16 October 2013

Working effectively on team-based assignments in class

By Karen Kueh

It is increasingly common these days in schools as well as institutions of higher learning to get students to work in teams on a project or assignment. This norm is supported by the fact that the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) developed by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) has recognised the ability to work in a team as one of the desired outcomes for students enrolled in a higher learning program such as diploma or undergraduate studies. One of the reasons why teamwork is considered an important skill to be developed in students is because it is well regarded in the job market. Teamwork is listed in the 2012 Graduate Outlook Survey published by Graduate Careers Australia as being among the top 10 skills employers look for. In the local context, the National Graduate Employability Blueprint 2012-2017 published by the Ministry of Higher Education (now under the Ministry of Education) also identifies teamwork as one of the soft skills desired by Malaysian industries when hiring graduates. As such, it is beneficial that students acquire teamwork skills while working on assignments in class in order to enhance their future employability.

Nonetheless, I have heard parents commenting that their children face problems when doing team-based assignments in school. Such complaints have also been voiced by my own students regardless of whether they are in their first or final year of university studies. This suggests that working effectively in teams is not a skill that is easily or automatically acquired by students. This article therefore proposes three practical issues to consider that may be useful to students in schools and universities in order to work more effectively on team-based assignments.

One of the most important requirements is to have effective leadership. To illustrate, in a final year capstone unit that I taught, students had to come up with solutions to a business problem. This was very challenging as the answers could not be found in any textbook and the students had to rely on one another to get the project done under a tight deadline. In many cases, the teams with the best performance were not the ones with the smartest individual members but those with the most effective leaders. Interestingly, these were not always the students with top academic results but the ones who were mature and committed enough to pick up the responsibility of providing direction and control to the rest of the team. It is also possible, although trickier, to have shared leadership whereby there is no one single leader but instead, every member assumes a leadership role in a different aspect of the task. Examples of effective leadership behaviour in this context include understanding the task requirements, ensuring equitable distribution of work, facilitating discussion among team members and checking quality of work as well as punctuality in meeting deadlines.

Secondly, the importance of planning cannot be underestimated. Oftentimes, students go astray because they are tempted to rush and finish as soon as possible, leading to confusion, misunderstanding and dissatisfaction among the team members later on. A more prudent approach is to spend some time at the beginning deciding exactly what to do in the assignment, how jobs should be distributed and what timelines to observe.

Another common reason why students do not work well in teams is due to the lack of interaction among the members. Here are some possible scenarios: “We did not have each other’s contact numbers and hardly met outside of class”; “Student A did not show up for meetings and could not be contacted”; “There were very few replies when I posted a message on Facebook about the assignment”. According to a well-known model of team development proposed by Bruce Tuckman, teams go through various stages starting from forming followed by storming, norming and then performing. Constant interaction helps teams get through the early stages of development more smoothly because it develops cohesiveness among the members. One of the teams I observed planned surprise birthday parties for their members. As a student said later, “It made me feel like we were a family rather than just doing a project together.” Such activities might seem irrelevant to the task at hand but it pays off indirectly by improving the camaraderie in the team. This helps to develop respect and trust among team members which often leads subsequently to increased motivation and effort.

It is true that even teams that work less effectively together can accomplish their task in the end, but poor team dynamics will prevent the full potential of teamwork to be unleashed. For teams that have successfully learnt to work together, there is a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in being able to create synergy that surpasses what any one individual can achieve. That, ultimately, is the reason why students, and indeed, all of us, should learn to work effectively in teams.

Karen Kueh is a lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at kkueh@swinburne.edu.my.