Assigning team roles can be a beneficial strategy for successful project design for a number of reasons:
- Team roles offer an opportunity for high quality, focused interactions between team participants. Participants are more likely to stay on task and pay closer attention to the task at hand when their roles in the collaboration are clear and distinct.
- Team roles provide all students with a clear avenue for participation. Students are less likely to feel left out or disengaged when they have a particular duty that they are responsible for completing. Along the same lines, assigning team roles reduces the likelihood of one individual completing the task for the whole team, or “taking over,” to the detriment of others’ learning.
- Team roles encourage individual accountability. Team members are more likely to hold each other accountable for not completing work if a particular task is assigned to them.
One small team learning methodology where the use of team roles is well-defined and researched is the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) method. The POGIL method calls for teams of three or four students who work in a team on process-oriented guided inquiry activities in which students construct their knowledge through interactions with others. Traditional POGIL roles for team members are provided below (POGIL, 2016).
- Manager or Facilitator: Manages the team by helping to ensure that the team stays on task, is focused, and that there is room for everyone in the conversation.
- Recorder: Keeps a record of those who were in the team, and the roles that they play in the team. The recorder also records critical points from the small team’s discussion along with findings or answers.
- Spokesperson or Presenter: Presents the team’s ideas to the rest of the class or the instructor. The Spokesperson should rely on the recorder’s notes to guide their report.
- Reflector or Strategy Analyst: Observes team dynamics and guides the consensus-building process (helps team members come to a common conclusion).
Other Roles to Consider
You can adapt roles for different kinds of team tasks. While the POGIL model is a useful place to start, you may find that the tasks associated with your discipline require other kinds of roles for effective team learning. Adding to or reframing POGIL roles can be beneficial in these contexts. Below are some suggestions for additional roles that might be valuable to a variety of learning situations.
- Encourager: Encourages team members to continue to think through their approaches and ideas. The Encourager uses probing questions to help facilitate deeper thinking, and team-wide consideration of ideas.
- Questioner: Pushes back when the team comes to consensus too quickly, without considering a number of options or points of view. The questioner makes sure that the team hears varied points of view, and that the team is not avoiding potentially rich areas of disagreement.
- Checker: Checks over work in problem solving contexts before the team members finalize their answers.
Team roles allow students to strengthen their communication skills, especially in areas that they are less confident in volunteering for. Team roles can help disrupt stereotypical and gendered role assignments, which can be common in team learning. For example, Hirshfield and Chachra (2015) found that in first-year engineering courses, female students tended to undertake less technical roles and more communicative roles than their male colleagues. By assigning roles during team work, and by asking students to alternate these roles at different points in the semester, students can work past gendered assumptions about themselves and their teammates.
Strategies for Effective Facilitation of Team Roles
The following suggestions are strategies for effective facilitation of team roles. These strategies are helpful in a wide variety of team work situations, but are essential for team work that will last beyond a single class period, or constitute a significant portion of student grades.
- Be transparent about why you are assigning team roles. This kind of transparency can increase student buy-in by helping them recognize the value in establishing team roles.
- Provide students with a list of roles and brief definitions for each role at the beginning of the team project. Make it clear which tasks are associated with which roles.
- Alternatively, you may find it helpful, especially in advanced-level classes, to encourage students to develop their own roles in teams based on the tasks that they feel will be critical to the team’s success. This strategy provides the students with a larger level of autonomy in their learning, while also encouraging them to use proven structures that will help them be successful.
- Roles can be assigned randomly through a variety of strategies, from who has the next birthday to color-coded post-it notes, or a place card that points out roles based on where everyone is sitting.
- Circulate early in the project to be sure that everyone has been assigned a role, and that everyone is clear about what their responsibilities include.
- Be willing to reinforce the given roles throughout the activity. For roles to work, students have to feel as though they will be held accountable for fulfilling those roles. Therefore, it is critical for you to step in if you see someone taking over someone else’s role or not fulfilling his/her/their assigned role. Often gentle reminders about who is supposed to be doing what can be useful interventions. For example, if someone is talking over everyone and not listening to their other teammates, you might say something like “Remember, as a spokesperson, your job is to represent the ideas of everyone in the team.”
- Talk with students individually if their speech or conduct could be silencing, denigrating, or excluding others. Remember: your silence on this issue may be read as endorsement.
- Changing things up regularly is valuable. If you use team roles frequently, mixing up roles throughout the semester can help students develop communication skills in a variety of areas rather than relying on a single personal strength.
- If this is a long-term team assignment, be sure to provide structures for individual feedback for the instructor and other team member on team dynamics. This could be a formal or informal check in, but it’s critical for students to have a space to voice concerns related to team dynamics—especially if this assignment counts for a large portion of their final grade. This feedback might be provided through an anonymous survey in paper form or through a web-based tool like Qualtrics or a Google form. These check-ins can reduce student anxiety about the potential for uneven team participation.
Overall, using assigned roles in team work provides students with a supportive structure that promotes meaningful collaborative learning. While team learning can be challenging to implement effectively, using roles can mitigate some of the challenges associated with learning in teams, while offering students the opportunity to develop a variety of communication skills that will be critical to their success in college and their future careers.
References & Further Resources
Burke, Alison. (2011). Team work: How to use teams effectively. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 11(2), 87-95.
Beebe, S.A., & Masterson, J.T. (2003). Communicating in small teams. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
Cheng, W. Y., Lam, S. F., & Chan, C. Y. (2008). When high achievers and low achievers work in the same team: The roles of team heterogeneity and processes in project‐based learning. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(2), 205-221.
Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R.S., Platt, T., Varma-Nelson, P., White, H.B. (2008). Pedagogies of engagement in science: A comparison of PBL, POGIL and PLTL. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36(4), 262-73.
Hale, D., & Mullen, L. G. (2009). Designing process-oriented guided-inquiry activities: A new innovation for marketing classes. Marketing Education Review, 19(1), 73-80.
Hirshfield, L., & Chachra, D. (2015). Task choice, team dynamics and learning goals: Understanding student activities in teams. 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference: Launching a New Vision in Engineering Education Proceedings, FIE 2015, 1-5.
Johnson, C. (2011). Activities using process‐oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) in the foreign language classroom. Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German, 44(1), 30-38.
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction.
Moog, R.S. (2014). Process oriented guided inquiry learning. In M.A. McDaniel, R. F. Frey, S.M. Fitzpatrick, & Roediger, H.L. (Eds.). Integrating cognitive science with innovative teaching in STEM disciplines (147-166). St. Louis: Washington University in St. Louis Libraries.
The POGIL Project. (2017). https://pogil.org/
Springer, L., Stanne, M.E., & Donovan, S.S. (1999). Effects of small-team learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 96(1), 21-51.
Adapted from Washington University in St. Louis’ Teaching Center, https://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/resources/active-learning/group-work-in-class/using-roles-in-group-work/