Setting Up Teams

Adapted from the University of New South Wales Teaching Gateway.

Do your students have prior experience of teamwork?

Many students come to school with very little team experience. They don’t necessarily have the social skills necessary for collaborating with peers. This can make teamwork very intimidating for them. If they don’t receive adequate support and preparation time, their learning experience in the team context may be a negative one.

Find out about students’ prior experience and approach to teamwork, so that you can design appropriate teamwork activities. Before they participate in team activities, introduce your students to skills such as working with personality differences, reflective listening, emotions, nondefensive communication, and conflict management.

Begin by asking them to share their prior experience with teamwork. You may find that some students, particularly international students, have never worked in teams before, or participated in any kind of learning activity that involves interaction with peers. For the students who have worked in teams before, ask them how they found the experience. What did they like? What didn’t they?

The following discussion or written exercise may help students reflect on how they operate when in teams or teams. Even students who have not experienced team learning activities in the classroom will have had some experience of team or team activities, e.g. in a sports team, a music or drama team.

Student Exercise

Team Size

The size of student teams should be appropriate for the specific learning outcome.  For example, if you would like your students to experience an authentic team project in business or in the arts, create team sizes that are comparable with those that would are used in professional organizations.  This gives students the chance to address the types of issues that might occur in a professional context and help them build skills necessary to perform effectively in a team of a realistic size.

If students have limited prior experience of teamwork, teams of 3 or 4 people are likely to work best.  For students with more experience, teams of 4 to 6 might be more appropriate.  It is important that team size allows for some diversity within teams and is appropriate in terms of project management.  Teams with larger numbers can make it difficult to arrange meeting times outside of class and to keep track of individual contributions.

Deciding on Team Size Handout

What are my options in terms of forming teams?

Option 1—Assign students to teams

There are different views on the best way to determine team membership. Some find it preferable to assign students to teams rather than allowing them to select their own. This way students can be matched or mixed up depending on the desired outcomes. It is important to allow sufficient class time to assign students to teams.

Assigning students to teams helps to avoid ‘cliques’ or other groupings that might interfere with the teams’ project. If students are not happy being assigned to teams, it might be helpful to explain that they will not always be able to choose their team members in the workplace, and that learning to work effectively with a diverse team is an important skill in their profession.

International students may appreciate the opportunity to work with and get to know local students, and diversity within teams can be valuable for all students. Teams with a mix of gender, age, culture, local and rural students provides a rich learning environment for students who can draw on a range of different experiences and perspectives.

Option 2—Use a random method of assigning teams

If you don’t feel comfortable assigning students to teams, you may wish to distribute colored or numbered cards to students and ask students with the same color or number to form a team. Once again, it is important to allow sufficient class time to assign students to teams. Note that randomly assigning students to teams will not necessarily result in teams with a diverse mix of students.

Option 3—Let students choose their own teams

There may be situations where it is preferable to let students choose their own teams e.g. if you would like teams to consist of students who are interested in the same topic, have mutual goals, or students with compatible timetables etc. In such cases, you might like to use an icebreaker or activity to help students discover which of their class members they might like to work with. As suggested above however, this can often result in students forming teams with friends only, and students may not benefit from the diversity of experiences that their peers have to offer.  If you decide to let students choose their own teams, the following handout might be useful.

Student Handout