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.

class2 (1)

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.