Kathleen Harper

Kathleen Harper

Kathleen Harper is a senior lecturer in the Department of Engineering Education. In this guest post, she shares some insights about using group work to develop students’ teamwork skills and lists a few core principles for making group work successful.


Studies ranging across the employment spectrum show that, no matter what field our students find themselves in, they must know how to work well with others. The skills that are necessary to be an effective teammate are not instinctive for many of our students, and so if group projects are going to be part of our courses, it is imperative to structure the experience in such a way that students have every opportunity to be successful. Fortunately, there are cooperative learning experts who have developed a useful framework for this structure. I am particularly partial to the work of David and Roger Johnson, because it is general, practical, and adaptable. Almost without fail, when I find a student who distrusts teamwork due to a poor prior experience, it is because that experience lacked one or more of the essential elements. Here is a quick synopsis of the five essential elements of the Johnsons’ framework:

  • Positive Interdependence – the group must have a reason to work together, in that a meaningful group project is involved enough that one student can’t do it all individually; they succeed or fail as a team. Helping a teammate must never be perceived as something that could be harmful to one’s own achievement or grade.
  • Individual Accountability – a student who doesn’t do the work must face consequences. This might be accomplished through individual assessments, student evaluations of their team members, or a combination of the two.
  • Group Processing – groups must be given time and a mechanism to periodically reflect on how effective they are as a group, including identification of strengths and of potential areas for improvement.
  • Small Group Social Skills – instructors must model and instruct students in appropriate ways to interact with each other. This helps students have productive conversations without feeling that they are being ignored or personally attacked
  • Face-to-face Promotive Interaction – students must make decisions together; working side-by-side and checking answers at the end is not teamwork. Teamwork is more than adding individual results together.

There are many ways to incorporate these elements, and the books of Johnson, Johnson, and their colleagues are full of practical options. Which of these books might work best for you depends upon the content of the course, the level of the course, your personal preferences, your goals, and your student population.

photo by Amanda Pierce, photographer for The Lantern

photo by Amanda Pierce, photographer for The Lantern

My colleagues and I who teach in the Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors program incorporate these pillars of cooperative learning into our robotics design project. Students are put into teams of 3 to 4 students and given a budget, set of specifications, and schedule of performance tests. They work for about 8 weeks designing, building, testing, and documenting their robot. It is certainly a project that requires full participation from all on the team to be successful and is full of decisions to be made. Instructors interact with each team frequently, both through informal discussions and scheduled meetings and discuss both technical and interpersonal aspects of the project.

The first assignment students complete as a team is drawing up a team working agreement to outline how they will make decisions, communicate with each other, manage disagreements, and conduct themselves during and between meetings. Three times during the term, students fill out a survey evaluating the teamwork skills of themselves and their teammates. The first two times are for formative feedback, and the final time is factored into the course grade. In addition, there are elements of the course, such as exams and some homework assignments, that are individual grades.

This course has been offered for over 20 years, and we still are finding ways to strengthen the structure to give our students the best possible experience to learn the fundamentals, not only of engineering design, but of how to be an effective team member.