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Team-Based Assignments

 

When is a team effective?

A team is distinguishable from a working group, which the literature describes as “a collective of interacting persons with some degree of reciprocal influence over one another” (Barker and Franzak). Working group exercises, although valuable, may prevent business school students from reaping the benefits that a team experience provides. A working group’s narrower scope for information dissemination limits opportunities for shared interpretation and for generative learning. Although there are settings in which group (rather than team) assignments are suitable, creating relevant team experiences is crucial for Wharton classes.

 

J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard psychology professor known for his research in the dynamics of teamwork, defines teams based on five conditions: valuable task, compelling direction, enabling structure, supportive organizational context, and expert coaching. If these five conditions are in place, students will achieve maximum benefits from teamwork. If not, perhaps an individualized task or working group task might be better suited.

 

Task

A real team must have a task that requires people “to work together to produce something – a product, service, or decision for which members are collectively accountable and whose acceptability is potentially assessable” (Hackman 42). If a task does not require true interdependence and does not value the collective effort, it is not suited for a team.

 

Compelling Direction

A team requires a compelling direction that is challenging, clear, and consequential. Hackman emphasizes “effective team self-management is impossible unless someone in authority sets the direction for the team’s work” (Hackman 62). A challenging direction energizes team members and generates strong collective motivation. If it is clear, it orients team members toward their common purposes, facilitating the development of appropriate performance strategies. It provides them with a template they can use to assess options for how to proceed. If consequential, the direction engages the talents of members and encourages them to use their full complement of knowledge, skills, and experience. Finally, directions should specify the ends, but not the means, to give teams clarity as well as freedom. Hackman describes this as self-managed, goal-directed work.

 

Enabling Structure

Hackman’s third condition is an enabling structure that fosters collective internal work motivation and allows teams to develop into self-corrective performing units. Skill variety, task identity, and task significance make the experience meaningful for students. Autonomy allows students to experience responsibility, while feedback gives students knowledge of the results. Hackman also highlights the importance of size and mix; as we will later discuss, teams should be as small as reasonably possible to maximize efficiency and learning opportunities. The optimum group size from several studies proved to be 4.6 members. In terms of mix, teams must have heterogeneity in backgrounds and skills. A real team must also be bounded. Members must know exactly who is a part of the team to allow them to “developed specialized roles and shared norms of conduct” (Hackman 45) as well as collective momentum. The team requires stability over time to develop familiarity with one another, their work, and the work setting. As such, teams within classroom settings should be given the opportunity to work together on more than one task throughout the semester.

 

Supportive Organizational Context

Teams require a supportive organizational context, reinforced by the reward system, information system, and education system. Hackman suggests the reward system must encourage members to think of “us” rather than “me.” The reward must be large enough to affect team behavior, contingent on performance outcomes that are discernible and measurable, and provided to teams as intact units. In other words, grades, at least in part, must be given to the team as a whole. Teams must also have information about their current work situation, extent of resources, and future expectations. A clear information system allows members to plan and execute their work properly. An educational system must be in place to expand members’ existing expertise and to provide resources to close gaps for team members. If a team does not perform well on an assignment, there should be structures in place to help them improve for the next one, such as specific feedback on the assignment adn access to office hours.

 

Expert Team Coaching

The final enabling condition Hackman outlines is expert team coaching. Hackman defines coaching as “direct interaction with the team that is intended to help members use their collective resources well in accomplishing work” (HBR Guide to Coaching Employees 149). At the beginning, team coaching should be motivational. Focusing on the amount of effort members apply to their collective work minimizes social loafing and develops a high level of shared commitment. At the midpoint, coaching should be consultative in nature, centering on the strategies of the team and how innovative and task-appropriate they are. At the end of the experience, students should participate in debriefings and discussions, as coaching takes on an educational perspective.

 

 

Universal Best Practices for Teamwork

Group Size

Among academic sources and Wharton Professors, the general consensus is that optimal groups consist of between three and five members (Howard, Oakley). In a smaller group (two or three members), one member may become too dominant in conflicts to the detriment of the experience of his or her team members (Helle). Likewise, such small groups may not be able to complete the workload of an assignment, or may face the challenge of insufficient variety in ideas, skills, and problem-solving styles. In larger groups (five or greater members), students reported issues scheduling meetings (Helle & Olkinuora) and difficulty reaching closure in conflicts. Furthermore, in such larger groups, there is greater risk of shirking work, or “social loafing,” unless the project calls for distinct roles for every member (Mueller). It should also be noted that many sources recommended an odd number of group members when forming teams, which is largely based on facilitating faster conflict resolution and consensus-building (Hackman, Howard).

 

Group Composition

Diversity of gender, socio-economic background, race, and color is important for most complex team projects. Diverse team members bring a new perspective and a different approach to solving problems (Hackman).

