Explore potential strategies.
Individual members of the group are problematic.
One common set of complaints from students about teamwork concerns the ways in which the behavior of single individuals can negatively affect the entire group. Complaints often focus on “free riders” who do not pull their weight, over-bearing personalities who take over or micromanage the project, and members who are habitually late, do not return e-mails, or fail to meet deadlines. Students often do not know how to deal with these kinds of friction within the group, yet problems in the group can potentially threaten everyone’s learning.
To discourage the free-rider syndrome, structure individual accountability into your assignment. In other words, in addition to evaluating the work of the group as a whole, require individual students to demonstrate their learning via quizzes, independent write-ups, weekly journal entries, etc. Students are considerably less likely to slack off in groups – and leave all the work to more responsible classmates -- if they know their individual performance will affect their grade.
Define ground rules, or -- better yet -- have students develop their own ground rules for group behavior. You might, for example, ask student groups to generate answers to the question: What behavior by group members do you think will/won’t help the group function effectively? Then have students create a list of ground rules based on their answers: e.g., return e-mails from group members within 24 hours; come to meetings on time and prepared; meet deadlines; listen to what your teammates have to say; respond to one another’s comments politely but honestly; be constructive; criticize ideas, not people. Finally, ask students to agree to the ground rules, perhaps by signing a group learning contract (Barkley, Cross & Major, 2005). Establishing ground rules can help prevent undesirable behaviors and also give the group a basis for evaluating the behavior of individuals within it.
To help students develop conflict-resolution skills before group projects begin, consider giving students the opportunity to role-play how they might respond to problems within the group. Role-playing presents students with a realistic situation (in this case, a conflict) and then asks them to work toward a resolution, improvising dialogue and actions. This strategy can help students identify and “name” problems, learn how to approach or frame a problem, gain strategies for getting others to listen, etc.
Ask team members to evaluate one another’s contributions to the group, or to evaluate their own contributions, using a clear set of criteria that are articulated in advance. Criteria might include such things as attending every meeting, participating actively, meeting deadlines, listening respectfully to different viewpoints, etc. This strategy holds group members accountable for their behavior within the group and helps to prevent problems.
Require teams to regularly reflect on team dynamics, with an eye towards improving collaborative processes and correcting problems before they become intractable.
Establish channels of communication so that students who encounter problems within their group can seek advice. Office hours with you or a T.A. can help facilitate this communication. Sometimes all a student needs is reassurance that respectfully confronting a problem is okay. Other times students need help with appropriate language to assure that the message gets across. In either case you can’t provide assistance and use this as a learning opportunity unless you know about it.
Think about what you will do if, despite the best efforts of team members, an individual continues to cause serious problems for the group. Will you intervene at a certain point? Can you ask someone else (a T.A, for instance) to mediate the problem? Will you allow teams to “fire” problematic group members, and if so, what options do “fired” individuals have? It’s important to anticipate worst-case scenarios, so you will not be blindsided if they occur.
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