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Introduction

Good team assignments are essential for Team-Based Learning (Michaelsen et al., 2004).

Well-designed team assignments and activities contribute significantly to the success students when working in teams.  Michaelsen et al., (2004) note the vast majority of dysfunctional student behaviors and complaints related to teamwork are the result of bad assignments, not bad teams.

Creating Effective Assignments

Instructional strategies and design principles are the same for creating effective team and individual assignments.  However, teamwork can present different challenges than individual course work.

By way of review, a well-designed assignment:

  • clearly outlines assignment rationale and aligns with stated course learning outcomes in a manner readily understood by students;
  • describes instructions, tasks, and expectations in clear and explicit language;
  • clearly outlines assessment criteria in a rubric shared with students to guide their work;
  • scaffolds expectations to build knowledge and teamwork skills in a logical learning sequence, providing opportunities for students to apply, synthesize, and evaluate key knowledge;
  • provides models or samples as learning aids when appropriate.

Principles for Creating Effective Team Assignments & Activities

Team-based course work requires more time and flexible interpersonal communication skills to navigate.  To engage students in meaningful collaborative learning experiences, and to get the best results from team activities and assignments, we need to provide appropriate learning supports. Learning supports include nurturing learner relationships, scaffolding communication skills, setting only relevant, authentic teamwork tasks, providing sufficient learning time, and individualizing assessment components (Brindley et al., 2009).

1. Integrate teamwork into the course design

  • Build time into the course and the assignment for team development and processing. Effective learning depends on team members' abilities to reflect on how they are doing as a team.
  • Begin the teamwork assignment set up early in the course rather than the end. Expand on this point.

2. Design complex team assignments

Choose activities where learning outcomes will be improved though positive interdependence and teamwork: 

  • Make team activities relevant to real-life situations.
  • Provide students with written instructions that clearly articulate the: task, expected product, "debriefing" or "reporting out" method, milestones, and time constraints for the activity.
  • Ensure that the bulk of team time is spent on team activities rather than individual tasks.
  • Design frequent, meaningful peer AND instructor feedback into the team assignment.

3. Prepare Students to Work in Teams

Teach teamwork skills. Don't assume that student know how to work in teams:

  • Create a list of expected roles and ask team to allocate members to each. If time permits, ask the team to do a work breakdown exercise and define the roles that need to be filled.
  • Encourage face-to-face interaction.
  • Intentionally create teams: get to know your students.
  • Keep teams odd numbered and small. Odd numbers ensure that there will be a majority if the team needs to vote and small will mitigate and help to avoid some of the scheduling and logistical challenges (3 - 7 people).
  • Students should be encouraged and helped to develop and practice trust-building, leadership, decision-making, communication, and conflict management skills.
  • Form teams early in the course.  Schedule time for team warm-up activities before the large team assignment. 

4. Ensure the grading system and assessment components are clearly communicated to students

Build-in team and individual accountability:

  • Consider individualizing assessment components that support students to meet core learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, interpersonal communication and learning technology skills.
  • Be clear on the grading system.  Communicate the grading system early in the course.
  • The assignment should have enough value to be taken seriously, but not weighted so heavily that learning is hindered because risk-taking and experimentation is stymied.
  • Monitor team activities actively and closely and provide formative feedback on assignment drafts, make yourself available for private coaching, check in with the teams, use team effectiveness instruments (ITPMetrics).
  • Use authentic assessment - A form of assessment where students perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills.

5. Creating Effective Online Team Assignments & Activities

Online team assignments have complexities above and beyond face-to-face team assignments. Online learners typically prefer asynchronous learning so teamwork must be designed to accommodate work and lifestyle choices, communication technologies, work schedules, work pace, time zones and challenging face-to-face communication opportunities.

To accommodate online learners, consider including the following when designing your online assignments and activities:

  • Allow sufficient time for teams to form and to complete tasks. Assignments done in an online environment typically take more time to complete. 
  • Identify functionary roles. Establish clear roles in the project plan so each team member is contributing to the cohesion of the team.
  • Ensure that learners are familiar with the technology that they will need to communicate effectively at a distance and work as a virtual team - share calendars, share files, meet online, share virtual team space, share documents and make social connections e.g., discussion boards, blogs, wikis, chat.
  • Use both synchronous (e.g. Skype, chat, streaming audio or video, Google Docs, etc.) and asynchronous (e.g. discussion boards, blogs, wikis, podcasts, recorded videos, etc.) communication channels.

Instructor Resources

Morrison, D. (March, 2012). Strategies for effective group work in the online class
Smith, S. (January, 2016). Designing effective team projects in online courses. Faculty Focus. 
Planning group projects. University of Washington. 
What are best practices for designing group projects?