 

Evaluation/feedback

Within Wharton, professors’ thoughts on peer evaluation vary. There are questions about whether it detracts from the collaborative aspect of feedback, and of course there are many complex issues with implementation. However, academic literature suggests that feedback from peers is important for team projects, and that peer evaluation fosters better teamwork and learning (Feichtner & Davis). Two of the key benefits of peer evaluation are enforcing accountability and helping build conflict resolution skills that will be useful later on in the workplace. It is worth noting that, although students are capable of providing reliable and valid ratings, they are often reluctant to honestly assess peers when doing so directly penalizes teammates, even if those teammates did not contribute (Sridharan & Boud). Implementing a confidentiality agreement for peer grading, as well as educating students on how grade inflation could hurt their peers in the long run, could mitigate this concern.

 

Formats for Teamwork

Presentations

A common implementation of teamwork in classrooms is presentations. Presentations can be used to support general learning either through stand-alone presentations, or as part of larger projects. In both situations, it is best to keep in mind the purpose of the presentation itself, as well as best practices for the structure surrounding presentations in the classroom.

 

Presentations must reflect course content, offer a conjunctive task, and reflect situations in which presentations would be given in the workforce. First, as Professor Martine Haas (MGMT 101) conveyed, material that a team covers in a presentation must refer to the material of the course itself. The assignment given to a team must be integrated in a way that it does not seem unnecessarily added on to the class. Literature suggests that “possibly the factor that has the greatest impact on whether or not group work will produce a positive or negative student reaction is the degree to which activities and assignments are perceived as being relevant to the content of the course” (Feichtner & Davis 69).

 

In addition to a connection to course content, presentations must be conjunctive. According to Professor Drew Carton, individuals working on the presentation must come together to create a final product that is greater than simply the sum of individual work. If this criteria is not met, the presentation should not be done collaboratively. Even though this usually is not the case for presentations, it is an important consideration when thinking about whether or not the presentation will reflect a situation in the workforce. As one of the fundamental purposes of teamwork in the classroom is to prepare for teamwork in the workforce, “having parallels between the the classroom and real-world situations is essential in order for students to learn now, rather than later in the actual workforce” (Michael Useem). Ensuring these factors when assigning presentations will be most effective for both learning and the teamwork experience.

 

Furthermore, important considerations when structuring presentations include, team size, student desires, and grading. For presentations it is often best to limit presentation teams to 3-5 students (Howard). If the presentation is a subset of a larger project, it would be best to slim down the number of presenters to this range, due to the high cost of coordination past this range. Furthermore, there also is a correlation between student experience and number of presentations. For example, “when two or more class presentations were required students were much more likely to report a worst experience (1:2.5 for two; 1:2 for three; 1:3.5 for four; and 1:1.5 for five or more)” (Feichtner & Davis, 69). For this reason, we also recommend that the number of presentations required from students during a single semester be limited to a max of two. With regards, to grading, it is also worth noting that if a presentation makes up more than 60% of students’ grade, this can add undue pressure and detract from the overall teamwork experience (Feichtner & Davis, 70).

 

Project Deliverables

There are a variety of different types of project deliverables (outside the scope of presentations or papers) that are commonly asked for from Wharton Professors. While research does not specify which specifics types of deliverables are more important or instructive than others, there are a number of issues that must be dealt with in order to craft effective ones. As mentioned above, the issue of task interdependence is especially important in crafting a project requiring a deliverable. Moreover, deliverables should be crafted with overall fairness in mind in order to maximize the learning experience.

 

In order for group project task design to be effective, professors must ensure the task is conjunctive in terms of group member interdependence. A task is considered conjunctive when all group members must contribute in order for it to be completed (Steiner). This should not be confused with additive tasks, in which each member can contribute individually and those individual contributions then add together to create the greater output for the group; conjunctive tasks specifically call for each member contributing in a unique way. To illustrate the difference, Steiner often used the examples of climbing a mountain (conjunctive) versus pulling a rope in tug-of-war (additive). In the former, the task cannot be completed without complete cooperation and unique roles, whereas in the latter each additional hand is indistinguishable from the last. When a group project is additive, the work can be divided into equal parts that do not overlap in meaningful ways, resulting in students only learning a fraction of what the project intended for (colloquially, a “divide-and-conquer” approach that students often take in classes requiring financial models). On the other hand, when projects are conjunctive, although the responsibilities will differ, group members will have ownership over the entire task.

 

Learning in a group project will be maximized if the deliverable is designed with fairness in mind. Simple factors in design can enhance the perceived fairness of the task for all involved. As mentioned in regard to group size, teams need to have enough participants in order to handle the responsibilities without leaving members feeling overwhelmed. Given that three to five members is optimal for working conditions, projects must be designed so that any reasonable group of that many students can complete the task without being overwhelmed. Moreover, professors and academic sources agree that fairness is enhanced when groups are randomly assigned (Connerley & Mael, Muller). The diversity of experience brought from working with new students paired with a balancing effect in terms of capabilities across the class outweighs the bonding experience and prior relationships associated with self-selection.

