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LAS Teaching Academy: Teams and Groups

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Using teams and creating group assignments can be very effective in the promotion of student learning. Here are some principles to keep in mind as you structure teams and create meaningful group assignments.

Be clear about why students are working in teams.
Provide a rationale for students about the reasons “why” they are working in teams. Some reasons might include: honing their collaborative skills, which they will use in the workplace; increasing their learning from peers; and providing opportunities for them to augment their strengths and bolster their developmental opportunities, or weaknesses, in key areas such as, facilitation, leadership, problem-solving, critical thinking and project management.
Create diverse teams of students.
Please view “diversity” broadly by looking at areas such as, prior experience, background, skills and knowledge. Set a team structure where students are teamed with the same peers for the entire course. This allows students to get to know each other, which will increase their learning from one another. The ideal number of students per team is 4-6.
Instruct students on how to handle conflict in their group.
Conflicts, big or small, can arise in any workgroup. Typical conflicts may include members missing deadlines or meetings; divergent thinking on how to approach a task; one member seemingly ‘taking over’ the activity; or students submitting individual work that is of poor quality. You can preempt some negative outcomes by letting students know that conflicts can and do arise; that you are a resource as they mediate the conflict; and that learning to constructively resolve team conflicts in an inherent part of a team assignment.
Construct assignments which will hold all group members accountable for the group’s efforts.
We have all been in groups where there are several workhorses and one or two students who are interested in delegating tasks to their peers. When these dynamics occur, learning, promoted by group interaction, is severely hampered. See the Wright State adaptation of the article Three Keys to Using Learning Groups Effectively for some ideas on creating assignments to hold all students accountable for group participation. The use of peer evaluation is also discussed here.
Allow some in-class time for students to work with their group.
Most students lead busy lives, balancing school, work, extracurricular activities and personal relationships. These hectic schedules can make meeting with all of their group members quite difficult. When appropriate, allow some time during class for students to work on their projects. When you can afford a chunk of time to do this, you are promoting interactions amongst the members.

Additional Information

  • University of Illinois Campus Resource
    Cheelan Bo-Linn, Head of Instructional Development for the Center for Teaching Excellence, offers an excellent 2-hour workshop on creating and using teams. See CTE current dates.
  • Faculty Development Site at Wright State University’s Medical School offers this adaption of an article titled, Three Keys to Using Learning Groups Effectively, by Larry K. Michaelsen.
  • Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. 1993. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  • Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L.L., (Eds.). 2004. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  • Sarkisian, Ellen. Working in Groups. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.