Team virgins fear an orgy of togetherness

August 15, 2003

Employers rate groupwork skills highly, yet students do not see the point. But why are they so hostile and how can tutors foster the idea that teamwork benefits everyone? asks Peter Levin

Come on, you Blues! Many of us support teams - in the sports arena at least - and students are no exception. But when it comes to doing academic work in teams, students are often remarkably resistant. Assign a project to a group of four or five and the first thing they do is divide the work into that number of self-contained chunks. Everyone goes away and does their own thing. Teamwork it is not.

More academics, however, are setting their students group projects based on the claim that they will acquire teamwork skills. That does not necessarily follow. Assigning students to a project and leaving them to get on with it is more likely to leave an enduring distaste for teamwork and scepticism about its benefits. A recent Careers Research and Advisory Service survey of students' attitudes shows that, while employers rated teamwork as the top priority workplace skill, students rated it as the lowest. Evidently, they cannot see the point.

For four years, a colleague, Ivan Kent, and I have been working on teamwork tutoring with cohorts of masters students at the London School of Economics. Being LSE, groups are multinational, which adds a certain frisson.

When group members first meet they are polite but wary. As strangers, they do not know what to expect. We start by taking them through a preliminary "welcome" session with simple ice-breaker exercises. We then review the session to show how even these can offer useful lessons.

Reassurance is important for students who have no previous experience of teamwork, especially if they come from different cultural backgrounds. We explain that the idea is to extend their repertoire of behaviours, not suppress some of them in favour of others. To students who already have teamwork experience, we make the point that every team is new and so there are lessons to be learnt.

At the end of this preliminary session we send the groups away to formulate ground rules, for example, about how they will communicate with each other, conduct meetings and make decisions, including those about the allocation of work. We then bring them together in workshops to compare notes.

The issue of leadership invariably emerges. A few groups appoint a leader.

The majority decide to have a rotating chair, a decision born of both a preference for democratic government and an unwillingness to be dependent on others. We have observed that older students with work experience are sometimes thrown by the absence of a designated team leader. They also find it difficult to cope if their experience and status are not acknowledged by the group.

Three or four weeks into the project, disagreements and complaints are common - comments range from "he always wants his own way" and "I have some good ideas but no one listens to me" to "we're held up because she hasn't produced the information she said she'd get" and "he's either late for meetings or doesn't show up at all".

One safe way of airing and addressing these issues is to get students to fill in an "Are we a team?" questionnaire on commitment, decision-taking, handling of conflicts and so on. Each group tots up its scores and is asked to produce action points to improve the two lowest ones. We sit in quietly on these discussions, offering an occasional suggestion. It often comes as a revelation to some students to see the scores that others have given the team, but the "What shall we do?" debate is almost always a constructive rather than a blame-apportioning one.

Perhaps the main lesson we have learnt from running these sessions is that we need to operate more as mentors than as teachers. Teamwork cannot be taught, not least because behaviour is a personal matter and every student and every team has a different experience. We cannot tell students what to do but only help them to question and reflect on their experiences, to build up their repertoires of team behaviours and to help them develop their particular strengths while becoming good all-round team players.

What happens next? I am putting together two manuals, one for students and one for academics, to help each group get the best out of team projects.

Teamwork is far from every academic's cup of tea - the well-known jest about herding cats comes to mind - but if the culture of UK higher education can be broadened to embrace an ethos of cooperation as well as that of individual achievement, surely nothing but good can come of it.

Peter Levin is educational developer (student support) in the Teaching and Learning Centre at the London School of Economics. For more on teamwork, see www.teamwork.ac.uk . His forthcoming manual for students will be available at www.guides-for-students.com from October.

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