You can teach teamwork effectively

One reader offers a cohesive plan for teaching the indispensable skill of teamwork


A couple of weeks ago, I responded to a question from "The Perfesser," who hands out team assignments, doesn't currently get team feedback on individual performance, and asked for advice on how to handle the situation better. Among the responses, what follows stood out as solid, practical, and workable advice.

If you teach, this will improve how you go about assessing student performance. If you're in a class that makes use of team assignments, print this out and make sure the instructor sees it. You might want to make it anonymous, though -- not every instructor, at any level, likes receiving suggestions from students on their teaching techniques.

Hi Bob,

My answer to The Perfesser's question is that some colleges and universities have been using teamwork building models for decades.

When I began studying engineering at the University of Iowa in 1992, several instructors of the core curriculum courses used project-based exercises.

These projects typically lasted 1-2 weeks. The class was broken into groups with 3-5 members each. Each group was mentored by a teaching assistant who gave some basic project management direction but otherwise stood back while the students took turns leading and following.

As the classes progressed, the projects became more complex and the groups were randomly re-arranged. Toward the end of the course, the final project required a higher level of project management because each team contributed a component of the overall deliverable.

Here's the important part: We anonymously graded our teammates' project skills after each project. Over time it became fairly clear to everyone which students didn't pull their weight, which were difficult to work with, and which were destructive to the project as a whole. The net effect was that most "problem" students either changed their behavior or exited the program.

I took a break from college, but when I returned in 1996, this teaching method had spread to the Computer Science department. Randy Pausch describes a similar teaching technique at Carnegie Mellon University in his Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. A video of the lecture is available on YouTube:

Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

Randy described Building Virtual Worlds and the Entertainment Technology Center at 32, 43, and 51 minutes into the video.

- Dan Sydnes

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