Dealing with Uncertainty and Challenge

Team work involves dealing with a series of challenges. Uncertainty is a normal part of the team work process. Make sure that your students are aware of these things from the beginning.

Prepare teams for uncertainty

Students find the challenges of team projects more manageable if you’ve led them to expect some level of difficulty or uncertainty within their teams. Discuss the stages that emerging teamss often go through. The following sample handout may be helpful.

Student handout

Phases of team work

Phase 1: Getting to know your team and working out how it will function

Getting to know each other takes time and patience, and you need to work at understanding each others’ strengths and weaknesses and ways of working and learning.

During the initial phase of team work you might experience some confusion and possible conflict around your team project as you define your task, negotiate and clarify your roles and responsibilities, and set ground rules for your team.

Phase 2: Getting the work done and maintaining your team dynamics

As you work through your assigned tasks and meet with your team on a regular basis, you may find that certain issues cause conflict in your team. While it might seem difficult to find solutions, reflect back on some strategies we covered in class (such as reflective listening and non-defensive communication) to help you deal with such issues.

Note that argument and negotiation are often productive and necessary to move your team to the next stage of your project. It is equally important to reflect on what your team is doing well as you progress.

Phase 3: Reflecting on your team processes and effectiveness

Once you have completed your project, you will be given an opportunity to reflect on how your team functioned, its strengths and weaknesses, and how you think you could improve in the future.

There may be some variation in how team members assess each others’ contributions, and how group members perceive the effectiveness of your team. Understanding these differences is important, and can help prepare you for future tasks.

Make sure students know what to do when they run into problems

Students need to develop strategies to deal with challenges and conflict within their teams. You might ask them to come up with a list of strategies when they set their ground rules at the beginning of their project, before any problems arise. Student teams themselves should be the first to take action to resolve their problems; the instructor should be the last resort. By giving students adequate tools with which to resolve their team problems, you will reduce your workload.

But there may be times when they cannot resolve issues on their own. When they reach this point, they must know what to do to avoid their team falling apart or not completing their project.

Submitting progress reports can help you keep track of students’ progress and identify potential issues teams are facing. You could ask students to submit a 1-page report several times throughout their project, under the headings “The most effective things about our team are…”, “The least effective things about our team are…” “Issues we are facing as a team are…” and so on. You could also use a checklist to help students identify issues in their team and make it easier for you to recommend appropriate strategies; you’ll find one in the Identifying Team Issues section. 

Identifying Team Issues

Adapted from the University of New South Wales Teaching Gateway.

Most teams experience issues at some time. Students need to be able to identify existing and potential issues, and work out what to do to resolve them and move on. Checklists such as the one below can help students identify problems, as well as helping them notice in what areas their team is functioning well.

You could ask students to submit this checklist to you periodically, so that you can monitor their progress and find out what types of issues teams are experiencing. You might like to look for common issues across teamss, and then discuss them with the whole class.

Collecting team checklists also allows you to see if students are coming up with viable solutions to problems at the end of their checklists—these might be useful to discuss in class, too.

Follow up this discussion by asking students to report back (in a whole class discussion, or perhaps in learning journals) on how effective their strategies were, and why they did or didn’t work. You can then collate, and distribute as a reference, strategies they identify as effective, before you set the next team task or project.

Student handout

Checklist for identifying issues in teams

Fill out the following checklist individually, and then compare the checklists of all the team members to identify commonly perceived problems and to reinforce what your team is doing well. Use the results as a basis for discussion with your team about how to alleviate the issues you have identified. Write down in the space at the bottom of the handout what the team intends to do in order to resolve these issues.

  • We don’t listen to each other.
  • We keep repeating arguments instead of moving on.
  • We constantly interrupt each other.
  • We just push our own views instead of developing and encouraging other’s ideas.
  • We allow dominant members to dominate.
  • Some of us don’t contribute.
  • We don’t compromise enough.
  • We concentrate on making impressions rather than getting the job done.
  • We don’t have clear tasks or objectives.
  • We are not clear about what has been decided.
  • We don’t make it clear who is to take action on decisions.
  • We put each other down.
  • We don’t recognize that others have feelings about what is happening in the team.

What else is going wrong?

What are we going to do to resolve some of these issues? (List strategies, tasks, actions, etc.)

(Adapted from G. Gibbs (1994), Learning in Teams: A Student Manual, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford Centre for Staff, p. 42.)