant and authentic: Make it relevant to students and reflect what a professional in your field might do.
  • Well-defined: Consider the difference between “Propose three solutions to end world hunger” and “Propose three ways to improve access to healthy food in a local food desert.”
  • Distinct contributions from the perspectives of multiple participants: Ask yourself if an individual student could complete the project on their own. If so, it is probably not complex enough.
  • Collaboration: Students should need to interact with each other and make decisions together. Avoid a project that can be easily divided up among team members just to come together at the end.
  • Individual accountability: Individual accountability ensures that each student has mastered the content.
  • Team accountability: Team accountability encourages the team to create a quality product.

This table lists five successful team projects used by UMN instructors. Each project has an explanation of how the above chracteristics are met.

What are additional considerations for designing your project?

Consider your answers to these questions as you begin the design process:

  • Will you assign individual roles to students in the team? Some instructors require teams to assign roles. Identify specific roles for teams so that students can either volunteer or elect people to them.  Possible roles to consider are facilitator, time-keeper, team-builder, recorder, spokesperson, influencer, executer, divergent thinker, analyst, coordinator, technician, expeditor, clean-up, or strategist. Consider rotating roles throughout the semester.  If the project is sufficiently challenging and exciting, students are more likely to challenge themselves to take on new roles.
  • What do you want students to gain?  What should they learn or be able to do as a result of having completed the project? Make sure your project directly supports your learning outcomes. For instance, if you want students to develop their critical thinking skills, will this project help them do that? 
  • What opportunities for student choice will you provide? For instance, students could choose the topic or focus of the project, the form the project will take (written or oral presentation), or even the due date of the project (within a defined range).
  • Why will doing this as a team benefit students? For instance, the project may help them develop skills that would help in landing an internship or job. Share this with the students in your description of the project and project instructions. (For more information, see Introducing the Project) 
  • What will the final product look like? For instance, will it be a poster, a video, a live presentation or a written document?
  • Can the project be divided into intermediate steps? Dividing the project into intermediate steps allows students to turn in work for feedback early enough to make changes if they are going off course.
  • How will you support students during the project process? What resources can you provide students to ensure their success? Can you set aside class time for them to work on their project in class? (For more information, see Supporting students during the project)
  • How will you evaluate the final product, the group, and the individuals? Determine how much of the final grade the project will be worth. Of that, how much of the project grade goes to the entire team and how much goes to each individual student?   Will you have students evaluate each other for a portion of the grade?  These are all grading considerations. (For more information, see Assessing the project) 

Resources:

Descriptions of effective projects

Example of a project broken down into intermediate steps

Example of a project description for students

References:

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T. & Smith, K. The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 15 - 29 (2007).

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. Team-Based Learning, Stylus, Sterling, VA (2004).

Scager, K, Boonstra, J., Peeters, T., Vulperhorst, J., Wiegant, F. Collaborative learning in higher education: Evoking positive interdependence. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 15:ar69, 1-9 (2016).

Tomcho, T. J., Foels, R. Meta-analysis of group learning activities: Empirically based teaching recommendations. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 159-169 (2012).