Take care over sharing: guiding student teams on collaboration

Effective teamwork requires shared understanding, goals and responsibility over a task. Kenan Kok Xiao-Feng explains how to guide students in working collectively

Kenan Kok Xiao-Feng 's avatar
Singapore Institute of Technology
3 Feb 2023
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“My team members do not understand each other’s points of view”.

“One of my team members is particularly difficult to work with as he keeps opposing ideas put forth by another member of the team”.

“I am having a hard time working with my team as everyone has different opinions and we cannot seem to arrive at any agreement”.

It is not uncommon to come across such sentiments when talking to university students who have done team projects. Working collectively is no mean feat because a team consists of individuals with different styles of working, personalities, life experiences, perspectives, motivation levels, and so on. A team is akin to an orchestra, comprising musicians playing different instruments, each with its own unique sound and characteristics. Making the orchestra sound melodious requires amalgamating these unique sounds into a coherent piece, guided by a conductor’s score. However, more often than not in student teamwork, that score is either not written or is written poorly because individuals lack awareness of how to work together successfully. Without this awareness, teams are less likely to write their score, which will result in problems maintaining the collaboration.

What skills could higher education equip students with, not only to collaborate but sustain their collaboration, as a team? My solution is five team processes that I believe are helpful for educators to inculcate in their students. They are summarised as follows: Within student teams, cultivate shared (1) understanding of the task, (2) goal setting, (3) planning, (4) monitoring, and (5) evaluation.

What does ‘shared’ mean?

Before elaborating on what each of these processes entail, it is worth clarifying that “shared” here means a co-construction or negotiation of the decision-making processes and knowledge within the team. It is not merely a consensus based on a common view that all or most team members subscribe to, but a building of knowledge or the decision-making process collectively through active engagement and discussions within the team. For instance, a team member can share his or her perspective on a process and other members can add to it and develop an enhanced version of that same process that incorporates every member’s perspective. When each member actively contributes knowledge and takes part in decision-making, responsibility for the task or learning is distributed across the whole team, making it less likely to fall entirely on one, or a few dominant members.

Cultivate a shared understanding of the task

What does this mean? A shared understanding of the task entails co-constructing the team’s interpretation of the task requirements. As an example, ask a team to discuss what each member perceives to be the purpose or outcomes of the task. They can build on each other’s perceptions and arrive at an understanding that best encapsulates the whole team’s understanding of the task requirements and aims.

Shared goal setting

Once a shared understanding of the task requirements is established, the team should be asked to set goals through collective negotiation or co-construction. In a practical sense, this could mean asking each member to articulate goals they have for the team. The goals can be “stacked” such that they form a series of aims or one overarching goal that is representative of all team members’ contributions.

Shared planning

After shared goals have been set, teams can start discussing how they will achieve them. The co-constructed plans should include how time is to be managed (creating a timeline for task completion), co-ordination and management within the team (roles and task assignment), and the enactment of task-specific strategies (use of concept mapping and certain taught frameworks or concepts).

Shared monitoring

To realise shared goals, teams need to closely track progress towards completion. Shared monitoring of the team’s progress (checking if the timeline for task completion was adhered to) and products (checking if the project requirements were followed) should be regularly reviewed to determine if any modifications to the plans need to be made. Introduce teams to online project management tools such as Trello to enable them to track the completion of tasks by each team member and make changes to the goals or plans wherever necessary. This system holds every individual accountable for their contributions.

Shared evaluation 

Finally, the team should carry out an assessment of their performance in relation to certain benchmarks such as goals, plans, and pre-existing standards set by the task assessment criteria. Shared evaluation typically takes place after instructor and peer feedback about the product is given. As an example, ask teams to reflect on their processes, output, workload, role distributions and choice of tools for planning after delivering feedback about the product. Changes can then be made to improve performance in future team projects.

These team processes might sound like common sense and university educators might expect these skills to have already been inculcated in their students during pre-university education. However, the reality, I believe, is far from that and educators should strive to infuse these skills into their classrooms whenever feasible.

Kenan Kok is senior learning analyst at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

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