download-e1495818599258.jpg Huddled on the floor with scissors, I used to cut student names from the roster, and shuffle them around like tea leaves, hoping to see a bright future—productivity, friendship, personal growth and fulfillment! After years of practicing alchemy, I decided to get real, so I turned to math. By creating numeric teams—for example, count off by 5, students were at least in equitably sized groups—and a reasonably sized team IS easier to manage. What I finally learned about creating teams harkens back to that familiar Hallmark greeting card slogan: When you love something set it free…

That’s right: Chalk one up for democracy when it comes to successful team creation. For major, graded collaborative projects, I have found student choice— not alchemy, not size, but the simple act of letting students choose—produces the best results. However, like most choices, wise decisions stem from a clear understanding of what you are getting yourself in to—so clear objectives are crucial here, and successful democracies depend on a framework of law and order—so the way these choices are set up in the classroom with clear parameters and guidelines—sound instructional design—is really the hidden key to success.

Student-Centered Choice

Now, I give students a couple of weeks to come up with a great idea for their final project, and they pitch their idea during a whole class networking session. They decide which idea they support and join that team.

Sounds simple right? It is, but there are a few tips that I will share after a couple of years of conducting this process and learning from my mistakes. I know from my own experience of working on teams that even the best need an infrastructure that supports productivity. Supportive infrastructure helps me too because I want my focus to be on reviewing the actual projects—not on team dynamics, so here again student-centered pedagogy reigns supreme. However, effective student-centered instructional design doesn’t leave students in the dark without any guiding lights. Effective instructional design provides students with explicit instruction on the strategies they need and therefore equips them with essential tools that will help them navigate their way to success.

What is a networking session?

A networking session simply means that students circulate the room, meeting and greeting their peers. Prior to arriving at the networking session, students view a short video on “the elevator pitch,” complete some reading designed to build knowledge in the subject and then they write out a three-five sentence project idea pitch. All of this takes place online prior to coming to the physical classroom on networking day.

There is a skill to networking that I explain is similar to navigating a family gathering—you don’t want to get cornered talking to Aunt May for too long, but you do want to at least greet Aunt May because you don’t want to be rude, so you need to say just enough and then enact your exit strategy. What is an Exit Strategy? I ask students. They all know the answer in this context: it’s a polite way to move along without offending Aunt May.

I ask students to share suggested Exit Strategies, and I suggest phrases like, “Thanks for your time” and “It’s been great talking with you” or “Sound like an interesting idea, thanks for sharing.” I explain to students that a networking session means that you circulate the room, and it is customary to move along and therefore awkward when people don’t move along—so don’t be an Aunt May and corner people, keep moving along. The goal is to meet and greet EVERY student to hear every idea because this is a big deal—”remember, you are choosing your partners for the next 10-12 weeks.” That’s about all the direction these 20 year olds need to hear in order to start networking, and majority seem to really enjoy the opportunity to chat with everyone in the class—even the introverts do a good job of at least faking enjoyment—mission accomplished!

How are teams created?

After shaking hands and pitching to every student in the class, they write down their top three choices—by name and idea— on a sheet of paper.

While they watch a 20 minute writing strategy video, I sort students by first choice. A handful may get their second choice. Then I call each group into an area of the room for their first stand-up meeting. These meetings proceed the field trip to the library so students brainstorm possible areas for their research using the campus databases.

Can students switch teams?

I allow students to change teams until the Planning Memorandum, but after that, I explain, they are locked in contract.

How is mutual accountability built into the team structure?

Not only do students utilize a table to identify who is doing what in the planning memorandum, but this document also asks teams to create and list their own deadlines for all of the required components of the final project.

In the case of the research-based proposal, these assignments include:

1) Collaborative Annotated Bibliography (two sources per person minimum), 2)Individual Draft Deadline, 2) Collaborative Draft Peer Review, 3) Individual Presentation Script (for final presentation) and 4) Final Proposal Draft Deadline.

How are students held accountable for team deadlines?

Just after the draft deadlines, I ask teams to individually submit a progress report about how well they did on meeting their draft and peer review deadlines (self-reflection), but other than that I do not “police” students’ deadlines except at the time I score their Planning Memo. I wait to grade this document until after the draft deadlines pass. If the students have met the deadline, they earn more points. I make a comment on each Planning Memo either commending the team or noting that points were lost due to drafts not being submitting by the team deadline.

How do the team jobs reinforce productivity?

Since I have added the team jobs video that clarifies the role facilitators play in getting drafts collected and communicating to scribes when deadlines dates need to be updated—in other words, if facilitators know teammates are going to miss the deadline, then they need to advise the scribe to reset the deadline to accommodate teammates’ needs—all teams have done a much better job of actually paying attention to their Planning Memorandum which prevents students from than waiting until the last moment to try to complete their proposal section. Hence the dramatic decrease I have observed in the number of panicked emails I receive the week of the final deadline.

Procrastination and Busy Schedules Exist

Even though students chose to work on the idea, selected the team, and they may even be highly interested in the succeeding on the project, the disease of procrastination is no where near cured. Many have a long history of waiting until the last minute—but creating/enforcing draft deadlines, clear communication, and knowing that the team counting is on each individual in the team in order to succeed goes a long way toward breaking this cycle. In this case, peer pressure is a good thing.