Formulating Teams

download-e1495818599258.jpg Huddled on the floor with scissors, I used to cut student names from the roster, and shuffle them around like tea leaves, hoping to see a bright future—productivity, friendship, personal growth and fulfillment! After years of practicing alchemy, I decided to get real, so I turned to math. By creating numeric teams—for example, count off by 5, students were at least in equitably sized groups—and a reasonably sized team IS easier to manage. What I finally learned about creating teams harkens back to that familiar Hallmark greeting card slogan: When you love something set it free…

That’s right: Chalk one up for democracy when it comes to successful team creation. For major, graded collaborative projects, I have found student choice— not alchemy, not size, but the simple act of letting students choose—produces the best results. However, like most choices, wise decisions stem from a clear understanding of what you are getting yourself in to—so clear objectives are crucial here, and successful democracies depend on a framework of law and order—so the way these choices are set up in the classroom with clear parameters and guidelines—sound instructional design—is really the hidden key to success.

Student-Centered Choice

Now, I give students a couple of weeks to come up with a great idea for their final project, and they pitch their idea during a whole class networking session. They decide which idea they support and join that team.

Sounds simple right? It is, but there are a few tips that I will share after a couple of years of conducting this process and learning from my mistakes. I know from my own experience of working on teams that even the best need an infrastructure that supports productivity. Supportive infrastructure helps me too because I want my focus to be on reviewing the actual projects—not on team dynamics, so here again student-centered pedagogy reigns supreme. However, effective student-centered instructional design doesn’t leave students in the dark without any guiding lights. Effective instructional design provides students with explicit instruction on the strategies they need and therefore equips them with essential tools that will help them navigate their way to success.

What is a networking session?

A networking session simply means that students circulate the room, meeting and greeting their peers. Prior to arriving at the networking session, students view a short video on “the elevator pitch,” complete some reading designed to build knowledge in the subject and then they write out a three-five sentence project idea pitch. All of this takes place online prior to coming to the physical classroom on networking day.

There is a skill to networking that I explain is similar to navigating a family gathering—you don’t want to get cornered talking to Aunt May for too long, but you do want to at least greet Aunt May because you don’t want to be rude, so you need to say just enough and then enact your exit strategy. What is an Exit Strategy? I ask students. They all know the answer in this context: it’s a polite way to move along without offending Aunt May.

I ask students to share suggested Exit Strategies, and I suggest phrases like, “Thanks for your time” and “It’s been great talking with you” or “Sound like an interesting idea, thanks for sharing.” I explain to students that a networking session means that you circulate the room, and it is customary to move along and therefore awkward when people don’t move along—so don’t be an Aunt May and corner people, keep moving along. The goal is to meet and greet EVERY student to hear every idea because this is a big deal—”remember, you are choosing your partners for the next 10-12 weeks.” That’s about all the direction these 20 year olds need to hear in order to start networking, and majority seem to really enjoy the opportunity to chat with everyone in the class—even the introverts do a good job of at least faking enjoyment—mission accomplished!

How are teams created?

After shaking hands and pitching to every student in the class, they write down their top three choices—by name and idea— on a sheet of paper.

While they watch a 20 minute writing strategy video, I sort students by first choice. A handful may get their second choice. Then I call each group into an area of the room for their first stand-up meeting. These meetings proceed the field trip to the library so students brainstorm possible areas for their research using the campus databases.

Can students switch teams?

I allow students to change teams until the Planning Memorandum, but after that, I explain, they are locked in contract.

How is mutual accountability built into the team structure?

Not only do students utilize a table to identify who is doing what in the planning memorandum, but this document also asks teams to create and list their own deadlines for all of the required components of the final project.

In the case of the research-based proposal, these assignments include:

1) Collaborative Annotated Bibliography (two sources per person minimum), 2)Individual Draft Deadline, 2) Collaborative Draft Peer Review, 3) Individual Presentation Script (for final presentation) and 4) Final Proposal Draft Deadline.

How are students held accountable for team deadlines?

Just after the draft deadlines, I ask teams to individually submit a progress report about how well they did on meeting their draft and peer review deadlines (self-reflection), but other than that I do not “police” students’ deadlines except at the time I score their Planning Memo. I wait to grade this document until after the draft deadlines pass. If the students have met the deadline, they earn more points. I make a comment on each Planning Memo either commending the team or noting that points were lost due to drafts not being submitting by the team deadline.

How do the team jobs reinforce productivity?

Since I have added the team jobs video that clarifies the role facilitators play in getting drafts collected and communicating to scribes when deadlines dates need to be updated—in other words, if facilitators know teammates are going to miss the deadline, then they need to advise the scribe to reset the deadline to accommodate teammates’ needs—all teams have done a much better job of actually paying attention to their Planning Memorandum which prevents students from than waiting until the last moment to try to complete their proposal section. Hence the dramatic decrease I have observed in the number of panicked emails I receive the week of the final deadline.

