Carnegie Mellon University
December 23, 2019

Teamwork Teaching Tools Improve Student Projects

By Julie Mattera

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing & Communications
  • 412-268-2902
Two interactive tools created at Carnegie Mellon University break down the basics of effective teamwork to help students work better together as they tackle group projects.

Professors commonly include group-based projects as part of their curricula as a way to hone students’ collaboration skills. But group work can frustrate students when teams encounter problems such as competing personalities, different organizational techniques and hard-fought compromises. Educators are not always experts in the best way to untangle these knots.

Researchers who are part of CMU’s Simon Initiative created two tools called CollaborativeU and ConflictU to help students learn how to better work with one another and address conflict in group settings. These tools are free to CMU students and available to other schools at a fraction of the cost of an in-person workshop.

Martha Harty, co-creator of the modules and a special faculty-researcher in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said these tools are part of the Simon Initiative’s sidecar course model, and can be integrated into existing courses without lengthy faculty training. Harty said the course comes with a one-page lesson plan for integration.

“It’s support and training for teamwork that’s so easy for the faculty member to add to the course,” said Harty, who created the modules with Marsha Lovett, associate vice provost for Educational Innovation and Learning Analytics and co-coordinator of The Simon Initiative; and Ralph Vituccio, associate teaching professor in the Entertainment Technology Center. “It’s that idea of putting a sidecar on the main vehicle. It really saves the faculty member trouble because you have fewer teams that have interpersonal dynamics interfering with their work.”

Students can advance through the modules as they progress in their group work, Harty said. Doing so helps students learn more effectively. For example, when students work on CollaborativeU in the early stages of building a team, they start out on a good footing with their teammates as the lessons from the module are fresh. They also are more likely to apply collaborative skills and overcome the skills transfer gap that comes with workshop-style trainings.

The program provides varied practice opportunities such as interactive video, written scenarios and practice with real life teams — again, making it more likely that students will retain these skills. The interactive video component helps keep students engaged, Vituccio said.

“These interactive learning modules can be really powerful. When students see someone their own age engaging in the same situations that they are experiencing, it resonates with them,” Vituccio said. “That puts the communication on the students’ level, and it helps them relate to and accept pieces of the course.”

Because so many employers want to hire candidates with collaboration and conflict management skills, Harty said the skill sets ultimately make students more marketable as they look toward careers.

More than 2,000 students in CMU’s Pittsburgh and Doha, Qatar campuses have used the modules, including those in undergraduate and graduate courses in engineering, public policy, design and the humanities. CMU Vice Provost for Education Amy Burkert said that students in the Mellon College of Science’s first-year seminar EUREKA! who used the modules improved their knowledge of what makes teams perform better and their attitudes about teamwork. They also rated their peers higher on teamwork.

“It showed measurable learning gains in a controlled study,” Burkert said. “We can point to actual learning gains and broad applicability. We are expanding this approach across campus.”