Learning in Teams

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Group of students sit and stand in the front of a classroom and talk. The amount of student learning and personal development that occurs in a classroom is directly  proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the educational program (Cooper and Prescott, 1989).  Descriptive research indicates that teachers still typically dominate classroom conversation, although many more teachers have started to incorporate more student-centered educational approaches into their instruction. A large portion of teacher talk consists of lectures and directives. Such an educational environment results in learners assuming passive roles and relying mainly on auditory skills, a limited dimension of the intellect. Case-based (CBL) and problem-based (PBL) learning modules diminish teacher talk. By teaming students with one another, students have frequent opportunities to talk as they construct knowledge themselves in the course of solving a problem. Thus, students may use more of their intellect in CBL/PBL than they use during traditional lecture instruction.

Research has shown team learning to be effective in accomplishing a variety of goals. It has produced deeper student learning when compared to a traditional lecture approach, has the potential to meet varied learning styles, stresses needed interpersonal and collaboration skills, increases levels of student engagement, and produces an environment that leads to learning cooperation and conflict resolution.

The many benefits to team learning in a PBL and CBL environment that can be achieved depend on the classroom learning environment of the teams. Effective team learning is not just having the students work in groups. You must ensure that the learning experience is meaningful for each student in the team; each student must be assessed on content mastery, communication skills, and cooperative input. Team members should know that they are individually responsible for understanding all the content.

If students know the expectations of your classroom team learning experiences, they usually work together more effectively to meet the assigned objectives of the activity. How they work becomes just another classroom norm.

Note: These issues are largely addressed in the construction of an effective rubric. A rubric can define the expectations of mastery of content, presentation skills, and teamwork abilities. The articles on Developing Rubrics and Planning, Facilitating, and Closure in this Teacher Professional Development section have more information on defining student expectations and student self-evaluation of teamwork skills.

Team Size

Depending on the nature of the tasks associated with one of the Pandem CBL or PBL modules, cooperative teams may have two, three, or four students. Pairing is ideal because it maximizes student participation. Pairs start to work easily and tend to maintain involvement. Pairs tend to make less noise than larger teams.

Two female and one male student look at a laptop screen while working on a project.However, you may find some Pandem modules require more input than a pair is likely to be able to generate depending on how much class time you are allowing for the module. When a task calls for more creativity or many different perspectives, use teams of three or four students. Teams larger than four may lead to passive participation (Harmin, 1994).


Helping Teams Function Smoothly

Harmin (1994) feels that letting teams self-select has many advantages. Teams form quickly and students learn how to respond when others reach out to them. Many teachers prefer this method of forming teams even though it can present some problems. On the other hand, you may prefer to assign students to teams. You know your students and their personalities and can head off problems by forming teams with members who may not already be antagonistic toward each other. You may also have students in your classroom that require some modifications to the materials or learning environment for optimal learning. Some individualized education assistance goals can be met by working in teams. You will know how to place these students within teams.

If you decide to assign students to groups, assign the students, but not the roles. Students will take more ownership of the work if they have selected the role. Even this approach may not prevent problems from developing. Below are some common problems, followed by suggestions from Harmin (1994) and others.

Problems When Teams Self-Select

  • Students keep choosing the same people for their groups, and cliques begin to form. Harmin (1994) advises you to urge the students to get to know and work with more than just a few students. You can strongly suggest that students risk asking someone they haven’t worked with before to be their partner or ask if they would prefer to have you do it. Occasionally, if all else fails, you can direct some students not to sit with each other again for the next two weeks.
  • Slower students often sit together and cannot do some of the academic work. Harmin (1994) advises that you suggest that these students pick different partners in the future and remind the entire class to ask other teams for help whenever they reach an impass.

Problems That Can Develop in Any Team

  • A few students persist in gossiping and doing little work in their teams. Harmin (1994) says, “Don’t ‘complain or scold;’ those tactics will likely be counterproductive.” He suggests you resist intervening the first time you notice the behavior. If the behavior continues, simply walk over to the students and calmly point out that they are responsible for their learning and that they need to get down to work. If this does not work, again skip any warning such as “I’ll change your teams if you do not settle down to work,” and simply announce that because you want everyone to learn in class, you want them to choose other students to work with during the next two weeks.

Once your students realize that they are being assessed individually and as a team for each component of their work, they usually become much more focused. This can happen during the current activity, but it will surely happen for subsequent similar activities. Having a planned assessment description/rubric and distributing it with the introductory materials of the activity goes a long way to ensuring more concentrated work.

  • One person takes over while others sit back and say little.Maintaining individual accountability will help prevent this from occurring. Individual participation in the report, demonstration, or final product will hold each team member accountable for his or her contribution. In addition, you may want to randomly call on individuals to give an update or summarize the main points of a reading or discussion. Remind students often that they will each present a portion of the final presentation and answer questions on their part of the group work. This will help keep students who may tend to sit back on task and reassure other students that they will not have to do all the work.
  • Group expectations become self-fulfilling. That is, if the group expects a low-status student to perform below the level of the group, he or she will. The best way to ensure that all students participate competently is to design individual tasks that require each student to use his or her particular strengths.



Source: Adapted from the Center of Educational Technologies (Classroom of the Future) Exploring the Environment website:  http://www.cotf.edu/ete