The Set-Up

Provide a context for team work


Provide students with a discipline-specific context for the development and assessment of team skills.  This will help them understand the relevance and function of team projects, activities or tasks in the course; they will also see the advantages of team work, and be clear as to how team work contributes to achieving the course objectives.

The closer team tasks resemble authentic tasks, the stronger student motivation will be.  Help students identify the skills needed in your field of study to effectively work as a team – what specific communication, negotiation, conflict management, interpersonal and collaborative skills are essential and desirable?

Here are a few ways to help students understand why team skills are important in your field:

  • Emphasize how important team work is in a professional environment
  • Invite a guest speaker from your industry to outline how teams are used in the workplace
  • Ask students with work experience to share their experiences with teams
  • Outline some of the potential difficulties associated with team work to give them a realistic view and prepare them for challenges
  • Provide students with a handout about the advantages of team work and ask them to reflect on why team skills are important in their field of stud
Sample Student handout:

Advantages of working in teams

Group work:

  • allows you to become an active participant in your learning
  • can help you develop confidence in working with peers
  • can produce a supportive working environment
  • allows you to gain a deeper understanding of course content
  • can encourage you to ask questions and challenge assumptions
  • gives you an opportunity to experience a variety of roles
  • can result in high quality group projects
  • allows you to benefit from the diverse perspectives and expertise of your peers
  • provides you with skills that are important in the workplace such as problem solving, negotiation and conflict resolution, leadership, communication and time management.


How do you think you might use group skills in the workplace?

How do you think working in groups in your particular field of study might differ from doing so in another context or discipline?

Provide a context for team work

Students may be confused about what is expected of them in teams and what team work is all about.  Point out that this is normal at the beginning of team project, that it is an evolving process.  Reassure them by letting them know they will have opportunity in class to define and clarify the team project, based on the project/activity outline you provide, and to ask questions about any aspects of the project they don’t understand.

Clearly define the purpose of the team project.  In class, take time to provide detailed and clear instructions to all teams, and explain how you will interact with and monitor teams (e.g., whether you will circulate among the teams, sit in on team meetings, help teams deal with difficult issues, provide resources).

Also consider whether you will provide guidelines for how teams operate or for them to negotiate the ground rules (see First Meetings).  Clarify how much of the project you expect to be completed in and outside class time, how long you expect it to take, how students will be assigned to teams, how they should allocate roles and organize meetings.  Also communicate the details of relevant learning outcomes and the assessment involved.

Make learning outcomes and assessment criteria clear

Explain to students the purpose and intended learning outcomes of team projects.  Highlight the particular skills involved, such as negotiation, communication and interpersonal skills.  Below is an example of some learning outcomes related to developing students’ team skills.

“At the end of this course you will be able to:

* articulate the factors that contribute to a successful team

* identify and establish team roles and responsibilities for a given project

* demonstrate project management skills such as the creation of timelines and action plans

* implement strategies for dealing with conflict within teams

* work effectively in a team and prepare a written report on a given topic

* develop strategies for working effectively in a multidisciplinary team

* demonstrate an understanding of the structure of meetings (e.g., agendas)

* provide constructive feedback to peers on their contribution to a team project

* demonstrate interpersonal and reflective learning skills

* reflect on the progress of team skills and identify areas for improvement.”

In addition to making learning objectives clear to students, also make assessment criteria clear.  Assessment criteria for team work might include, for example:

  • regular attendance at team meetings
  • equity of contribution
  • evidence of collaborative behavior
  • appropriate time and task management
  • application of creative problem solving
  • an appropriate level of engagement with the task
  • evidence of capacity to listen
  • responsiveness to feedback/criticism

(Adapted from R. James, C. McInnis and M. Devlin (2002), Assessing Learning in Australian Universities. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.)

Students need to be clear about how activities and projects will be assessed. For example, let students know what weightings will be given to team processes and products, what the assessment criteria are for both team process and team product, and how individual and interactive tasks will be assessed. If you choose to incorporate peer assessment, or to assess learning journals or other reflective pieces of writing, provide students with clear guidelines.

Help students distinguish between cooperation and collaboration

Part of making expectations clear to students involves helping them distinguish between cooperation and collaboration, and determine which is required in the team project that you set for them. Generally speaking, cooperative tasks involve each member of a team producing a separate part of a whole task or project. This may require students to balance the structure and content of various components, coordinate completion times or compile a presentation or written report; however, it requires a relatively low level of collaboration, i.e. participation in team processes. In more collaborative tasks and projects the final product represents the work of the team as a whole.

Students who have only experienced working cooperatively (rather than collaboratively) with peers may not understand why it is important to practice skills such as understanding personality differences, reflective listening, non-defensive communication, emotion skills and conflict management. 

Discussing the assessment criteria for a given project helps students to distinguish between cooperative and collaborative learning and to understand the particular skills and processes valued in both forms of work. To check students’ understanding, ask them. “Why do you think we do this particular project in teams rather than individually? How do you think working collaboratively might enhance the finished product?”