Encouraging effective teamwork in the classroom

Setting group assessments is an excellent way of reducing marking, providing more meaningful, considered feedback for students and restoring work-life balance, writes Becky Lewis

Becky Lewis's avatar
27 Mar 2024
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Students working in a team on a project

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Teamwork is an essential skill, but developing it can incite high levels of stress. For students, the worry is often that a teammate who doesn’t pull their weight will jeopardize others’ hard work. For educators, it’s that putting students in teams can sometimes cause conflict.

However, with large class sizes and growing workloads, setting group assessments is an excellent way of reducing marking, providing more meaningful, considered feedback for students and restoring work-life balance. Here are some approaches that have worked well for me.

Formative group work: one commonly used approach involves setting a group formative assessment and an individual summative assessment. This reduces formative marking, but it means there are no consequences for students who do not engage with their team. The fact that teamwork itself is not assessed is also a flaw here.

Assess engagement rather than attendance: remember that attendance and engagement are not the same thing. Some students face more barriers to attending than others but may be keeping in contact with the group and submitting the work required of them. 

Reduce risk to engaged students: since, for many students, the main source of stress associated with teamwork activities is being grouped with somebody who does not pull their weight, designing an assessment that requires the delegation of individual responsibility means that if one student fails to complete their part, the others will not lose out so everyone has a chance to shine.

Give students autonomy: allow them some say over what their project is about. If you assign topics, you will inevitably alienate students who are not interested in the topics you choose, which will affect motivation. By all means, set the parameters, but allow students some free reign. Doing so will enhance engagement, investment in and ownership over the project.

Get students on board: teamwork is essential in almost all professional environments. Emphasise the benefits of the exercise and of working in teams more generally. Emphasise the skills students can develop by working with others, but also the more immediate benefit that group submissions are quicker to mark, meaning students get more detailed feedback sooner. 

While it would be lovely, the end goal of a group task is not usually for members to become close friends, but to learn to work with others. There are bound to be personality clashes, but these shouldn’t prevent them forming teams that work well together. 

Putting it into practice

I apply many of these tips in my first-year skills module of about 200 students enrolled from a range of disciplines within biological sciences. I emphasise the benefits of working in teams in preparation for the workplace during an initial lecture. I then ask each student to choose a global challenge they’re interested in from the following options: 

  • Biodiversity maintenance 
  • Food security
  • Public health

Next, I put students who have chosen the same challenge into groups of approximately eight. I make sure groups contain a variety of students across courses, and that no student is the only one from their course in a group. 

In the first team meeting, I ask each group to produce a code of conduct and for everyone to sign it. This gives the students control over how the group should behave and helps them identify the characteristics that are important in a teammate. Throughout the year, I continue to emphasise that their teammates can only increase their mark, not drag it down.

The students know from the beginning of the semester what the end goal is: the assignment they need to produce. In semester one it is a literature review related to their global challenge topic. It is up to them how broad or how focused it is, as well as who is responsible for each section within it. I mark them as a group on the introduction, structure, flow and conclusion, all things that students struggle with because they tend to focus heavily on the word count. By making this a group task, students must discuss how best to structure the piece together. I mark them individually on the quality of their content, writing style and referencing in their respective sections. If a group member does not engage with the team at all, they get a few marks for the structure of the literature review but do not score any points for their section. Not having a particular section in the literature review does not cost the group.

I mark students on engagement in the second semester. I give the students a mark out of five for their attendance at team meetings. If they attend all of them, they get five out of five. Their teammates then mark them out of five for their engagement and contribution to the project. They are awarded the higher of those two marks. This means that if a student engages well and does the work but is unable to attend the timetabled team meetings because of other commitments, they are not penalised. Conversely, if a student engages in team meetings but is unpopular with the rest of the group, their attendance mark will prevent them being penalised by their peers a result of personality clashes.

I have presented my advice on how to facilitate effective teamwork in the classroom at the Skills Community of Practice and am happy to speak to anyone who is interested in hearing more.

Becky Lewis is lecturer in evolutionary biology at the University of East Anglia.

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