Help Me Teach Teamwork
July 18, 2011 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Suggestions for approaches to promoting healthy teamwork in undergraduate freshmen, as a TA?

I am TAing a freshman-level class in the fall. This is my first TAing experience, though I've taught short (one or two-day) seminars as internal training for orgs I've worked for. The instructor has given my colleague and I, who are 50/50 sharing TA-ing duty, a lot of latitude in defining the assignments. The assignments we have to design include three big group projects that build on each other over the course of the semester.

I was never really taught group work in any systematic way, and while I've been in the tech/business world enough that I'm pretty sure I know how to work on/lead teams, I've always found the dynamic in coursework teams to be different and daunting due to the lack of accountability, etc. Teaching how to work effectively in a team is not the primary purpose of the course, but I'd like to throw the students a bit of a bone in terms of getting-started tips. Any thoughts? Ideas, exercises, things I should read? The students are almost all first-years. I don't want to overwhelm them with info, but I also don't want to throw them into the fire entirely unprepared.

The assignments are media-production and light-duty programming related, with a minimal writing component.
posted by Alterscape to Education (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your students will work together if they have an assignment where working individually is not an option. When that's the case, they will work together naturally and easily. It says nerd in your profile, so I'll try this simile and see if it works. Building a good group assignment is like building a good roleplaying game campaign. You want to design challenges that involve everyone.

Design tasks that require the strengths of multiple people. This is easiest if you get to know your students well, but can also be accomplished by simply looking into their backgrounds. A glance at the roster for student's majors for example, or a glance at your grade book for individual assignment scores can give you a quick and dirty idea of which students are good at what. Since you're designing the assignments, and you only have to design three of them, you can do this without too much trouble. Just wait a bit until you get a sense of who's who before you start.

Also consider the first group assignment to be a pilot experiment. Try things out, see what works and what doesn't, and very little harm will be done because it's only the first assignment.

It'll probably help if you assign groups. Students, particularly freshmen, are very bad at forming groups by any methods other than "who's closest to me?" or "group with people I know from outside class." Aim for diversity in ability and background. As mentioned above, you want the assignment to engage all the students in the group, this is easiest if the group members have different strengths. You can then build the assignment based on those strengths. (Unfortunately, there's always at least one student who seems to have no strengths, suck it up and put them somewhere).

If a group is not working out, or whenever you feel like it, change the members. For assignments that build on one another, you probably don't want to change the members as much, but swapping out one or two people from each group should be fine, especially early on (between the first and second group assignments).

Almost all of the reading I have on the topic of collaborative learning is theoretical rather than practical (It's meant for research, not instruction), but if you want some reading, you can memail me with a real email address or something and I'll look for stuff to send you.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:20 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Require them to come up with a project plan as part of the deliverables for each project. Make it due early, like a week after the project has been assigned, and make it worth something like 10% of the project grade. Give them guidelines on what to include, for example expected tasks and completion dates, who will do it, group meeting times, issues they foresee, etc. The plan can't be expected to be accurate, and will require modification as they work on the project, but at least this makes them sit down as a group and think about what needs to be done and how they'll do it. Your grading should be based on how much thought they've put into it.

Another thing that I've found useful is to let students know that 5-10% of their grade will be based on evaluation from people in their project group. In groups that worked well or at least got along, the students would just agree to give everybody else high marks. But, there were always groups where everybody else in the group marked one group member low, and giving detailed reasons why, usually that this person had slacked and caused everybody else grief. Seen in combination with how the person did in individual assignments, it's relatively easy to tell if the person was indeed slacking or they just didn't get along with the rest of the team.

And of course let them know you're available during office hours to help them with project planning and conflict resolution.
posted by needled at 9:21 AM on July 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

In many universities, you can use the student information system to do things like get student's list of courses as well, that might help. I can see a simple group forming from just picking someone with some art classes, someone with some programming classes, and someone with some writing classes. It's freshman year, but they should be enrolled in stuff other than your course, and have taken some AP classes.

If you can't spy on them with the university system, you can also ask them to list classes their taking, or ask them about their favorite classes in highschool. A quick survey will help you form groups.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:23 AM on July 18, 2011

Be prepared to be really involved in the team development.

1. Inevitably 15% of the teams have a member that drops out. This pissed the other kids off. Design the assignments so that a drop out doesn't screw everyone else.

