Follow these practical tips for creating teams for group activities.
If collaboration is your goal, structure the project so that students are dependent on one another. Here are a few ways to create interdependence:
In one course on game design, group assignments require students to create playable games that incorporate technical (e.g., programming) and design skills. To complete the assignment successfully, students from different disciplines must draw on one another’s strengths.
In one engineering course, teams compete against one another to design a boat (assessed on various dimensions such as stability and speed) by applying engineering principles and working within budgetary and material constraints. The fun and intensity of a public competition encourages the team to work closely together to create the best design possible.
In a short-term project for an architectural design course, the instructor provides student groups with a set of materials (e.g., tape, cardboard, string) and assigns them the task of building a structure that conforms to particular design parameters using only these materials. Because students have limited resources, they cannot divide tasks but must strategize and work together.
In a semester-long research project for a history course, the instructor assigns students distinct roles within their groups: one student is responsible for initiating and sustaining communication with the rest of the group, another with coordinating schedules and organizing meetings, another with recording ideas generated and decisions made at meetings, and a fourth with keeping the group on task and warn when deadlines are approaching. The instructor rotates students through these roles, so that they each get practice performing each function.
Don’t assume students already know how to work in groups. While most students have worked on group projects before, they still may not have developed effective teamwork skills. By the same token, the teamwork skills they learned in one context (say on a soccer team or in a theatrical production) may not be directly applicable to another (e.g., a design project involving an external client.)
To work successfully in groups, students need to learn how to work with others to do things they might only know how to do individually, for example to...
Students also need to know how to handle issues that only arise in groups, for example, to:
Here are a few things you can do both to help students develop these skills and to see their value in professional life:
One instructor asks students to generate a list of skills they believe employers look for. Often students answer this question with a set of domain-specific skills, such as drafting or computer programming. The instructor then contrasts their answers with the answers given by actual employers, who often focus on domain-general process skills such as “the ability to communicate clearly” and “the ability to work with others”. This activity serves to reinforce the process goals for group work assignments.
Break the project down into steps or stages and set deadlines for interim deliverables, e.g., a project proposal, timeline, bibliography, first draft. In addition to setting interim deadlines, model the process of planning for a complex task by explaining how you would approach a similar task. Build time into the project schedule that is specifically devoted to planning.
Create ground rules for group behavior or ask students to do so themselves. Group ground rules can include things such as: return e-mails from group members within 24 hours; come to meetings on time and prepared; meet deadlines; listen to what your teammates have to say; respond to one another’s comments politely but honestly; be constructive; criticize ideas, not people. You might then ask students to formally agree to these ground rules by signing a group learning contract.
To help students handle disagreements and tensions productively, provide language they can use to voice objections and preferences constructively and reinforce listening skills. Structured role-playing can also be helpful: present students with a hypothetical source of tension (e.g., a domineering personality, a slacker, cultural differences in communication style) before real tensions arise and then ask them to work toward a resolution, improvising dialogue and actions. Role-playing conflict-resolution in advance can help students recognize similar issues when they arise and respond to them creatively and appropriately.
Adapted from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center, What are best practices for designing group projects?.