Making teamwork work

Teamwork can be one of the more challenging forms of peer-to-peer learning, and is often dreaded by students. Yet with a  little clever design, it’s amazing how student complaints disappear and engagement soars. In MGT584 (Leadership in Teams), Zelma Bone has tailor-made the learning experiences to focus on both the theory and practice of team leadership. The technology is simple – it’s the design that shines. 

What were you trying to achieve?

This subject forms part of the Master of Business Leadership, and is purposely designed to actively engage students in learning about leadership in teams through practicing and reflecting on leading within teams. It has around 50 students, all online.

I used an experiential learning approach, helping learners make sense of their experiences, while using methods to develop and practice new behaviours.

online teams

Image courtesy of Aleksandar Coceke

What did it look like?

The subject is designed around the number ‘4’ – there are four people in a team, taking part in four challenges over four modules. For each challenge, students take part in:

  1. A pre-skills assessment to capture where each individual learner is in relation to their knowledge, skills and attitudes of a particular aspect of leadership in teams. No prior preparation or reading is required before completing the exercise.

  2. The challenge – the degree of reality is an important theoretical and practical consideration in learner engagement. Each challenge relates to relevant issues and contexts of leadership in teams. The role of leader changes in each task.

  3. The final component is reflection. Experience may underpin all learning but it does not always result in learning. Students engage with the experience and reflect on what happened, how it happened and why; leading to plans for how they can improve their practice. They also return to their pre-assessment task to make any changes or additions they feel appropriate to what they have been through the exercise.

This short screencast walks you through the basic subject design:


How can I make this happen? 

The total focus on teamwork in this subject is a perfect fit for context. How could you possibly teach a subject about leadership in teams without enabling students to have extensive experience leading (and being led) in teams? Yet the same principles that made this subject successful could just as easily be applied on a smaller scale. Here’s Zel’s advice:

Don’t be hamstrung by content

In any subject design, I always start with the outcomes – what do I want the students to achieve in this subject? Keeping the learning outcomes in mind I start to design the assessment items. What do students need to complete these tasks? Content tends to naturally ‘fall out’ towards the end of the design process.

Be clear…and be flexible

Each challenge has 5 steps which ideally take 14 days, although 21 days are allocated to complete the task. This format leaves 7 days between each challenge, allowing teams to have a choice and some flexibility but within boundaries. Team members will also have to negotiate on when and who will lead each challenge.

Provide sufficient orientation

The learning environment can strongly influence the experience. Clear instructions are paramount. The first two weeks of session are dedicated to introducing the subject and the technology to the students, the students to each other; and the students to me, the subject coordinator. We will discover ‘who is in the room’ and what adjustments I may need to make for asynchronous teams.

Consider team selection carefully

The activities in the first two weeks will allow me to discover ‘who is in the room’ and what adjustments I may need to make for potentially asynchronous teams (allowing for FIFO, shift workers, overseas students etc). I usually do the team selection alphabetically (saves time and debate).

Allocate responsibility and marks fairly

With only four members per team there will be no room to hide in the group! Four was chosen to allow each team member the opportunity of leading a challenge. Each challenge is worth 20%  (doubled to 40% when the student is the leader). The leader has extra responsibilities of leading the task as well as an extra submission task. I stress that even though a student may not be the leader of the challenge, their responsibility to that challenge is not diminished. It is the relationship between leaders and team members which is critical to building and maintaining successful and effective teams.

This post originally appeared in the Faculty of Business’ Our Business blog, and has been reposted here with the academic’s permission.   

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