Prepping Students for Collaboration

A recent tweet from Dr. Kelly Zvobgo prompted a discussion about how to address interpersonal issues that might come up between students during peer collaboration for a course assignment. When I was a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), this question was often on my mind, as WPI employs project-based learning across its curriculum, which inherently requires lots of peer collaboration. As someone who hated working in groups for my course grade as an undergrad, I was reluctant to require students to work together. Mostly, I was unsure how to facilitate effective and equitable teamwork in a way that would address the pitfalls of group work that I had experienced as an undergrad (e.g., different expectations, skills, interests, and availability among team members). But my perspective on group work changed as I reviewed resources and participated in workshops that helped me better facilitate collaborative relationships among students. I thought more about how to set students up at the start of the term for collaborative work, rather than waiting to address problems if they arose.

WPI has a dedicated Center for Project-Based Learning with all sorts of resources for instructors. Additionally, I was PI on a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to further develop and test resources originally organized and developed by two WPI colleagues, Dr. Elisabeth (Lisa) Stoddard and Dr. Geoff Pfeifer. The grant work was entitled, SWEET: Supporting WPI through Effective and Equitable Teamwork in the Project-Based Curriculum, and the focus of the work was on facilitating student, faculty, and staff understanding of teamwork and team advisement in ways that value and use contributions of all team members.

Dr. Stoddard and Dr. Pfeifer continue to update their tools and resources that were used in facilitating student teamwork. Those resources can be found in their “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tools for Teamwork: Asset Mapping and Team Processing Handbook.”

I highly recommend reviewing the full handbook for ideas on what may be of use for your own courses. Some of the tools that Dr. Stoddard and Dr. Pfeifer have collected and developed in the handbook are recommended for longer (4+ weeks) projects, but there are many resources that can be implemented for shorter (1-3 week) projects. I recommend the resources in Module 1 for all team projects. These resources include readings, self-assessment, and activities to get students to consider their expectations for themselves and their teammates before project work begins. At the least, it gives students material to reference if issues within the team arise over the course of the project. It also gives examples of how students can develop Team Contracts at the start of the project and how they can evaluate team dynamics at the mid-point and at the completion of the project.

I implemented these materials in an Intro to International Relations course, which centered on the Dr. Brock Tessman’s International Relations in Action: A World Politics Simulation.* Because students were expected to work in teams over the course of the entire 7-week term and their final course grade was heavily dependent on team work, I wanted students to establish effective and equitable team dynamics early. The tools in Module 1 helped them consider the different aspects of team work, what assets they bring to the team, and what assets their teammates bring. It also gave them the language to communicate effectively about team work.

Adding these types of activities can be a challenge if you’ve already developed a well-balanced course. The Handbook includes information on how much time these activities will take students and other considerations for implementation. The adaptability of the tools and the inclusion of additional resources really allow you to tailor the materials to your needs. And helping students develop these skills for navigating collaborations can be both rewarding for them and for the instructor.


* I’ve documented my use of the IRiA simulation on the Active Learning in Political Science site:

And in the Journal of Political Science EducationKnowledge Surveys as an Assessment Tool of Simulation Course Outcomes