Every semester I struggle to fit everything in. The flipped model removes the lecture from the classroom, but giving students time during class to practice with instructor feedback is a fundamental principal of “flipped” instruction, so class time becomes a balancing act between 1) time spent discussing key concepts taught outside of class and 2) time spent applying the knowledge through hands-on practice. Both of these activities require ample time, so adding a third element to this already busy class schedule often seems impossible.

pebbles-2020100__340-1However, in today’s project-based classroom environments, a significant percentage of students’ grades stem from collaborative assignments, so building functional teams benefits everyone. If we are going to tether students grades together, then time spent teaching communication and mutual accountability is time well spent.

One of the challenges of incorporating team building into busy classrooms is to develop effective activities that take minimal time. Another challenge is understanding the benefits of team building aren’t always immediately obvious. At first, I struggled with both of these aspects. Over time though I learned how to cut lessons down to a handful of short, generative strategies designed to fill a “team toolkit” that students can carry with them to their next project.

I also learned to appreciate delayed gratification. While the long term payoff of incorporating team building is unknowable, the short term payoff becomes obvious during crunch time, the days and hours before the collaborative project deadline when I used to count on receiving panicked student emails about missing teammates or requests for deadline extensions.

Since incorporating the team toolkit a couple of years ago, I have yet to receive one of these emails. Perhaps the most important result was how dramatically the students’ experience improved as documented in individual progress reports.  Read student testimonial here.Yup, that’s right 100% reported a positive team experience even on this 35+-page, research-based collaborative Proposal project worth more than 20% of their grade. Whereas students had plenty of negative to say about previous team experiences, after incorporating the team toolkit, students reports shifted to the positive.

Most surprisingly, however, was that team writing also showed remarkable improvement—not just a handful of student writers improved, but rather the majority of writers who engaged in the team building experience submitted improved writing. How do I know this? I collect individual and collaborative drafts of the Proposal. This practice allows me to track progress, word count requirements (mutual accountability on my part) and gaps in the proposal narrative. Occasionally, I require a rewrite of particularly egregious errors or missteps, and access to individual drafts helps me to target this feedback to a specific individual—because mutual accountability goes both ways. I need to hold individuals accountable just as the team does. I need to clarify objectives (clear communication) just as the team does. These simple steps lead to team success. Overall, students understand this framework holds them accountable and supports the team efforts, which improves attitude—and that’s half the battle.