Procrastination and Busy Schedules Exist

Even though students chose to work on the idea, selected the team, and they may even be highly interested in the succeeding on the project, the disease of procrastination is no where near cured. Many have a long history of waiting until the last minute—but creating/enforcing draft deadlines, clear communication, and knowing that the team counting is on each individual in the team in order to succeed goes a long way toward breaking this cycle. In this case, peer pressure is a good thing.


Team building exercises

When students engage in authentic exploration of effective communication strategies in an environment that supports reflection and collaboration, the collective benefit is that they don’t want to let each other down. They try harder. When individuals who are part of teams self-report and self-reflect, and engage in learning activities that build leadership knowledge—they perform at a higher level. They take more responsibility—they become real stakeholders in the greater good of the team. I would also argue that they learn more from each other and this, ultimately, is what improves outcomes. I remember learning about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development in graduate school, but seeing it in action is quite inspiring.  I have found this result to be the norm for every class that engages in at least five team building activities.

At a minimum, I embed the following five activity threads:

  1. Online/Video•Reading•Quiz on Collective Intelligence and Leadership articles (10 minute mini-lessons totaling 90 min)
  2. Online/Metacognitive Reflections (self-monitoring) (3 X 5-10 min each)
  3. In-Person or Online/ Agile Scrum Meeting (15-30 min)
  4. In-Person/Whole Class Active Listening of Case Study (30-45 min)
  5. In-Person/Planning Memorandum with Sketch, “Three Common Traits” activity and Expert Team Meetings (90 minutes)

Expert Groups

An essential component of Team Building is forming Expert Groups which builds mutual accountability and applies the concept of collective intelligence. Collective Intelligence is a key term defined in thread #1.

Students first practice the concept of “expert groups” during the “jigsaw” activity on the second day of class when they “teach: the five required assignments to their “row teams.”

Team Jobs

Click here for Micro-Lecture defining team jobs.

The concept of the “expert groups” continues throughout the semester with students adopting these four roles/jobs:

  1. Scribe—transcribes the team answer/response. Handles the management of the document. Sets up Google Docs and PPT.
  2. Facilitator—coordinates team communication; responsible for collecting contacts and disseminating information; keeps track of time, including deadlines; uses a calendar, text message and/or Google doc.
  3. Editor—makes sure the document follows the appropriate style (APA) and helps individual writers with editing; uses a highlighter tool to focus revision on documents.
  4. Spokesperson—manages Q and A and informal presentations for the team; choreographs final presentation, including flow and organization, and plans dress rehearsal.

These job assignments are assigned on the Project Planning Memorandum, which builds mutual accountability in the group. The Planning Memorandum becomes the team contract—adding value to this standardized assignment and providing a documentation of the team terms—building mutual accountability. Project planning requires clearly defined goals and when students take ownership of specific tasks on the project and are held accountable for these aspects of the project, the project moves steadily towards success.

Team Sketch

Another important aspect of thread #5 is the discussion that takes place in the team during the sketch—how does the team visualize the project under time constraint? How well does the team communicate to create a clear idea?

Three Favorites: General To Specific Lesson

A quick community building activity that also teaches writing is the “Three favorite things” activity. In this activity students have 10 minutes to brainstorm three favorites, such as going to the movies, taking trips to the beach, tacos (favorite places to go/favorite food). But the challenge is that the team must agree on three favorites and then attempt to be as specific as possible. The example I model is asking a friend to get pizza. I say: your friend my be thinking frozen Diggornio’s pepperoni, mushroom at home on the couch watching television and you may be thinking Pizza My Heart downtown San Jose. So your job is to get as specific as possible. When I ask team to share their most specific favorite—I ask the class to listen and raise their hand if they can get the team to be MORE specific, so the lesson is that when writers use general concepts, the audience may have questions, or need clarification. Whereas when no hands go up, the team did a great job of being very specific. I teach that both strategies are useful in writing. In a summary, for example, the writer must balance general context that draws the reader into the topic with enough specific details to illustrate the particulars of this topic.

This activity is a great ice breaker for teams because the audience participation is fun, and surprising! I learn lots about youth culture during this session as students’ favorites reveal much about each particular class. But the lesson occurs on a day where the learning experience is valuable as students must then formulate a summary of their final project idea to the class “advisory board” and we will again test the general to specific concept by raising hands if more clarification of the project description is required—one of the most challenging aspects of technical writing is getting complicated systems into simple, understandable terms using a blend of general and specific.

 Language-based Pedagogy

Language-based pedagogy centralizes terms and definitions and asks students to apply the terms in authentic contexts.