 

In terms of evaluation, fairness is maximized when all students of a group receive the same baseline grades. Not only does this mimic conditions that students are bound to face in the workplace, it helps solve a number of incentive issues that arise otherwise. If the weaker students on a team know that no matter how hard they try, their grade will be lowered by the presence of stronger students, many will be discouraged and resentful of the system putting them in that position (Oakley). Yet, professors and academic sources both acknowledge that part peer evaluation can be an effective tool to help enhance learning while still preserving fairness. Because instructors cannot see how teams act outside the classroom, evaluating individual performance at the professor level is not easy to do effectively, nor does it accurately reflect contributions. Furthermore, this is tool accurately simulates real life working conditions in that individuals who do not pull their weight on work teams eventually suffer consequences. In terms of design, the mechanisms for instituting peer feedback vary, as long as it provides students an opportunity to acknowledge outlying performance within their group (Oakley).

 

Simulation

Some classes (such as MKTG 101, MGMT 101, ACCT 102, and BEPP 250) utilize simulations as a form of teamwork. Simulations are a great way to structure a group project as they give students hands-on experience and show them how companies tackle real world problems.

 

There are several factors professors consider when structuring a group simulation. It is important everyone on the team has the ability to contribute and one person is unable to dominate. If the task at hand can be done by one individual, even if the workload would be daunting, requiring it to be done by a team allows for free-loading. There should be specific value added when assigning the simulation to a team rather than to an individual; the value-add can be simply a more realistic real world scenario with team experience, but the task should be thoughtfully designed nonetheless. As discussed in earlier sections, professors must ensure there is a collective work product that requires interdependence. Students should play different roles, requiring reciprocity and thoughtful back-and-forth, rather than pooled work (where everyone works individually and combines output at the end) or sequential tasks (which involve handoffs from one person to the next) (Thompson). Incentives for positive teamwork are also very important. If there is a grade associated with the simulation, dedicating a portion of that grade towards teamwork can ensure students do not free-load and act respectfully. For example, if a simulation is worth 5% of a student’s grade, 4% can be based on performance or deliverables, and 1% can be based on their teamwork. To gauge whether a student was a good team member, professors can ask students to provide ratings for their teammates or to allocate what percentage of the work was done by each member of the team.

 

In Professor Marston’s LGST 101 contract simulation, the class is divided into groups of 6 students. Within those groups there are two separate teams and each team has 3 defined roles. Each student then chooses one of the roles, which come with a set of characteristics. By providing required roles for each member, Professor Marston ensures each student has a specific task and everyone is held accountable. Additionally, Professor Marston tells the class that if one of their teammates is unresponsive or not contributing to the project they can talk to her and she will arrange for that student to do a separate project. MKTG 101 encourages a similar option, where students should email their TA if they feel that a member of their simulation did not contribute enough.

Assigning specific roles during a simulation, giving tasks that requires everyone to contribute in their own way, and providing a mechanism to prevent free-loading can help to ensure a positive simulation experience.

 

Paper

Although less common, group writing assignments are yet another option for teamwork in the classroom. It is worth noting that writing a paper in a group can provide for a challenging experience as the task is naturally sequential or pooled, limiting the potential for a true team experience. This problem is compounded as students often have different writing styles and voices; the final work product may appear disjunct and be of lower quality as a result.

 

Instead of asking students to write papers as a team, professors can encourage collaboration through peer review. Peer review provides students with experiences in critical thinking and delivering feedback, as well as both writing and editorial skills (Nelson). Students can be assigned to groups to exchange papers and provide suggestions for improvement.

 

Sources

Barker, Randolph T., and Frank J. Franzak. "Team building in the classroom: Preparing students for their organizational future." Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 27.3 (1997): 303-315.

 

Connerley, Mary L., and Fred A. Mael. "The importance and invasiveness of student team selection criteria." Journal of management education 25.5 (2001): 471-494.

 

Feichtner, Susan Brown, and Elaine Actis Davis. "Why some groups fail: A survey of students' experiences with learning groups." Organizational Behavior Teaching Review 9.4 (1984): 58-73.

 

Hackman, J R. Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Print.

 

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinuora, E. (2006). Project-based learning in post-secondary education–theory, practice and rubber sling shots. Higher Education, 51(2), 287-314.

 

“HBR Guide to Coaching Employees.” Proto View., vol. 2, no. 8, Ringgold, Inc., Feb. 2015.

 

Howard, Sandra A. "Guiding collaborative teamwork in the classroom." Journal of Effective Teaching 3.1 (1999).

 

S. Nelson, "Teaching collaborative writing and peer review techniques to engineering and technology undergraduates," 30th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference. Building on A Century of Progress in Engineering Education. Conference Proceedings (IEEE Cat. No.00CH37135), Kansas City, MO, USA, 2000.

 

Mueller, Jennifer S. "Why individuals in larger teams perform worse." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117.1 (2012): 111-124.

 

Muller, Thomas E. "Assigning students to groups for class projects: An exploratory test of two methods." Decision Sciences 20.3 (1989): 623-634.

 

Oakley, Barbara, et al. "Turning student groups into effective teams." Journal of student centered learning 2.1 (2004): 9-34.

 

Sridharan, B., Tai, J., & Boud, D. (2018). Does the use of summative peer assessment in collaborative group work inhibit good judgement?. Higher Education, 1-18.

 

Steiner, I.D. Group Process and Productivity. Sage Publications, 1972.

 

Thompson, J. D. (1967). Organizations in action: Social science bases of administrative theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.