Dear Not Working as a Team

Dear Ms. Scholar, Last semester, I had a class that had a group project worth about 1/3 of the overall grade. One team member was frequently absent and didn’t actively participate when they were in groups. The team was unhappy, but unfortunately did not express their concerns until the end of the semester. Any suggestions about how I could handle this better next time?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Not Working as a Team, This is an ongoing concern for faculty teaching courses with significant teamwork requirements. Often groups need much more support than we expect they need – and they end up floundering without that support.

Let’s start with the simplest problem. Perhaps, as in your question, the problem belongs only to a difficult student – perhaps one who is depressed and withdrawing, overwhelmed, has poor social skills, or weak academic skills and goals – while the group members are conscientious and hardworking. Ms. Scholar has sometimes been good at working with such difficult students, but at other times has had more difficulty. Four factors have contributed to her success:

  1. Interest in change. Does the student recognize a problem? Does the student want to handle things differently? If the answer to these questions is yes, intervening seems to be easier and more appropriate. Not all students are interested in contributing to a group project, however, even when the project is worth a considerable proportion of the grade.
  2. Faculty/student relationship. Ms. Scholar finds it easier to give a student difficult feedback on group performance when she has a good relationship with the student. When she genuinely wants the student to do better, the student is more likely to listen to her. When the student genuinely values Ms. Scholar’s input, the student is more likely to solicit and respond to feedback.
  3. Assertiveness. Giving difficult feedback can require significant assertiveness from the faculty member. Can you find a way to give feedback to the student – and team – that is positive, hopeful, and respectful? When Ms. Scholar’s first response comes from anger or frustration, she first goes outside and takes a walk around the building, then tries again.
  4. Time. It’s easier for Ms. Scholar to give difficult, but helpful feedback when she has the time available, in or out of class. When her course load is especially heavy or she has taken on too many responsibilities, though…

In Ms. Scholar’s experience, however, problems often go in both directions – both the “problem student” and teammates – and feedback has to go to all parties. Both “sides” may have surprisingly different perspectives on the problem. Often, but not always, one of the parties feels left out while the other party complains that the student did not pull his or her weight. These problems may be due, in part, to differences in expectations about work habits and communication. When groups communicate and meet regularly and respond quickly to emails and texts, they are generally happy, even when, from an outsider’s perspective, they did not all pull their own weight. Those groups that are least happy are those where one or more parties fail to meet with the group – even when they had good reasons to miss (e.g., work, illness, travel constraints, problems with babysitters).

Sometimes different members of a group may perform different tasks, with all believing they’ve pulled their weight – and that their peers did not. For example, in one recent group, two members collected their data (poorly), while a third pulled together the final written products (somewhat well). All members believed they had done their share and pointed fingers elsewhere.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar's instructions to class teams, posted in Announcements.

Figure 1. Part of Ms. Scholar’s instructions to class teams, posted under Announcements in D2L.

The most difficult piece: Ms. Scholar believes that both teacher and team must take responsibility for problems with teamwork and creating solutions. More and more Ms. Scholar attempts to educate students about ways to perform teamwork well. For example, Ms. Scholar posts this list describing successful teamwork skills under D2L’s Announcements. See Figure 1. She tries to regularly debrief after teamwork and encourages students to reflect on the group process throughout.

Ms. Scholar wishes that she had talked more frequently with a recent team having problems. She had been concerned about their work quality from the very beginning. She had talked to the group throughout the semester, received interim feedback on the group mid-semester, and had talked to individuals on several occasions. Nonetheless, these discussions were often during class or when students/Ms. Scholar were rushing from one place to another, situations that did not foster the kind of assertiveness needed to identify and address problems with team functioning. She had responded better to teams with “squeakier wheels,” those groups more clearly identifying problems.

The point is that, as you note, teamwork is difficult. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need to give our students opportunities to work on their teamwork skills during their college careers. Teamwork, though, can both be a challenging aspect of teaching and offer many rewards both to faculty and students, as many teams can produce products that are stronger than what any single student could do on his or her own. – Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o


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One Response to Dear Not Working as a Team

  1. DrOlivas says:

    For many courses, stating explicitly that an anonymous peer evaluation at the end of the semester might lower the student’s final grade one or two letters can promote teamwork strongly. If students know from the beginning that their free-riding might be penalized, social loafing is less likely to happen. Also, reminding students that teamwork is a highly needed skill at work might help them understand why simply testing out of their classes (i.e., showing evidence of subject knowledge) is not sufficient.

    Liked by 1 person

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