Developing Students’ Team Skills

Everywhere I turn this week, I seem to encounter the topic of team skills in the classroom and in the workplace.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’s Job Outlook 2015 survey, teamwork and leadership tied as the skills most employers surveyed look for on a résumé. (Written communication and problem solving are second and third.)

I also recently met with our college’s career liaison, who just returned from visits at several internship sites. Employers consistently cited teamwork as the area in which interns need the most practice and development—using a calendar to coordinate a meeting, coordinating and participating in virtual meetings, speaking up during a meeting, being accountable to the team, and listening and taking notes.

As with learning any skill, students must learn team skills and practice them again…and again…and again in many contexts.  Students cannot learn all the skills they will ever need in one business communication or organizational behavior class, and expecting them to intentionally transfer the skills from these classes to other classes without our help may be expecting too much.

Instructors may say they do not have time to teach team skills students should have learned in earlier courses. But helping students practice and transfer their skills does not have to be so time consuming that it takes away from other course content. Further, promoting the transfer and development of team skills may eventually save the instructor and other students time as assignments and processes become more efficient.

Here are some strategies I use for building students’ team skills in my Advanced Business Writing class. If you have others to add to the list, be sure to let us know.

  1. Flip your classroom so that students work in teams during class time. Working in a flipped class lets instructors observe teams and provides instructors several teachable moments for developing team skills. If you’re interested in flipping, you may find our Flipping Your Classroom post helpful.
  2. If students are doing group work in class, visit the groups and ask questions related to both the students’ assignment and their team processes. What is working well? What needs to improve? If students have a conflict, what can you do to help them resolve it? Students may not know what is working or not until an instructor presses them for information, or they may know that a conflict exists but not know how to resolve it.
  3. If students are working in teams in class, require that they spend the last five minutes of class setting an agenda and goals for the next meeting and assigning individual responsibilities to be completed before the next class period. Have students spend the first few minutes of the next class reviewing the agenda and making sure everyone knows the goals for the day.
  4. If students are doing their teamwork outside of class, require that they establish agendas and goals for their meetings, as well as individual assignments for team members when the team is not meeting. Require students to submit the agendas, goals, and individual assignments as part of their project grade. If grading all of them becomes too cumbersome, tell students you won’t grade all of them but that you will randomly select dates on which you will grade them.
  5. Incorporate accountability checks throughout the team project. Many of us have students complete team member evaluations at the end of a project, but if the project is long, students don’t think about the accountability portion until the end or may not be aware that they are not doing their part until it’s too late to change. If you have your team evaluations in Qualtrics or other online survey method, distributing and scoring the evaluations is fairly quick.
  6. Encourage students to meet virtually via Skype, Dropbox, Google DriveGoogle+ Hangout, Google Docs (and Google Sheets, Google Slides, and Google Forms), or other technology.
  7. Provide students with resources they can read quickly to help with team issues. Here are links to some of the articles that have arrived recently in my various social media feeds:
    1. What to Do if Your Team Is Letting You Down
    2. 15 Characteristics of Extraordinary Teams
    3. Encouraging a Team-Working Environment
    4. 27 Ways to Refocus a Team
    5. How to Survive Virtual Group Work

So tell us…What are your best strategies?


Flipping Your Classroom

Lately, I’ve received several articles in my RSS feeds, Zite feed, and elsewhere promoting the concept of the flipped classroom.

Two articles, Wong’s “Colleges Go Proactive with Flipped Classrooms” and Educause’s “7 Things You Should Know about Flipped Classrooms” are particularly helpful in explaining the concept.

According to these articles, in a flipped classroom, lectures and other content are delivered outside the classroom, usually via the Internet; work that is traditionally done outside the classroom (e.g., homework, group work) is done during class time.

The thought is that if students come to class with conceptual knowledge, they can spend their time in class in practicing skills or gaining applied knowledge related to those concepts. The instructor’s role is to facilitate the hands-on learning.

Wong notes that the flipped classroom is not a new concept but says technology has made using the flipped classroom much easier for instructors because they can put lectures online or work from electronic textbooks.

According to Educause, the flipped classroom presents many advantages. For example, students are not likely to get all of the information they need from listening to an in-class lecture once, but in a flipped classroom, they can visit a video lecture on the Web as many times as they need to. In addition, by using class time for hands-on work, instructors can gauge how well students understand the material. Further, in the flipped classroom, students must take charge of their learning as they become responsible for leading discussion, participating in a group, or completing their work. Challenges for teachers, however, include finding the time to create video lectures and motivating and training students to engage in the flipped classroom model.