2. Inevitable another 25% of the teams will have a major flake. The students will email you to complain about this person. You will feel bad but don't know what to do. Think really hard about how group assignments are graded and how much a flake can alter the outcome of the whole group.

2a. You're going to deal with students who say "I did all the work. Madison did nothing. I deserve an A."

3. In my experience they don't like groupwork. They don't like trying to meet outside of class especially. I'd have at least 2-4 class sessions during which they work on their projects and you wander around and give feedback.

4. You may want to think about how they're going to communicate. Does your campus CMS have group functionality? Otherwise you might want to make them all make Google groups or something.

5. Picking groups. I've experiemented with letting the students choose their own groups and have not been satisfied with the results. On one hand, all the flakes might end up choosing eachother and their boat will sink together. On the other hand, having friends work together is not as "real life" like as you may want it to be. On the other hand, friends are more likely to work together outside of class and you won't have that ice breaking period.

6. Have weekly deliverables.

This is all coming from a place where I TA'd for a freshman-level course with group projects -- one where the group project was the major component of the course and another where it was just for a few presentations.
posted by k8t at 9:28 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd have at least 2-4 class sessions during which they work on their projects and you wander around and give feedback

For the love of god, this. I went to school full-time, during the day -- which means my classes were 95% teenagers -- while having an Office Job and a shitload of other Adult Responsibilities. I can assure you that the few, sad times I had to do group work, no one had any intention of meeting in the evening or on weekends, which is the only time I could do it. We worked around it (mostly by the grace of my boss looking the other way at my showing up an hour or two late) but some class time would have been great.
posted by griphus at 9:40 AM on July 18, 2011

Also, McSweeney's has a dead-on look at how group projects actually work.
posted by griphus at 9:42 AM on July 18, 2011

To echo griphus, I found that non-traditional students (older, with young children, commuting from far away, etc.), without exception, end up getting screwed in groupwork because they have less time to meet/stricter schedules, and in what feels like elementary school kickball, the other students don't want to pick them.

(Shoutout to non-traditional students though... they rule!)
posted by k8t at 9:43 AM on July 18, 2011

Oh, and another thing -- if there is a group project that results in individual papers (a common way to get around people getting screwed by the flake), there will certainly be cheaters that copy eachother's work. Even though you can tell them "I know that the temptation to help eachother with your final paper is great, but please don't," they still do. Lots of copypasta.
posted by k8t at 9:45 AM on July 18, 2011

I used to TA a team project heavy course on operating system implementation. The professor's solution to accountability was peer evaluations & post project interviews. Peer evaluations were verbal (excellent, great, good, average, below average, no show etc), but translated to a 1-100 scale. Those who were above group average got a boost to the project score, and those below average got a ding. The interviews helped us suss out cheaters and sanity check peer evaluations.

The forms we used were pulled from a research paper for on peer evaluation for team projects in chemistry engineering classes. Doing a bit of research on the spot for you, it seems some newer publications suggests that breaking down ratings into distinct components teamwork (attendance, discussion, listening, commitment, accepts criticism gracefully, completes technical tasks on time) are even better. There's way too much research on the subject for me to digest a specific paper you should read and adopt, having never seriously considered the question myself.

Beyond that, a few tips from experience:

1. Scheduling is a nightmare. I didn't have too much trouble with a different course that did work in pairs, but beyond that you find people working 40 hours a week who can't find time during the day meet with the people working 20 hours at night. The more students per team, the worse it gets.

2. Milestone projects are nice, but there are inevitably people who fail the first one and now they're a third behind the rest of the class. Consider your options: do they drop out? do they double their march?

3. Freshmen have terrible time management skills, generally underestimate effort needed for assignments, and procrastinate until the last minute. Everything you can do to get them started early will help.

4. Not all freshmen will have the "light-duty programming" skills you expect and require. Even if it's in a prerequisite. A prereq quiz on the first day will do a good job of smoke testing the clueless and signaling everyone who's forgotten they need to start relearning pronto.
posted by pwnguin at 9:45 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I invariably got screwed on group assignments and loathed them. The way I saved our group grade (and got back at the kids who flat-out wouldn't help) was to take photos of every single group meeting. The fact that we had seven people on the roster, but three signatures on the sign-in lists and three faces in the photos was very helpful (my camera and I also became the class designated verifier of attendance at extra credit lectures after the prof failed to show up because he didn't think anyone would bother.)

Anyway, if I ever actually assigned group work, I'd require reports on meetings to go along with those frequent deliverables.
posted by SMPA at 10:12 AM on July 18, 2011

Seriously, everything k8t said, plus a million.

