Accounting for Team Learning

When updating my economics courses, I’ve been adding more collaborative learning assignments and team projects—nothing very profound or elaborate. For example, before each class I ask teams of two or three students to submit annotated lists of the five Web sites that are most relevant to the concept of the day. Also, instead of asking individual students to respond to study questions at the end of our textbook chapters, I ask three students to submit a mutually agreed-on best answer.

During class I often ask teams of three students to create a PowerPoint presentation that uses the concept of the day to persuade a decision-maker to take appropriate action. And, at the end of each study unit a team of five students is responsible for creating a web site that explains and uses the concept (e.g. comparative advantage) just studied.

These are powerful and useful assignments. They force students to apply their newly learned concepts. They encourage students to teach each other. They nurture student self-confidence. And, when I have to grade only one project instead of five, they save my time.

But there’s a downside. First, it becomes more difficult to assign a fair grade to each student. Second, some students can slip through the course without contributing their fair share to their team and, more importantly, without ever learning the material.

The question then becomes, “how can we take advantage of collaborative and team learning without sacrificing individual accountability and motivation?” I’ve posed this question to a number of colleagues and here’s a brief list of their answers. I encourage you to e-mail me at brown@wfu.edu about your own experiences, especially successes.

  • Keep the teams small, preferably from two to five people.
  • Assign specific roles for each team member. For example, in a business management course one team member might serve as the chief financial officer, another as the chief marketing officer, etc. Or, when preparing a PowerPoint presentation, one team member might be responsible for creating the theme, another for providing relevant data, and still another for putting the presentation together.
  • In addition to submitting a team project (for a team grade), ask each individual to submit a critique of the team project (just as a justice of the Supreme Court might submit a minority opinion).
  • In addition to grading the team project, ask each individual to submit for grading his or her individual contribution to the team project. This is especially feasible when individuals have been assigned roles within the team.
  • First give the assignment to all individual students, then ask students to work in teams and submit their best combined contribution.
  • For larger, longer term projects, periodically e-mail team captains to ask how things are going. Meet with groups that are in trouble.
  • At the end of the course, ask each student to name the three to five other students in the class who have helped them the most, and then give frequently named students some extra credit.

Recently published research documenting the power of collaborative learning, our own personal successes with collaborative assignments, and new possibilities enabled by the computer are stimulating this revolution in pedagogy. As we add more team projects, it is wise to balance individual and collaborative assignments, and to make sure that each student continues to feel responsible for their grade and their learning.

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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