How to Incorporate Effective Team-based Learning into Any Course

May 31, 2017
Esther Sackett

By Esther Sackett, Ph.D.

Teamwork is an essential part of the modern workplace—from multinational corporations to consulting firms, nonprofit organizations, hospitals and more. As a result, universities emphasize the importance of developing teamwork skills prior to entering the workforce, and this preparation frequently comes in the form of group projects in courses.

Classroom-based team experiences can be a great way to teach students how to work effectively and interdependently to produce a deliverable. However, effective teamwork is challenging and, unfortunately, the majority of university professors do not receive training in how to guide team-based learning. Effective teamwork does not happen on its own. It is not sufficient to tell students to “work as a team” and expect them to know how to engage in effective processes of goal setting, role definition, norm setting, conflict management and communication (all of which are known to be necessary elements of effective teamwork).

During the 2015-2016 academic year I had the opportunity to teach two courses in the Markets and Management (MMS) Certificate Program at Duke. As a Ph.D. in Management and Organizations with expertise in team processes, my goal was to incorporate team-based learning in a way that would help students learn how to be effective, proactive team members. Although one of these courses was a Management course (for which teamwork was a natural topic to cover), the other was a Marketing course (for which teamwork was not a key topic). Based on the overwhelmingly positive experiences of students in both courses, I believe my approach of structuring team projects can work in any course—even one that does not explicitly incorporate management, leadership or teamwork topics. I hope that other faculty can benefit from my model.

It’s amazing how incorporating just a little bit of structure into a classroom-based team project can make a huge difference. In contrast to the frustration that students often feel when working on team projects, students in my courses described their experiences quite positively. Some examples:

Often when a professor tells me that this semester’s class will include a group project, I cringe and immediately debate whether I will soon press the “drop” button on the drop/add registration page. However, this team experience was much different…for the first time my team members actually wanted to share their insight, felt their ideas should be heard, and were excited to participate in the discussion. This team project allowed me to have a more positive look at group experiences. I now see groups as entities that can amplify experience, knowledge and results instead of forces to hinder progress.

I typically do not enjoy group projects, with the uneven distribution of work and difficulty communicating, but this time was different…. Our team relationship was really defined by the charter, not necessarily because we based it off of the charter but because that was our first interaction and it forced us to define these in a very upfront and concrete way. 

Although it seemed intuitive, I also think setting concrete norms of active participation, open communication and a safe environment reiterated everyone’s commitment to the team project from the outset…. I plan to adapt elements of it into my future work in teams.

Below, I highlight the key components of my team project assignments.

  • Assign teams early in the semester (during week 2 or 3) and design teams consciously to maximize cognitive diversity and make that diversity salient.
    • Rather than let students form their own teams, I created teams of 3 or 4 students where I explicitly tried to create heterogeneity in terms of their majors, their class year and gender.
    • I called attention to this cognitive diversity to make it salient that they would be working with people who may view things from different perspectives, and that these differences were valuable.
  • Prior to handing out team assignments, I recommend dedicating a 60-90 minute session for talking about the project (whatever its components are) and the importance of team process.
  • Team charter: Have students turn in a team charter for their team a week or so after their teams have been assigned. This deliverable ensures that they are discussing and engaging in goal-setting, norm-setting, conflict management, role assignment, communication method, etc., early on (see Bass Connections sample charter).
  • For projects that have a final paper or presentation at the end of the semester, include one or two small interim deliverables (ungraded; just for credit/no credit). This ensures that they are learning to collaborate and coordinate on smaller items prior to the final assignment. Other ideas for structuring effective team assignments include:
    • A couple weeks after the team charter is due, have them submit a brief memo (1-2 paragraphs) that describes their chosen topic, or main thesis.
    • If doing a final paper and presentation, I recommend having the paper due a few days after the presentation. This helps students structure their content in advance of the paper deadline and allows them to get initial feedback before the final paper is due.
    • Have them turn in a personal reflection (individually) after the project is over, to reflect on what they learned about themselves, challenges, etc.

Esther Sackett received her Ph.D. in Management and Organizations from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in 2017 and is an expert in team processes.

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