Supporting Students

Effective teamwork doesn’t just happen. The following steps will help ensure that your students can work effectively and reach their goals.

The following suggestions will help you help your students have a successful and positive experience.

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Communicate with students

Communicate your expectations and role in the project

  • Let your students know how you will be overseeing the assignment and clarify the extent to which you will provide support as they research and work together.
  • Establish guidelines as to how and when they should contact you with questions and if problems arise. 

Provide structure

Provide structure by dividing the project into smaller pieces

Break the team project into smaller components and assess and provide students with feedback on each piece. Distribute these over the course of the semester. Doing this ensures that students won’t procrastinate until just before the due date. It also alerts you to teams going in the wrong direction early enough to provide them with corrective feedback. Finally, this helps you by distributing your project grading throughout the term.

How to do it:

  • Identify logical steps in the assignment. To do this, ask yourself how a professional in your field might approach a project like this. For instance, if your students are asked to create a website, a professional may begin website creation with a needs assessment. If so, have your students start there and make this the first part of their assignment. Inform students that the process you have chosen for them is similar to what professionals would use for this type of project. Make sure to communicate these steps explicitly to your students.
  • Take into account your own time for providing feedback and grading. Give yourself enough time between steps to provide feedback and return it to students before the next step. This is especially important if a subsequent tast depends on the work done in the present one.

Teach teamwork skills

Teach teamwork skills and promote positive group dynamics

Many students lack the skills needed for successful teamwork; this is often why students have negative experiences when working on a team project. Providing some support in this area will result in better functioning teams and a better final team product. Below are some tasks that can help your students work together more effectively.

  • Assign roles. Assigning roles allows students to distribute team leadership among members. There are a variety of roles your students could take on, depending on your project. Roles could include facilitator, team-builder, record-keeper, reporter, divergent-thinker. Having team members rotate in the roles allows them to experience different kinds of team leadership.
  • Create a team process document. Students assigned to a team often want to dive in immediately and begin working on the assignment. It is worth spending some time, however, on talking about how the team will work together. Some instructors ask teams to complete a team process document that represents the group consensus on matters related to the project: being prepared for meetings, doing work in a timely manner, and making decisions. It is desirable to have student teams work on this early in the term, before they run into conflict. If they do run into conflict, they can refer back to this document.
  • Anticipate stages in team development. Research by Tuckman (2010) and others recognize that teams develop through five predictable stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. This brief video describes these stages. 
  • Assess team function. The team should periodically spend a few moments assessing how they are working together. Surveys or inventories are a good way to gather students’ opinion on team functioning. It could be as simple as: What is one thing our team is doing well? What is one thing our team could improve?
  • Prevent and manage team conflicts. Following all of the steps above will help student teams prevent unproductive conflict. However, conflict can still arise and when it does, inform students how you would like them to handle it. For instance, would you be willing to meet with a dysfunctional team to help them sort out their problems? Will you allow teams to “fire” a team member under certain conditions, for example, if the student does not attend team meetings or respond to team communications? Students from different cultural backgrounds will likely have different attitudes toward conflict. Helping students understand their default approaches to handling conflicts prior to experiencing conflict can make the resolution process easier.

How to do it:

  • Provide a brief presentation to your students about teamwork skills they will need to complete their assigned project - Alternatively you could create a handout or assign reading.
  • Make discussing group process an assignment. For instance, you can require students to complete a team process statement and turn it in for points.
  • Have students reflect regularly on their team and individual development. This could be done via a journal or a short in-class writing assignment.
  • Share your own experiences working as part of a team. Tell them about a time your team ran into problems and how you handled it. Because we often teach alone, we don’t have many opportunities as instructors to model professional teamwork.

Resource

International & nonnative English speakers

Support international students and nonnative speakers of English

Approaches to team projects may vary by cultural background. Students from some cultures may find it important to establish relationships prior to beginning a project and may not be accustomed to dealing with disagreement directly.  Students from others may take the opposite approach and want to take a “business first” approach.     

Differences in language ability may also affect how the team functions.  It's not uncommon for nonnative speakers of English to feel hesitant about expressing their ideas because of a lack of confidence in their speaking or writing abilities.  The use of idioms and slang can also impede communication.  

How to do it:

  • Encourage students to share their typical approach to a team project. This will allow students to understand and learn from each other.  
  • Provide online forums for some of your class discussions. Have a class discussion online, or have an online discussion forum after an in-class discussion. Providing online forums for communication allows non-native speakers [and others] to have time to compose their responses.
  • State explicitly that you value diversity. Encourage students to work through language and culture barriers that may arise.  (Spencer-Oatey, 2016)

Resources

Provide in-class time

Provide In-class time to work on project

A major concern of students regarding group projects is the difficulty of getting the entire team together outside of class to work on the project. Between classes, work, and family care, many students have very busy schedules. To address this, regularly set aside some time for students to be able to work with their teams in class. This also allows students to ask you questions that come up while they are working on the assignment.

How to do it:

In-person classes
  • Assign an in-class task to finish. To keep teams productive during class, assign them a task to finish and turn in at the end of their in-class work time. This helps students focus and provides you with feedback on how they are doing. Make sure the task directly relates to some aspect of the project.
  • Monitor teams. When providing in-class time to work on the project, observe group dynamics so that you can troubleshoot if necessary.
Online Classes
  • Have student teams meet in breakout rooms with an assigned task to complete related to their team project. Drop in the rooms to check for questions or confusion. For a large class with many teams you can have teams work on their task using Google slides or documents so that you can monitor the progress of each team from the main room and visit individual breakout rooms as needed
  • Resource: Manage Zoom Breakout Rooms

Provide a communication toolkit

Provide teams with a communication toolkit

Communication is key to a successful outcome, but often provides a challenge for students. If your course is fully online, working in teams is even more challenging to students. Providing students with effective web communication applications will help them get started more quickly. Some possibilities include dedicated team forums on Canvas, Google documents, Zoom, or Slack.

How to do it:

  • Provide instructions for how to use the tools. Most tools listed here have short video tutorials that outline how the site functions and provide a link to more information. Include these with your suggested tools in your communication toolkit.

Resources: