Acquiring skills in working with others as a member of a team

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Author: Donna M. Qualters, Northeastern University

Research on active learning demonstrates the efficacy of having students engaged in the process (1). Chickering & Gamson’s “7 Principles” (2) extend this notion to include fostering cooperation among students and using active methodologies to incorporate students’ diverse talents and styles of learning. On-going research, and the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE), are beginning to document the value students perceive from working together.

The shift in higher education from teacher-centered to student-centered learning has shown that the role of the teacher has shifted from dispensing knowledge to becoming the architect of the learning environment. This definition goes beyond the facilitator role, to one that encompasses the ability to create environments where students can develop skills and attitudes that go beyond acquiring and critically evaluating knowledge. Concurrent with this research is the emerging study of communities of practice (3), which illustrates how collaboration improves practice and assists participants in reforming information that extends individual and group knowledge. These are powerful arguments for employing active and team-based learning in classrooms.

Aside from the pedagogical rationale for teams, there are additional factors that support the importance of helping students acquire the skills needed to work together effectively. First, the research on the millennial students (those born in the early 1980’s who are now in our classrooms), has clearly documented that these students value working together, and that they were educated in a system that increasingly used collaboration and team work for learning. However, their experience may not have explicitly included the acquisition of collaborative skills in the various disciplines (4). A second factor is the reality that as we move to a more global environment, students will be working more frequently in team-based settings that may be virtual as well as real. Lastly, as interdisciplinary knowledge and research become more prevalent, learners will need the skills to work and communicate with partners who are not familiar with the disciplinary language and practices that learners bring to the workplace. Effective teams capitalize on their diversity and become stronger as a result.

In addition, IDEA research has found that objective 5 is moderately related to student progress on a number of other objectives, including 8. Developing skill in expressing myself orally and in writing; 9. Learning to analyze and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and points of view; 10. Developing a clearer understanding of personal values; and 12. Acquiring an interest in learning more by asking my own questions and seeking answers. These relationships are more complex and they suggest that the interactions of team work have positive effects on communication skills, critical thinking, and inquiry about ideas and opinions.

Helpful Hints

Through carefully crafted and executed team work activities, students can gain the necessary skills to function effectively in a rapidly changing world of technology, knowledge management, and cooperative practices. The research on effective teams provides several useful strategies. Here are a few. Many of them correspond to the three IDEA methods:

  • Method 5 Formed teams to facilitate learning
  • Method 14 Involved students in hands-on learning
  • Method 18 Asked students to help each other understand ideas and concepts

These are most closely related to student acquisition of team skills and focus on team organization, engaging students actively , and helping students to understand that they can learn from each other.

“COMET” your teams (5). COMET is an acronym developed by Stone & Qualters (5), and its purpose is to guide team process. C represents Clearly defined goals, assuring that teams understand the reason for using teams for learning and for work. O refers to Open communication, stressing the skills needed to communicate effectively. M refers to Member involvement, eliciting equal commitment and participation by all. E refers to Education, ensuring that members understand the talents and skills that everyone brings to the team. T is the most important element, representing Trust, helping teams to build interpersonal trust, and to identify and remedy difficult situations.

Carefully choose the task for teams. Keep course objectives, content demands, and learner skills in mind, and match the task to the situation. Team work is often very productive when the assigned tasks require higher level thinking skills. Tasks should require students to think critically, challenge each other’s assumptions (with appropriate feedback skills), explore topics beyond their existing knowledge, and when possible, provide opportunities for creativity. Tasks that are more concrete often do solidify current knowledge, but are not as effective in helping students to reformulate what they already know into something deeper and more complex. Nonetheless, such tasks may be appropriate for introductory courses where mastery of basic content is critical.

Carefully plan team size and composition. Research suggests optimum team size of three to five individuals (6).The make-up of teams can be student-chosen or teacher-constructed. Considerations in team make-up should include: the maturity level (more mature students tend to work well in teams of their own choosing); presence of the skills needed to complete the task (often diverse skills are needed to be successful); and the proximity and availability (especially if team work will require many out of class meetings that cannot be accomplished on-line or via other new technologies).

Take the time to prepare the team BEFORE the work begins. Students often feel they “know” how to work in teams just because they have been in them so often during their secondary education. But time and energy invested in some simple techniques enhance team work. Begin with team building exercises such as having members state their goals for the team apart from those of the instructor; develop, agree, and sign off on a set of expectations and team guidelines, (for example clear language on how the team is going to handle a non-participant); assist the team in determining the roles that will make the team function and how these roles will work, how leaders will be chosen, whether leadership will rotate, and who will act as recorder/scribe.

Educate teams ABOUT teams prior to starting. The more students know about the characteristics and qualities of successful teams, the more positive their experience (7). Making students aware of the stages of development (forming, storming, norming, performing) and the issues that arise in each stage will help teams understand that the difficulties they may encounter, are normal and can be resolved. Take time to have students identify elements of successful and unsuccessful teams from their past experiences. This meta-activity will make them more aware of issues to attend to in the current team. One author suggests that the case be made that dealing with team difficulty is not only essential, but also an ethical and moral responsibility if the team is to function and achieve its goals. Rather than ignoring behaviors or refusing to get outside intervention, the team understands that holding team members accountable is not “ratting out” a member or violating team privacy, but a mature approach to ensuring a functioning team (8).

Demonstrate feedback skills and give assistance on conflict resolution. Providing students with tools and methods for frequent feedback increases the chances of success for the team. The use of an observer role that rotates among team members is one tactic that provides neutral feedback to the team on how it is functioning and what potential areas of difficulty might be. Another tactic is to discuss the elements of effective feedback and then have learners practice giving feedback to team members, particularly if that feedback contains criticism. This is best done prior to the team beginning its actual work. A third possibility is to have an on-going record (virtual or real) of the activities of the team, the assigned tasks, the deadline dates, and the rate of completion for each member.

Provide a written guide for student teams. Elaborate and well-written guides are available on the web (8) and in the literature (9) that can easily be adapted to most situations. These guides enhance team preparation, provide tips and tools for team success, and contain assessment and monitoring mechanisms to help the team stay on track. Developmentally, it is important to have more detailed guides for introductory courses where students are not only new to the institution, but often new to each other and to college-level work.

Use technology to enhance team interaction. Having team work sites on course management systems allows teams the ability to interact more frequently when apart. These sites can also include both private spaces for team usage and public spaces for classmates and faculty to view on-going work. It is even possible for visitors to offer constructive assistance at the publicly accessible locations. Websites also allow students to work more efficiently given their learning and life styles, but there is one caution: not all students are ready for the level of independence that these systems allow. Teachers have to monitor website activity, encourage active participation, and most important, respond to student questions and concerns. A major advantage of course management systems is that they provide a single, central location for all documents and tools the teams may need to complete the assigned task (10, 11).

Successful group work requires careful preparation and preparation requires time. While it may seem that preparation and training use “valuable class time,” the payoff is in improved learning and class time saved (6, 12, 13). For example, when students collaborate in class or virtually, they must engage in the analysis of materials and ideas and they must share their thinking with one another. These activities are beneficial in their own right because they contribute to deeper understanding, but they also lessen the need for repetitive presentation of information in the classroom. Time can thus be spent on deeper coverage and integration of course material.

Assessment Issues

Assessment is one of the most challenging tasks in team-based learning, yet it is not impossible. The question which most often arises is whether to grade students separately (which can seem counter to the purpose of forming teams), or to use a single grade for the team (which can lead to frustration among hard-working students if other students do not contribute). A combination of both is often the most productive way to grade, and incorporating peer evaluation is almost essential if a teamwork mindset is to evolve (12).

Teams have been shown to work more effectively when there is “positive interdependency,” that is, a mutual understanding that each team member must rely on other members to complete the work successfully (13). This would argue for a single grade for the summative measurement of a team product, thus creating a common goal to do well on the assignment. To assure that there is full participation and that the interdependency is positive, there must be on-going formative feedback regarding team progress. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. It is often helpful to have team work occur in class, thus allowing direct observation of team behaviors. Utilizing tools such as the Analysis of Team Behavior chart (14) lets you observe the interactions of the teams while they are at work, and provide feedback to improve the skills and interaction of the team members.

