Helping students to learn team skills

The role of an online educator differs from that of a traditional classroom instructor. Rather than teach directly, an instructor's main role online is to facilitate learning, although when students are working in teams, the team members do some of the online facilitation. Instructors take on the role of an outside facilitator who ensures that there are no barriers to team learning, that the essential elements for learning are accessible, and aids team members in times of conflict or confusion.

Here are a number of suggested strategies:

Facilitate team startup

  • Build teamwork into your course as a learning outcome or required competency.
  • Tell the students what your instructional goal is and why they will be working in teams. Students who have chosen to study online may have learning styles that tend to favour working independently. Also, students who have worked in groups without being taught team skills may have had negative group experiences.
  • Provide the students with an explanation of team roles and team process.
  • Tell the students what you expect the team performance to be.
  • Form small teams that are balanced in knowledge and skills. Assign students to teams if you can, aiming for a heterogeneous group that is a mix of achievement level, gender, ethnicity, academic interests and learning styles. Teams of four are considered ideal for online work.
  • Give clear instructions regarding both the assignments and the communication tools. Fuzzy directions about what to do and how to do it lead to frustration and lack of motivation.
  • Assign team-building activities that get students working together on meaningful tasks. Structure the online activities so that they build on one another and promote cooperation. Consider requiring each team to develop a team charter that defines its goals and group norms (Hartley & Robson, 1998).
  • Give the team a complex enough assignment that they have to work together to complete it successfully.

Facilitate motivation

  • Help team members manage "cyberstress" by assisting them feel connected to you and to their team members. Send an initial welcome message at the beginning of the team activity. Ask members to contribute personal information about themselves to the team, including their background, familiarity with the task/problem, and talents/contributions they will be bringing to the team.
  • Manage the stress resulting from delayed communications by sending "receipt" messages to assure the learners that although you cannot immediately respond to the learner's message, you have received it. Encourage team members to do the same.
  • Plan frequent email prompts to help team members overcome procrastination. These should be friendly reminders ask if assistance is required, or ask for reports on team progress.

Facilitate problem-solving

  • Provide a variety of tools to support team problem solving: an asynchronous tool to keep a record of team discussions and negotiations, and a synchronous tool for negotiation and decision-making.
  • Assist team members when they struggle with achieving consensus. Teams often appreciate the intervention of a neutral facilitator when it comes time to make critical decisions or select among alternatives. One suggestion is to assist the team by reviewing team progress and summarize it as you see it.

Facilitate skill building

  • Design tasks that are targeted to specific skills.
  • Monitor team progress and be available to consult when teams are having problems.
  • Encourage students to monitor their own team process and to reflect on it.
  • Model appropriate social skills including ways of providing constructive feedback or eliciting more in-depth responses through probing questions. Encourage students to practice and reinforce these skills.
  • Provide timely and meaningful feedback. Skill building depends on frequent practice and feedback. Plan and use process checks as part of project activities.

Facilitate conflict resolution

  • Discourage judgment, criticism and personal attacks. Consider asking the teams to adopt ground rules that encourage members to suspend judgment and accept diverse views. Post the rules on the course website. Monitor the interaction and remind members when a contribution is outside the accepted rules.
  • Intervene to highlight areas of common ground among conflicting team members. Start by helping team members see areas within their conflict that they agree on. Encourage the use of synchronous tools to resolve heated conflict. Telephone conferences may be more effective than computer-mediated communication to resolve personal conflict.

Source: Compiled from several sources (Bailey & Luetkehans, 1998; Felder & Brent, 2001; Hartley & Robson, 1998, 1999; Millis, n.d.)

This T4T tipsheet contains additional strategies for instructors exploring team based learning.