Guide To Teaching and Learning

Collaborating in Teams

One of the most effective peer learning strategies is group work. Faculty often deploy group work (generally of shorter duration or assignment-focused) or team work (often teams work together for a full semester either or on one or multiple projects) to promote more active learning. Faculty are encouraged to deploy groups and teams as a strategy, not just an activity. Help students learn to work in groups and teams to develop skills in communication, accountability, and risk-taking in a small, shared environment, while also deepening knowledge, understanding and skills in the course’s content.  

Group work is especially valuable in teaching because it allows the assignments to be more difficult than an individual student might be able to do independently. Groups can be deployed in both synchronous (in person, online) and asynchronous (through Canvas, Mural, Slack, etc.) environments.

Effective group strategies promote the development of strong learning teams which increases motivation. An important aspect of that transformation is self-reflection and peer feedback. Prompt students to reflect on how to divide the work; e.g., ask members what skills they want to work on as part of the team. For instance, one student might be comfortable working with spreadsheets but knows they should develop better presentation skills, so someone else who wants to learn Excel might manage the spreadsheets. Encourage team members to provide frequent formative (gentle) feedback on how they’re doing and to solicit such feedback from their peers. And encourage the team as a whole to frequently reflect on what’s working, what’s not and what they’re learning in the process.

Strategies to promote effective group work/team work

  • In each group/team, ask members to identify the strengths they bring to the group and which ones they would like to deploy to support the group. But also ask members to choose one or more skills/practices that they would like to work to develop, recognizing that they may need some help or that early work may be less than optimal. But they’re learning.
  • Ask students as a class to determine how the work of the groups/teams will be assessed and consider using an assessment rubric that is co-designed by you and the students.
  • Ask each group/team to add assessments specific to their team, being sure to incorporate how members will be deploying their strengths and working on areas to develop.
  • Consider that part of the assessment will be on how the team functioned as a team. E.g., how did they provide feedback to each other?
  • Teams may wish to develop their own community agreements, but groups and team should at least be sure to follow the class’s established community agreements.
  • The following strategy is especially effective for groups of shorter duration or that may change from class to class, but they are also effective for groups that continue from class to class: Assign roles or allow them to choose their roles in their teams. They can keep the same roles or, better yet, trade roles depending on the assignment or depending on which skills they want to develop. Some roles to consider include:
    • Discussion leader or Facilitator: ensures equity in discussion, keeps group focused while allowing open discussion (but not idle conversation)
    • Time manager: keeps the group on task
    • Skeptic: challenge assertions, disagree with arguments, always grounded in reason and backed up where appropriate with fact
    • Reporter/Recorder: Reporter is the spokesperson for the group. Recorder keeps a record of the conversation and any follow-ups or to-dos. These roles can be separated or combined.
    • Reflector/Observer: A good role for teams and larger groups: Observes the functioning of the team and gives feedback on improving communication, respect, timely work contributions, participation and engagement, etc.
  • Faculty should base evaluations in part on peer assessment of the team members.

Further strategies for effective group/team work

Adapted from Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, by L. Dee Fink; John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

  1. Have students first do independent work (reading or other activity that helps them learn the content they’ll be learning to use in their teams).
  2. Quiz them on their learning individually and then as a group.
  3. Provide any corrective instruction. These two steps, called the Readiness Assurance Process, get students ready to learn how to use the content effectively.
  4. Outside of class, students will do further independent work to prepare them for the first in-class group activity. Group activities will be a series of practice applications. 
  5. The first group activity is relatively simple.
  6. Outside of class, students do further independent learning.
  7. The second group activity is more complex and requires higher order thinking. Repeat this as often as need be to achieve the learning outcomes.
  8. A final assessment activity can be of the  individual or the team as a whole.

According to Fink: ‘By working through this sequence and getting frequent, immediate feedback on their performance, the small groups gradually evolve into and become something quite different: learning teams. Once these newly formed groups have jelled and become cohesive teams, the members become very committed to the work of their teams and the teams become capable of accomplishing some very challenging learning tasks.’ Fink, p 148.

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