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I often tell the story of how I came to higher education after a long career as a consultant. But the story that I usually keep just for the classroom is the one where I tell students, right before their first team assignment, how I totally and completely failed miserably on the first few projects that I did because I had NO idea how to collaborate. Collaboration is a necessary skill but it is a hard one to learn because you’re dealing with other people who have varying degrees of investment.

I failed on those first few projects because I didn’t know how to interact and to handle problems and to effectively get my thoughts into the mix. In short, I didn’t know how to do in group communication. Because of this, I have steadfastly always had students collaborate in low stakes ways (small group during class time) and in larger stakes ways (team projects worth a substantial portion of their of grade. We need to provide these opportunities within the safe space of the classroom so that students begin to learn ways of handling group dynamics.

Often times instructors focus so much on how to set-up groups they don’t focus nearly as much energy on helping students understand how to navigate that process. In a Twitter discussion the question came up on how folks set up groups. Most people were in favor of letting students self select. I on the other hand am one where I assign the groups–even most of the time at the graduate level.  Why? three reasons. Students will generally self select into a group with other students they know or have learned to know during the class, which does not help them interact and learn how to deal with people they don’t know. The latter point is crucial to success later in life and it’s also useful to gently move students outside of their comfort zones. Second, I typically have a pretty good sense of ways to group students that they can teach one another things that in self selection they may not be exposed to. Finally, it doesn’t matter because every group assignment I have has an out clause–the whole Survivor metaphor where someone can be voted out (or I can disband a truly dysfunctional team). Some will question whether my way is too restrictive or not student centered enough or oppressive to the student’s views and choices. I would counter those criticisms with my classes are extraordinarily de-centered. No one that has ever visited one of my classes would say that I have control issues.  It’s part of my job, when the situation warrants, to set down parameters that potentially increases student learning. Years of trying different ways has led me to this.

But really, how and why you set up groups isn’t the point. It is not. The point is that it becomes necessary to work with students and help them understand how to successfully navigate the group experience and gain strategies for dealing with people and expressing ideas and overcoming disagreements. In other words, the instructor needs to actively support the collaborative process. Here’s a short piece I wrote about it (that I never did anything with). It summarizes the classroom activities that I still do to this day to help students learn this incredibly nuanced and incredibly hard task of navigating the dreaded group project. And as the conclusion states, I’ve not had any group implode and folks are a whole lot happier after we do these–no matter if I put them in groups or they self selected.

And at the bottom of the page are additional resources.

Drop me a line if you have questions about any of these or you want additional information.

Actively Supporting the Collaborative Process: Helping Student Groups Become Student Teams

While the group assignment is a staple of technical and professional communication classrooms, Holmer (2001) indicated “that many instructors continue to give team project assignments with little or no active support for team process” (p. 591). Holmer is not alone in her critique: Additional scholarship suggests instructors could improve support structures to help student groups become effective teams (Barker & Franzak, 1997; Schullery & Gibson, 2001; Caspersz, Skeen, & Wu, 2005; Hansen, 2006). In short, in an already strained curriculum, we have to find ways to teach students how to collaborate, how to successfully navigate the social, political, and cultural nuances of collaborative work. To do this, I offer a series of classroom activities that addresses the fundamental disconnect between the group project assignment and preparation to collaboratively work on a team.

Classroom Activities

The activities are designed to help students learn a culture of collaboration. Most of the activities are 15 minutes are less, which makes them easy to integrate into existing curriculums. Starting in the second week through the sixth week of the term, I do an activity in every class period for five weeks. The timing corresponds to the quarter system and to the start of the large team report or proposal project. While the activities are discussed in the order I introduce them into class, most of them can be done at any time and any order to best suit the needs of your particular course.

Defining Collaboration Activity: 15 minutes

Prior to class, students will have read several articles about collaboration. The articles define collaboration and connect collaboration in the classroom to collaboration in the workplace. While the articles vary based on current trends in business, one example is an article about designing the iPod. Based on a class discussion of the articles, the class formulates a working definition of collaboration and a list of team member actions that would lead to a successful collaboration.

Venting Activity: 10-15 minutes

While most, if not all, students will have participated in a team project in another class, few will report that those experiences were positive. However, most will report they managed to get the job done. The goal of this activity is to tease out the contradiction of not liking the experience but still managing to get the job done. In this activity, I ask several students to offer their worst collaborative experience. As a class we discuss what factors led to problems within the group and with the experience as a whole.

This activity presents the perfect opportunity to discuss expectations of the large team project. I tell my students that there are levels of collaborative success and that our goal is twofold: 1) to produce a professional quality final deliverable and 2) to consciously and actively work on the collaborative process. For example, if one or two students do the whole project or if the whole experience makes the final few weeks of class miserable, then even if the project is turned in, the collaboration was not successful.

Conversational Mixer Activity: 15 minutes

In the workplace, it is rare to find teams where all the individuals know one another. To help students get to know one another better, just like they would in the workplace, the class participates in a conversational mixer. Before the mixer starts, I go over how to shake hands, introduce yourself, start conversations, and end conversations. Then I get the mixer started by modeling these actions. The students will be tentative at first, but after a few minutes, they begin to loosen up and start learning more about one another.

In the class period after the mixer, we have an impromptu mixer in which students partner up with one or two students. Once they have a partner(s), they are then given a short (and not heavily weighted) assignment, usually an informational presentation or a brief informational report, to complete in collaboration. The goals of this short assignment are to start practicing collaboration in a manageable team of two or three while meeting another class objective such as the oral presentation requirement.

Strengths and Weaknesses Activity: 30-45 minutes

In my experience, this activity is one of the most helpful to students. Before class, students will have read several short articles (different from the defining activity) about workplace collaborations. Also, I will have compiled the most cited responses from student lists of collaboration strengths and weaknesses.