Struggle Expected

Don’t get me wrong—I expect struggle within teams—that’s part of what I teach—that challenges are inherent in any collaboration—but if students’ have the tools that work to overcome these problems, then teamwork really can be dreamwork.

Team Building

Every semester I struggle to fit everything in. The flipped model removes the lecture from the classroom, but giving students time during class to practice with instructor feedback is a fundamental principal of “flipped” instruction, so class time becomes a balancing act between 1) time spent discussing key concepts taught outside of class and 2) time spent applying the knowledge through hands-on practice. Both of these activities require ample time, so adding a third element to this already busy class schedule often seems impossible.

pebbles-2020100__340-1However, in today’s project-based classroom environments, a significant percentage of students’ grades stem from collaborative assignments, so building functional teams benefits everyone. If we are going to tether students grades together, then time spent teaching communication and mutual accountability is time well spent.

One of the challenges of incorporating team building into busy classrooms is to develop effective activities that take minimal time. Another challenge is understanding the benefits of team building aren’t always immediately obvious. At first, I struggled with both of these aspects. Over time though I learned how to cut lessons down to a handful of short, generative strategies designed to fill a “team toolkit” that students can carry with them to their next project.

I also learned to appreciate delayed gratification. While the long term payoff of incorporating team building is unknowable, the short term payoff becomes obvious during crunch time, the days and hours before the collaborative project deadline when I used to count on receiving panicked student emails about missing teammates or requests for deadline extensions.

Since incorporating the team toolkit a couple of years ago, I have yet to receive one of these emails. Perhaps the most important result was how dramatically the students’ experience improved as documented in individual progress reports.  Read student testimonial here.Yup, that’s right 100% reported a positive team experience even on this 35+-page, research-based collaborative Proposal project worth more than 20% of their grade. Whereas students had plenty of negative to say about previous team experiences, after incorporating the team toolkit, students reports shifted to the positive.

Most surprisingly, however, was that team writing also showed remarkable improvement—not just a handful of student writers improved, but rather the majority of writers who engaged in the team building experience submitted improved writing. How do I know this? I collect individual and collaborative drafts of the Proposal. This practice allows me to track progress, word count requirements (mutual accountability on my part) and gaps in the proposal narrative. Occasionally, I require a rewrite of particularly egregious errors or missteps, and access to individual drafts helps me to target this feedback to a specific individual—because mutual accountability goes both ways. I need to hold individuals accountable just as the team does. I need to clarify objectives (clear communication) just as the team does. These simple steps lead to team success. Overall, students understand this framework holds them accountable and supports the team efforts, which improves attitude—and that’s half the battle.




Sustainability Project Pitch

I learned so much from my students today! This contextualized writing course focuses students on the topic of Sustainability and culminates with a 10-20 minute collaborative presentation where students “pitch” their Proposal idea by explaining the viability of their project given the real constraints of the campus infrastructure. Using the Campus as a Living Lab, this project brings inter-disciplinary teams of engineers together to identify and solve a real campus issue and write a collaborative, research-based proposal using current data from SJSU’s STARS report and peer-reviewed journal articles gathered from the campus database collection.

Topics focus on key areas of sustainability, such as transportation, water, energy, buildings and safety and provide students with ‘real world’ experience designing an engineering solution to a current issue on or around the campus. Creativity abounded as teams explained projects such as, a recycling container that uses a materials scanner to help consumers sort their recycling, a device that converts and stores kinetic energy generated by building doors to power exit signs and safety lighting during emergencies and can operate ADA compliant doors, a ‘green roof’ design that incorporates self-sustaining power (solar) and monitoring systems.

Project-based teams write presentation “scripts” and create visually-balanced PPT presentations to thoughtfully explain their research-based ideas for improving sustainability on our campus. These collaborative presentations must meet strict time limitations and provide references and visualizations. Presentations are “crowd scored” by the other project teams using a Presentation Rubric and Canvas discussion forum.

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You know the presentation is good when you see a room full of engineering students with computers and phones, and no one is looking at their screen. Very cool!

Each of the presentations was engaging and informative from beginning to end. I’m so proud of the whole group of students—presenters and audience. A great day in the classroom.

Next week students will view the final GreenTalk online and hear from one of our esteemed Engineering professors who will overview the City of San Jose “Smart Cities” partnership and summer conference in his lecture, the final talk in our weekly Guest Speaker series. The talk provides an overview of how SJSU engineering faculty and students are working with San Jose City officials to build cloud-based systems designed to address key problems in San Jose’s infrastructure, such as street cleaning, building efficiency, illegal dumping and community connectivity.

Here is a link to some lectures for this course: InstructorKnapp Teaching blog

On this Instructable post, I practice some of what I preach in the classroom by building a bioswale.