How to enhance students’ participation in teamwork that is not assessed
Rebecca Wang outlines a learning structure that supports students who are new to team-based research projects
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Students’ teamwork has always been challenging in terms of participation, contribution and communication. It is even more so when the teamwork is not assessed, particularly during the weeks when students must meet the assessment deadlines.
I lead a business research methods module for postgraduate students, the majority of whom are international students with diverse educational backgrounds. I have been using unassessed weekly teamwork since the start of pandemic. I started to use team-based learning activities to encourage students to apply research concepts and skills actively, to take on independent learning responsibilities, and to work together in small, self-directed groups on collaborative tasks. The weekly learning activities aim to prepare students for their final individual assessment at the end of the semester, which is a research proposal leading into their final project.
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Students work together in self-selected groups of four on a collective task each week. The task revolves around the concepts covered in the lecture of the previous week. This allows time for students to do the relevant reading and group discussion and then put together their team’s homework. The activities include: choosing a research area; defining a focused and specific topic; researching and evaluating credible sources such as journal articles, texts, book chapters or newspaper articles around the chosen working topic; using the university’s required referencing style to draft a list of references; designing a short online survey and interview questions around the topic; and presenting the mini project.
The weekly team learning activities follow five steps:
- Students use online learning resources for independent study and revision
- They carry out team discussion and complete each week’s task
- They upload weekly homework to Blackboard’s discussion board
- Lecturer gives online feedback on discussion board
- Lecturer gives comments and suggestions at each week’s lecture, such as during Q&A time.
Four key pieces of advice for enhancing students’ active participation in team activities
Ice-breaker: getting to know each other
During the arrivals week, when students first join the course, students have two sessions related to teamwork. One session is on how to work collaboratively within multicultural teams; another session is “getting to know each other”. At the sessions, students learn about each other’s backgrounds and strengths, and share their views on how to work effectively within teams, how to face common challenges in communication, task allocation and work contributions, and how to tackle issues caused by differences.
Detailed guidance at the start of teaching week
In the first teaching week, at my lecture, the first step is to communicate with students the reasons why team-based activities are used on the module so they understand the rationale and values of collaborative learning. I then present weekly activities, procedures and the task workbook, where students can find the specific theme of each week and make notes of their discussions. It is important to be clear about expectations and their responsibilities.
At the seminar, I allow students to form their own learning groups. I intervene if students are too shy to approach other students to join a group. Students are then given time to sit together as a group to give their team a name, select a team coordinator, exchange their contact details and preferred communication ways, and talk about variables such as their working approaches and time-management styles. Relatively small groups allow every student to learn about each other well, give an enhanced sense of responsibility and reduce potential “free riding”.
Timely online feedback
Students upload their team’s homework to the Blackboard discussion board one day before each week’s lecture. I go through each team’s homework and give comments, which are visible to all teams. At the lecture, I set aside 10 to 15 minutes Q&A to comment on the strengths and weaknesses and make suggestions for improvement.
I use teams’ good work to illustrate what can be achieved. Each team can amend their work based on the comments. At my lectures, I always praise the teams when they undertake efforts to make corrections. The focus of this stage is how to use the tutor’s formative comments to improve their work. Since each team’s work and my comments are transparent on the discussion board, they can learn from each other, and it motivates them to perform well in the next round.
At each week’s seminar, I also set aside 20 minutes or so for each team to make a start of the following week’s team homework. I join each team for a couple of minutes, and students often ask me for further feedback or suggestions. Also, if any teams are struggling, I can meet the whole team and ascertain any issues.
Online learning resources to support independent teamwork
On the Blackboard learning platform, each week’s learning resources are organised into a container and set up logically and consistently following a theme and weekly teaching structure. For example, I provide pre-class podcasts, lecture slides and recordings, seminar activities and online reading list. I use Panopto’s captioning to ensure the accessibility of recordings.
The focus of team-based learning activities is on learning progress with the support of the tutor’s timely formative feedback, as well as the collaborative learning within informal learning teams. These are valuable opportunities for students to support each other and learn together. Also, small tasks on weekly basis act as a scaffolding that prepares those students who have little experience carrying out a research project.
Rebecca Wang is principal lecturer in international business and management at Westminster Business School.