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Stop Assigning Team Projects…Unless…

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

Erik R. Eddy, Siena College Caroline D’Abate,  Skidmore College

Groupwork and team projects are common pedagogical tools utilized by faculty across the curriculum to enhance student learning. Although most faculty utilize some form of team-based learning methodology, there remains little research on how faculty teach their students the differences between working alone and working in a team (Napier & Gershenfeld, 2004; Nicoll-Senft, 2009). Education about teamwork and ongoing support of team processes are critical elements in maximizing student engagement and learning in the classroom.

Teams are important

We know that teams are an important and growing part of organizational life in many disciplines and fields. Thirty years ago, less than one third of surveyed organizations utilized teams. Now, roughly 90% of organizations report using team based structures in some way (Aggarwal & O’Brien, 2008; Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Hansen, 2006; Kagan, 2011). The primary driver of this cultural shift to teamwork is decision-making complexity. As complexity has increased, organizations believe that a team of employees from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experiences can make better decisions than a single individual. Research supports this notion – consistently finding that high performing teams outperform individuals on complex decisions (Kerr & Tindale, 2004; Stahlberg, et al., 1995). Of course, the key phrase in the previous sentence is “high performing teams.”  A high performing team works well together, develops positive team norms, and engages in supportive team processes. In a high performing team, the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts (1+1>2). Unfortunately, individuals on teams often don’t work well together. Teams may develop dysfunctional norms, such as showing up late for meetings or only focusing on individual outcomes, and teams are known to engage in negative team processes such as freeriding and groupthink. In these “poor performing teams,” the whole is less than the sum of the individual parts (1+1<2). Poor performing teams are prevalent in today’s organizations – less than a quarter of organizations report that they are happy with team performance.

Educators to the rescue

As team usage in organizations has increased and frustration with team performance has grown, organizations have looked to colleges and universities for help. In fact, a recent National Association for Colleges and Employers survey finds that teamwork is now the #1 skill desired by employers (NACE, 2014). In response, higher education faculty have developed learning objectives focused on enhancing students’ teamwork skills. The result is that more and more faculty across the curriculum are incorporating team projects into the curriculum to prepare students for future careers spent working in teams.

There is a large body of educational literature examining teamwork as a pedagogical tool and this literature finds that teamwork can be a useful mechanism to enhance student learning (Davidson, et al., 2014; Fink, 2004). Our research, however, finds that the way teamwork is implemented has a tremendous impact on the value of this experience. We share the results of our most recent research below.

We conducted two studies at two different institutions that explored the effectiveness of team pedagogy in the classroom. First, we considered what would happen if we didn’t just put students in teams, but we also taught them about team dynamics – in other words, are there benefits to be gained from teaching teamwork content? Second, we considered what would happen if we not only placed students in teams and taught them team content, but also made on-going team support part of our pedagogical approach (e.g., students write/sign team contracts, conduct peer evaluations, engage in a team debrief). For both studies, we explored the same key outcomes for students:

  • Are they learning how to work on a team?

  • Are they enthusiastic about team-based work?

  • Are they engaging in effective team processes (e.g., setting goals, managing their time, healthy debate)?

  • How does their ability to perform as a team fare (e.g., perceptions of performance, quality of work)?

Our first study found that teaching content related to teamwork does enrich student learning. Participants reported significantly higher levels of readiness to work in a team – an indicator of increased teamwork knowledge. However, this study found that teaching teamwork topics alone does not impact other important outcomes such as enthusiasm for teaming, positive team processes, and enhanced team performance.  Our second study indicated that teaching teamwork content combined with ongoing support of team processes leads to all four beneficial outcomes.

When taken together, results of these two studies suggest that:

  1. Faculty who assign team projects without preparing their students to work in teams greatly increase the likelihood that students will have a negative experience and student learning and performance will suffer.

  2. Teaching teamwork content is necessary but not sufficient for important educational and performance outcomes.

  3. Providing ongoing teamwork support is critical to team success and student learning. Faculty who provide ongoing team support maximize student engagement and learning in the classroom.

Should I really “stop assigning team projects” as the title suggests?

Of course not! Team projects are a critical pedagogical tool and teamwork is a critical skill for student success. However, to maximize student engagement and learning, we caution faculty to “stop assigning team projects” without first providing some education to students on the difference between working on a team compared to working alone and then providing ongoing support to teams during the project.

Faculty shouldn’t be surprised by this advice. Teamwork is a skill. Good educators understand that skill development requires you to teach the basics, have students practice, provide students with performance feedback, and encourage students to engage in even more practice more before they become competent. Simply putting students into teams without the proper education and training on teamwork is like asking someone who has never played piano to play Beethoven’s piano concerto no. 5 – sour notes are sure to follow.

Some tips from the trenches

Preparing your students to work on a team and supporting their team efforts doesn’t have to be an onerous process. A few simple tools can greatly enhance student satisfaction with team projects and performance on the assignment.

Prior to the team project – Prepare students for success by discussing the differences between working alone and working in a team. This discussion can explore some of the most common problems such as freeriding and groupthink. At the end of the discussion, encourage teams to proactively develop positive team norms by developing a team contract. The contract should clearly list the specific positive behaviors team members feel are important to their success (e.g., show up for meetings on time, come prepared to work, listen to each others’ ideas, do your fair share of the work) and state how team members will handle the situation should their teammates not live up to the agreement (e.g., talk to the team member, assign specific tasks to each other, make each teammate’s contributions “matter” to the team’s final product, hold each other accountable). By signing the contract, individuals agree to uphold the agreed-upon positive team norms and give their teammates the right to hold them to the norms too.

During the team project – Encourage students to hold teammates to the team contract by pointing out when individuals are not upholding the positive team norms. This is also a great opportunity for team members to provide individual feedback to each teammate in the form of a teammate evaluation. Faculty can require students to write a one-page reflection on the feedback they receive, exploring how they will use the feedback to be a better teammate in the future.

After the team project – Ask the team to step back from the work and, as a team, discuss how things went – focusing on both task and team process issues. Faculty can require students to develop an action plan, identifying changes they would make to the team to enhance performance. Even if the team doesn’t work together again, this exercise solidifies in the minds of the students the difference between a high performing team and a poor performing team, increasing the likelihood that students will transfer this learning to future teamwork opportunities.

Teamwork is here to stay. It is important for faculty to realize, though, that it isn’t enough to simply place individuals together and call them a “team”. We must provide our students with education and ongoing support as they build the skills necessary to be successful in a team content.

About the Authors

Erik Eddy is an Associate Professor of Management and Douglas T. Hickey Chair in Business at Siena College, where he teaches human resource development, change management, and organizational strategy. His research activities center on team dynamics, higher education pedagogy, employee development, mentoring, and leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the State University of New York at Albany.

Caroline D’Abate is an Associate Professor of Management at Skidmore College, where she teaches organizational behavior, human resource development, introductory business, as well as the occasional course on popular culture’s intersection with management. Her research activities center on team dynamics, higher education pedagogy, employee development, mentoring, and the pop culture of work. She holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the State University of New York at Albany.


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Stahlberg, D., Eller, F., Maass, A., & Frey, D. (1995). We knew it all along: Hindsight bias in groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 63, 46-58.

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