Guide To Teaching and Learning

Collaborating in Teams

Faculty often deploy group work as an activity to promote more active learning. But students can be resistant to groups (how will a non contributing student affect the group’s performance and evaluation?) Faculty are encouraged to deploy groups as a strategy, not just an activity. Help students develop into teams; this can be a very effective learning strategy. 

Team-based strategies help students apply what they’ve learned, which deepens learning and that’s the real objective of learning, after all. 

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. 

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.

Group/team work is particularly effective in the synchronous environment though it can also work asynchronously. So if you’re having some synchronous class sessions, consider adopting the strategy for creating effective learning teams below:

  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.
  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 Dee 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.

Some additional tips:

  • Ask students as a class to determine how the work of the teams will be assessed and consider using an assessment rubric that is co-designed by you and the students.
  • 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?
  • Assign roles or allow them to choose their roles in their teams. They can keep the same roles or trade roles depending on the assignment. Some roles to consider include:
    • Discussion leader or Facilitator
    • Time manager
    • Skeptic
    • Reporter/Recorder
    • Reflector/Observer (who observes the functioning of the team and gives feedback)
  • Base evaluations in part on peer assessment of the team members.

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

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