I am guessing that many business communication instructors spend at least some of their time flipping the classroom. In my class, for example, students read the text and complete a guided reading quiz outside of class and then come to class with their computers, ready to draft or peer edit. I can visit with students and provide feedback before they have to turn in an assignment for a grade.

Do you flip your classroom? If so, what do you do? Please share your ideas. We look forward to learning from you.

And for those of you who find yourself on a semester break, may you enjoy your opportunity to recharge and regroup. We wish you a very happy and successful new year!

Maximizing the Creativity of Groups

A recent issue of The New Yorker magazine contained an interesting article that could have some bearing on our teaching. Entitled “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” the article explores two issues having to do with maximizing the creativity of groups: whether or not brainstorming actually works and how close—in terms of both social and physical proximity—group members should be in order to be as creative as possible.

Is Brainstorming Effective?
The word “brainstorm” was first used in the 1948 book Your Creative Power, written by Madison Avenue ad man Alex Osborn. He recommended the strategy as a way for groups to generate an abundance of fresh ideas. The most important feature of the technique—the one that distinguished it from other methods of the day—was that the group should freely generate ideas without critiquing them. Osborn believed that fear of ridicule would inhibit expression. This assumption seems so logical that team leaders, creativity professionals, teachers, and many others have embraced it without question for decades.

In fact, research begun as early as 1958 has failed to support this assumption. In studies that have compared teams who used brainstorming to those who did not, the process of generating ideas without judging them has been found to be less productive than generating ideas in a more debate-like atmosphere. “Dissent stimulates new ideas,” the article explains, “because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” And as one researcher commented, it has the element of “’surprise,’” which “’wakes us right up.’”

How Close Should the Collaborators Be?
In another strand of research, those looking for the best conditions in which to generate creative ideas have studied the impact of social and physical proximity on groups’ powers of invention. One such study looked for correlations between the interconnectivity of those on a Broadway production team and the success of their musicals. It turned out that “the best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of intimacy.” In other words, groups who knew each other too well and those who were relative strangers at the start of the process scored fewer Broadway hits than groups who were made up both of artists who’d worked together before and some newcomers. The researcher explains that the latter type of group “’could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some ideas.’” The results suggest that productive groups are “comfortable with each other,” but not “too comfortable.”

Turning to the impact of physical proximity, the article describes two cases in which a physical environment that enabled chance meetings between different types of group members generated enormous creativity. One is the case of Steven Jobs’ Pixar headquarters, which was “designed around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other.” So intent was Jobs to force employees to encounter each other in the atrium that he moved the mailboxes there, then the cafeteria and coffee shop, and finally the restrooms! Jobs’ efforts have paid off; one current employee comments, “’I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people that I do sitting at my desk.’”

M.I.T.’s Building 20 is one of the most striking cases of the influence of architecture on creativity. Built as a temporary structure in 1942, the building wound up housing a wide assortment of intellectuals who tore down walls, got lost because of the strange room numbering, and took advantage of its horizontal (instead of vertical) layout. Their random interactions led to numerous electrical engineering breakthroughs and nurtured the creative genius of Amar Bose, the founder of the Bose Corporation, and renowned linguist Noam Chomsky.

Are There Takeaways for BComm?
The results of the brainstorming studies may remind us of findings that Rebecca Burnett shared years ago in an often-cited chapter of Professional Communication: The Social Perspective (1993): student groups who reach agreement too fast do less well than those who reach agreement through a certain amount of arguing. Our students may well need to be encouraged to disagree. While they should listen respectfully as each member voices his or her ideas, they should also offer tentative assessments of those ideas and use the back-and-forth to generate the best solutions they can.

The social proximity study also supports the idea that groups who are too cozy won’t propel each other to reach their best insights—a finding with implications for how we set up our student groups. As for physical proximity . . . I wonder how we might increase the number of random productive interactions among our students. What is the academic equivalent of Jobs’ atrium, M.I.T.’s Building 20, or the employee break room? And what does that communal space look like in online courses? Here, my own creativity fails me. If you’ve used innovative ways to spark your students’ collaborative energy, please share them.