Your students will work together if they have an assignment where working individually is not an option. When that's the case, they will work together naturally and easily.

I have NEVER, in 16 years of teaching found this to be true. The minute you mention the words "group project" they will moan and complain and try to get out of it (there is a small derail in this thread about this very topic). You can mitigate this to some degree by giving lots of time in-class for group work, and by the accountability measures listed above, but there will still be grumbling and complaining.

I've done all variations of group assigning, from picking your friends to random. One tactic that has worked slightly better is to give a short survey at the start of the class that asks students to self-assess on some skills key to the assignment, and I would use that to try to match up the groups. So, for example, if the assignment requires them to give a presentation, I would try to make sure at least one group member had experience with PowerPoint. I've also known people who asked the students to list their best time for meeting outside of class, and used that to set up the groups (doesn't always work, though).

Almost all of the reading I have on the topic of collaborative learning is theoretical rather than practical

Yeah, and most of it is at odds with what students actually do in classroom situations.

Also, if you are absolutely committed to using groups, spend at least one class time talking specifically about group work, have each team assign individual roles, have them discuss their norms and expectations, and have them write this down and sign a commitment to follow these rules. You probably want to have multiple peer-evaluation checks, and very clear, very serious consequences for failure to meet deliverables (i.e. if your team proves that you missed a deadline/missed X meetings, whatever, you are removed from the group and get a zero for the assignment). But you absolutely have to enforce these rules if you set them up.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 10:38 AM on July 18, 2011

And PLEASE ask the other grad students for best practices in running this class. There are probably well-tested ways to do this that exist in the collective knowledge of your department.
posted by k8t at 10:50 AM on July 18, 2011


I've sorry you've had such difficulty with group projects in your 16 years of teaching. In my 14 years of running group projects, I've never have any problems. But I don't mean to say that you should do group projects or even that you've been doing them wrong. Different things work for different people, and I would never suggest that group projects are for everybody. This question though (as far as I understand) is about a TA that is required to do group projects, so that's a little off topic though.

I do want to clarify a few things, that I worry might be misunderstood:

No other option means no other option, including making bitching and moaning not an option. A well designed group assignment can ONLY be completed by the group, not by any individual. Too many people think that ordering students to work in groups is the same as making it necessary to work in a group. That's not true at all. In fact it's best not to tell them that they have to work in a group. Give them an assignment that can ONLY be done by a group, give them the option to work in a group, and a warning about the workload if they don't, and they'll voluntarily do it.

Secondly, I very much disagree with the claim that theoretical work is at odds with what students actually do. Much of the work is misinterpreted, and none of it works to improve a bad situation, but when you see a group that works, you can point to the theory and see exactly why it works. Theory is explanatory, not instructional. That difference might account for the mismatch that you've observed.
posted by yeolcoatl at 11:55 AM on July 18, 2011

Make sure whatever you assign does not require people to meet all together outside of class time. I have been in a group work situation where there was literally no time between 8am and 2am daily that everyone could meet (someone worked in the morning, someone worked the late shift on-campus, someone was gone every weekend (not really by choice)) and because of the requirements of the project, we were literally unable to complete it. We talked to the prof and worked it out, but people have schedules that are hard to change, especially when they're working/have families/etc, and it sucked to be seen as bitchers and moaners because of it.
posted by brainmouse at 2:23 PM on July 18, 2011

When I was in college, I had a lot of group projects. When I was a sophomore, I had 2 projects for different classes at the same time, which I found somewhat hard to manage. By the time I was a senior, I think I could be in 5 without a problem. The difference is what yeolcoatl is saying--the work became such that it was necessary to work in a group. And then everything was smoother. In the other groups, the work could be such that the bossy/perfectionist girl could try to hijack the group's work. When the work was demanding enough, we divided into roles and came together.

Google "roles in group work" or something like that. Lots of colleges seem to publish thoughts on group work. I remember a class where we discussed different roles people play and just being aware of names for the dynamics we experienced helped us get along and to complement each other.

And if you just tell freshmen "if you try to write a paper by putting 5 of you in front of a computer screen, you are idiots," you will teach them a valuable lesson. Group work doesn't really require a lot of meetings and face to face time.
posted by oreofuchi at 6:18 AM on July 19, 2011

« Older Need to map my Boise cycling training rides!   |   Even paranoids can get scammed, can't they? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.