Interacting personally with teams is also essential. While teams need space to develop self sufficiency, a periodic check to ask questions, to determine understanding of the goals/tasks, to identify stumbling blocks, and to provide occasional guidance suffices to monitor the team’s progress. Carefully planned teacher interventions provide a model for students to do their own self-monitoring in the future.

As mentioned above, having teams keep logs, minutes, weekly reports (individual and/or collective) or task lists available allows on-going assessment of the team’s progress and timely intervention if needed. This work also demonstrates that functional teams track their accomplishments, tasks, participation and outcomes. Reflective writing assignments encourage self and team assessment and include opportunities for recording affective components or results of team work. This kind of writing can alert teachers and students to interpersonal or other problems early enough to allow correction.

As in all forms of assessment, clear grading rubrics (15) should be provided and explained prior to starting the project. If a single grade and appropriate on-going feedback are the methods to increase positive interdependence, then clearly delineate the criteria used to assess the team’s success in a single grade. If using a combination method, clearly outline which items are collectively graded and which are individually graded and what criteria will apply to each aspect of the grade. Is the grade just the final product, or are some of the formative tools being graded as well? Is there an opportunity for individual feedback? If there is a final project or presentation, is the whole class participating in the grading and what tool will they use? Are reports and documentation being graded? Is peer rating a part of the grade?

Essentially, grading team-based learning involves general principles of good grading. There must be clear expectations about the project and about the team. The amount and type of feedback that will be provided must be clearly outlined as well as the criteria that will be used to determine the grade(s). In addition, be sure to create the space to provide non-graded, qualitative feedback on team progress. It is important to create an open climate in the class where students see the instructor as a partner who will not only evaluate their work, but provide on-going formative assessment. Individual team members need to grow continually and to develop teamwork skills in order to achieve personal success.

References and Resources

  1. provides an extensive bibliography. Retrieved September 20, 2006.
  2. Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1991). Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 47. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity,Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press
  4. Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. Great Falls, VA: American Association of Registrars and Admissions Officers and Life Course Associates.
  5. Stone, S., & Qualters, D. (1998). “COMET, a tool for team work. In Teaching for tomorrow: Preparing community physicians as educators. Worcester, MA: University of Massachusetts, Community Faculty Development Center.
  6. Rassuli, A., & Manzer, J. (September/ October 2005). Teach us to learn: Multivariate analysis of perception of success in team learning. Journal of Education for Business, 80 (1), 21-27.
  7. Page, D., & Donelan, J. (January/February, 2003). Team-building tools for students. Journal of Business, 78 (3), 125-132.
  8. Teamwork – A practical guide for students. Drexel University. Retrieved September 20, 2006 from
  9. Buckenmyer, J. (November, 2000). Using teams for class activities: Making course/ classroom teams work. Journal of Education for Business, 76, (2), 98-104.
  10. Federman Stein, R., & Hurd, S. (1999). Using student teams in the classroom: A faculty guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
  11. Weigel, V. B. (2002). Deep learning for a digital age. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  12. Michaelsen, L., Knight, A., & Fink, L.D. (2002). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publication.
  13. Millis, B., & Cottrell, P., (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty. Phoenix: American Council on Education and Oryx Press.
  14. Border, L. (1997). Further notes on group behavior, rapport, trust, and etiquette, National Teaching and Learning Forum, 6 (5). 7-8.
  15. For example, see Rubrics. Monmouth University. Retrieved September 20, 2006 from

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

  • IDEA Item #5 Formed “teams” or “discussion groups” to facilitate learning, Todd Zakrajsek
  • IDEA Item #14 Involved students in ‘hands-on’ projects such as research, case studies, or ‘real life’ activities, Virginia S. Lee
  • IDEA Item #18 Asked students to help each other understand ideas or concepts, Jeff King

Additional Resources

IDEA Paper No. 38: Enhancing Learning – and More! – Through Cooperative Learning, Millis