In class, I will write a strength or weakness on the board, and the class discusses why the particular trait or attribute is a strength or a weakness. This activity gives me the opportunity to talk about how a strength (e.g. attention to detail) can turn into a weakness (e.g. when a student concentrates on unimportant details).

Technologies for Collaboration Activity: 5-10 minutes

Before class, students will have had the opportunity to read the handout for this activity and watch (if they so choose) an online tutorial. One of the issues students consistently bring up as a barrier to collaboration is that they have little time outside of class to collaborate. While you can solve the scheduling dilemma by forming groups based on available times, the goal of this activity is to show the variety of technologies available, from GoogleDocs to a wiki to using track changes in Word, to help with collaboration.

Writing and Editing Tips Activity: 5-10 minutes

In this activity we discuss tips for writing and editing collaboratively. The goal for this activity is to focus on strategies to counter writing problems that arise during the collaborative process and to provide practical tips and ideas on how to divide writing tasks and how to group edit a long document.

Small-Group Debriefing Activity: 10-15 minutes

The conversational mixer led to a short collaborative assignment, which is the subject of this activity. After the assignment is completed, a debriefing session is held in which students bring to class an anonymous list of two or three things that worked and two or three things that didn’t work. I glance through the lists and pick several common points to discuss. This activity should recall some of the discussion from the strengths and weaknesses activity and continue to focus on the process of collaboration.

Role-Play Activity: 30-60 minutes (see below in resources for the list of personality types)

Since personality types are keyed to problems in collaboration (Myers & Larson, 2005), this activity helps students begin to examine roadblocks personality types create, to think about strategies to deal with varying personalities, and to prepare students to handle issues on their team project.

By this time in the term, teams have been formed for the large project. In guided role-play, each team is assigned a specific personality type that they must act out for the class. I get the personality types and strategies for handling that personality type from an article they were assigned to read. One member of the student team will play the problem personality type. The other team members will then act out communication strategies to temper the personality type. For example, the student who must portray the slacker personality type may start his role play by slouching in the chair, staring off into space, and answering inquiries by his team mates with “whatever” or “sure.” The other teams have to guess what the problem personality type is.

After they warm up with the guided role-play, they move on to free-form role play. From a hat, each team draws another personality type. The free-from personality types are ones that I have created based on years of workplace and classroom experience. The free-form personality types are more complex figures (e.g. the nitpicker, where the person only focuses on the picky details) that require the students to get rather creative in their communication strategies. While students may be tentative at first, this is normally a fun exercise that generates a lively and useful discussion. An alternate method is to assign two or three teams guided role-plays and the remaining teams, free-form role play.

Team Contract Activity: 10-15 minutes

Students will have read two articles that specifically address methods on establishing group rules and terms. In the last few minutes of class, student teams begin producing a team contract that will guide their project. The activity is continued after class via the technologies they learned about earlier. The contract sets rules for behaviors, deadlines, deliverables, and helps students begin to assess the skills they bring to the team and their roles in the project.

Initial Team Meetings Activity: full class period

In the two class periods after the team contract is completed, I set aside full periods of class time to work on the team project. Conflicts over ideas and initial personality problems normally arise in the early, brainstorming stages of the project, and by having students work in class, I am able to be a participant observer to help guide and facilitate the process.

Conclusion

Teams that successfully negotiate the collaborative process usually produce a better product so investing time teaching collaboration is well worth it. Since I’ve implemented this series of classroom activities, student evaluations of the collaborative process and the project have consistently been positive. While I still routinely have teams that struggle, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had a group self-implode.

Bailey, et. al. (2005) claim that “[i]n today’s business climate, teams … are here to stay. It is therefore the responsibility of business schools to provide genuine teamwork experiences for their students” (p. 55-56). In my experience, “genuine teamwork experiences” are achieved by implementing an active framework to support the collaborative process. Even though most students would prefer not to collaborate on a classroom project, the described classroom activities are structured so students can take away a growing ability—a set of methods, approaches, tactics and awareness—to navigate the collaborative process successfully, which prepares them for the collaborative challenges they will face in future team projects in school and on the job.

References

Bailey, J., Sass, M., Sweiercz, P., Seal, C., & D. C. Kayes. (2005). Teaching with and through teams: Student-written, instructor-facilitated case writing and the signatory code. Journal of Management Education, 29, 39-59.

Barker, R. T., & F. J Franzak. (1997). Team building in the classroom: Preparing students for their organizational future. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 27, 303-315.

Caspersz, D., Skene, J. & Wu, M. (2005). Principles and guidelines in managing student teams. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. Retrieved May 28, 2008, from http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/caspersz.html.

Hansen, R. (2006). Benefits and problems with student teams: Suggestions for improving team projects. Journal of Business Education, September/October, 11-19.

Holmer, L. (2001). Will we teach leadership or skilled incompetence?: The challenge of student project teams. Journal of Management Education, 25, 590-605.

Schullery, N. M. & M. K.Gibson. (2001). Working in groups: Identification and treatment of students’ perceived weaknesses. Business Communication Quarterly, 64.2, 9-30.

Myers, L. & R. S. Larson. (2005). Preparing students for early work conflicts. Business Communication Quarterly, 68, 306-317.

Additional Resources

Here’s a short article my colleagues here at UC and I wrote about the group report in business and technical communication course. PDF of the article

Personality types for the role playing exercise.

Here’s how I get students thinking about skills they bring and what they need as well as personal responsibility. It’s the team contract.

The overview of collaboration policiesI use that includes information on voting someone out.

A handout my good friend Rob Kilgore and I made about the reasons why students need to collaborate.

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