Training students in effective teamwork and collaboration

The ability to work effectively as part of a team is a vital life skill. Steven Bateman, Yan Jin and Jie Zhang explain how they support and train students in teamwork



24 May 2022
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Created in partnership with

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 

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A group of university students arguing. We should teach students how to work together as a team

The ability to work collaboratively as part of a team is one of the most vital skills with which we can equip our students. Being able to work with others is likely to be a major predictor of success in both the academic and professional worlds. However, several barriers to team effectiveness can hamper our teams from achieving synergy. Below are the most common stumbling blocks we’ve seen students struggle with, along with proposed strategies to address them. Ultimately, students can realise tremendous benefits working in a more collective and mutually supporting mode.  


One of the greatest threats to team unity and productivity is a lack of trust. If members lack sufficient confidence in one another, there may be an unwillingness to delegate responsibilities within the team and to share vital information. Ultimately, this can cause members to pursue their own private objectives rather than working towards common goals.

Lack of trust itself can arise where members are unclear about their responsibilities or the role that they are expected to play within the team. Therefore, clarity is key, about both the team’s goal, so members can keep it in mind and work towards it, and the expectations that members have for one another. One useful way to achieve this clarity of purpose and expectations is to ask students to draft a team charter. This task will clarify issues such as distribution of workload and how best to communicate and resolve problems as they arrive.


Team success is supported through meetings and ongoing communication that underlies collective efforts. To ensure that meetings run effectively, we encourage students to set an agenda and to foster idea sharing in an environment that supports creativity and respect. The ability to disagree politely with an idea rather than to attack the speaker can keep even contentious arguments relatively cordial and allow more opinions and member contributions to be drawn out. It is important that members feel valued and respected and that their voice is heard.

Likewise, when drafting any charter or attempting to define team norms, students should be aware of their own strengths that contribute to the team effort. One way to help them do this is by encouraging them to reflect on past team experiences and to explore the roles that they played, considering what went well and what could have been improved. We can also reference existing models of team roles. One classic approach is the Belbin team inventory test, which divides the potential roles that team members can take into three categories: people focused, task focused and thinking focused. By surveying themselves and their teammates, students can identify not only the best ways they can contribute but also any potential shortfalls in their team, and then decide how best to collaborate to cover these gaps.


It is not uncommon in student-led groups for deadlines to be imminent before work begins in earnest. To ensure good coordination and work planning, teachers should encourage the team to appoint a leader at the beginning of the project. A decisive leader can keep things on track during meetings, make sure that discussion doesn’t stray too far from the target, and give constructive feedback to the other members.

A study log can help when tracking progress and assigning future tasks. The study log may also be necessary for assessed teamwork as part of the team’s submission to inform contribution scores. It can also help to identify students who are not performing as well as they could.

Dealing with weaker members

When dealing with members who perform less well than the majority, we advise the student teams to be considerate. A student might not be contributing because they do not yet understand what is expected of them or because the work that they have been assigned is not a good match for their skills. Communication and re-visiting the working arrangements may pay off here, as may adopting a more transformational leadership style, wherein the vision for the common goal is shared and collective achievement is prioritised over individual achievement.

To sum up, teamwork can be a challenge for students. A lack of clarity about expectations and the potential for distrust among members can derail even the best efforts at the outset. We propose to give students a sufficient grounding in the Belbin test, then afford them opportunities to apply what they have learned in a practical setting. We believe that by helping our students develop the abilities to organise, communicate clearly and – perhaps most importantly – disagree openly and politely without attacking the character of other members, we are laying the foundation for ever-more-successful team endeavours in the future.  

Steven Bateman is a principal language lecturer in the School of Languages and the head of English for academic purposes at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS); Yan Jin is a senior teaching fellow in the IBSS; and Jie Zhang is the IBSS school examination officer and an associate professor in accounting. All are at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

This advice is based on two projects "Peer assessment implementation and individual contribution evaluation in collaborative learning" and “Nurturing students’ transferable skills via the cumulative group work experience at the program level”, both supported by the Teaching Development Fund (Ref. TDF20/21-R21-137; TDF21/22-R23-165) from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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