Guided Peer Editing

One of my favorite activities in my beginning business writing class is peer editing. When I first started the activity, I noticed that several students would frequently provide unhelpful feedback such as “I like it” or “It looks good to me.” It’s not that they were being lazy or apathetic. They really did not know how to articulate what was good about a document or what needed improvement.

To help them, I developed a guided peer editing worksheet. The result has been that students give more and better feedback and are more confident peer editors. In addition, because the worksheet is based on the grading rubric, students look at their own work more critically as they revise their drafts for a final grade.

 Training them to be peer editors, of course, requires more than the worksheet. For starters, I do expect that the draft represents a good effort, even if that effort is truly misguided—that’s what a draft is for. I also tell students that a peer editor is not a “document fixer.” The peer editor’s job is to raise questions and issues the writer may have not considered. Besides, the peer editor may give bad advice. Students need to know that everything in the final document is the result of the writer’s choices, whether or not those choices are the editor’s as well.

I’ve attached my peer editing worksheet for a negative-news assignment. It is easily adaptable to routine messages, persuasive messages, reports, résumés, and cover letters—really, any document.

Enjoy! If you have peer editing activities that work for you, be sure to share them.

Managing Online Student Teams

 Managing student teams in online environments presents special considerations. Students who may be comfortable in face-to-face environments where they can see and hear their teammates find themselves less comfortable in an environment where teammates seem anonymous, distant, and not readily accessible.

Students in my online Business Writing class write a report in teams of four. Using a secure discussion forum, each team member contributes his or her part; then team members communicate with one another to compile the parts into one document and edit the report to its final form. Four strategies help me facilitate team work in this fully online course. 

Strategy #1: Preparing Students to Work in Teams Online

Before students know who their team members are, they discuss their experiences with team projects—what they like, what they do not like. I also ask them to discuss the challenges the online environment may present for their team projects.

Frequently, students say they enjoy teams because they ease the workload, allow for the exchange of a variety of ideas, and reassure students who wonder whether what they are doing is “right.” What they don’t enjoy is having team members who do not do their share of the work or who do not contribute quality work. However, the online students’ greatest concerns are timely communication and accommodating members’ varying schedules.

Following the discussion, I summarize students’ concerns in a course announcement and remind them to be a team member they would admire.  Incorporating this discussion at the beginning of the assignment establishes not only my expectations but the students’ expectations for one another.

Strategy #2: Matching Team Members Appropriately 

Matching students in teams with others who have similar academic abilities and levels of participation in the course works well. Whether students are A students or C students, their ability to participate in a project where group members’ expectations do not exceed any one member’s ability focuses the members on the task and the writing; they deal less with interpersonal conflicts that arise when students are perceived by their group members to be over or under achieving.

Furthermore, teams whose members participate in the group’s discussion area frequently do not wonder when or if members are going to participate; conversely, teams with less active participants seem content with that level of involvement and do not appear to believe that “good” team members need to check in several times a day.

Interestingly, teams with frequent member participation are not necessarily more likely to submit better reports. Some teams’ members communicate infrequently, yet they submit quality work when they do communicate and therefore do as well as teams with high member participation. Thus the quality of the interaction and like-mindedness among team members appear to influence the quality of the final assignment more so than the frequency of members’ interactions.

Strategy #3: Establishing Deadlines

Instructor-established deadlines for submitting individual work and editing the team’s report are essential. Students are more frequently accountable to my schedule than they are to one another’s.

Strategy #4: Holding Students Accountable

Holding students accountable for their participation and quality of their work discourages social loafers and offers other students some recourse if team members fail to participate. Students complete a survey to rate each team member’s participation on a scale of 1 – 5 regarding communication with the team and quality of their work. Students whose evaluation averages are a 4 – 5 share in their team’s score. Students who receive a 3 – 3.99 receive a letter grade deduction; average scores of 2 – 2.99 result in a two-letter grade deduction. Scores of 1 – 1.99 result in a score that’s 50% of the team’s report grade.

Students rarely contest peer evaluations; if they do, the online environment provides a great track record of a student’s performance.

Overall, making expectations explicit, matching team members evenly, and having structure and peer evaluation built in to the assignment make the management of online teams easier. Yes, conflicts still occur but as I’ve integrated these strategies, issues arise much less frequently and the teams run fairly smoothly. As always, if you have strategies to share, we’d love to hear about them.