Team Work Skill
For small groups to function effectively in a course context, students must attend to both the climate within their group and the process by which they accomplish their tasks. Critical to a healthy climate and an effective process are strong communication skills. Below you will find the basic characteristics of effective communicators, plus tips to help students with group climate and process.
Although students can gain many of the skills described below through informal social interactions, they still benefit from having them made explicit. To hone their skills they also need opportunities to practice as well as to receive regular feedback on how they’re doing. Share the information below with your students, use it to set activities for them, and work to incorporate three components of feedback into your plan: instructor comments (oral and/or written), reflective group discussions and/or peer assessment, and self-reflection (see the reflection prompts in Appendix A for ideas).
To function successfully in a small group, students need to be able to communicate clearly on intellectual and emotional levels. Effective communicators:
- can explain their own ideas
- express their feelings in an open but non-threatening way
- listen carefully to others
- ask questions to clarify others’ ideas and emotions
- can sense how others feel based on their nonverbal communication
- will initiate conversations about group climate or process if they sense tensions brewing
- reflect on the activities and interactions of their group and encourage other group members to do so as well
Regular open communication, in which group members share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, is a must for successful group work. Unspoken assumptions and issues can be very destructive to productive group functioning. When students are willing to communicate openly with one another, a healthy climate will emerge and an effective process can be followed.
Skills for a healthy group climate
To work together successfully, group members must demonstrate a sense of cohesion. Cohesion emerges as group members exhibit the following skills:
- Openness: Group members are willing to get to know one another, particularly those with different interests and backgrounds. They are open to new ideas, diverse viewpoints, and the variety of individuals present within the group. They listen to others and elicit their ideas. They know how to balance the need for cohesion within a group with the need for individual expression.
- Trust and self-disclosure: Group members trust one another enough to share their own ideas and feelings. A sense of mutual trust develops only to the extent that everyone is willing to self-disclose and be honest yet respectful. Trust also grows as group members demonstrate personal accountability for the tasks they have been assigned.
- Support: Group members demonstrate support for one another as they accomplish their goals. They exemplify a sense of team loyalty and both cheer on the group as a whole and help members who are experiencing difficulties. They view one another not as competitors (which is common within a typically individualistic educational system) but as collaborators.
- Respect: Group members communicate their opinions in a way that respects others, focusing on "What can we learn?" rather than "Who is to blame?" See constructive feedback in the process section for more details.
As an instructor, you can use several strategies to encourage students to develop a healthy climate within their small groups:
- Assign students into diverse groups so that they encounter others with different backgrounds and interests.
- Design activities that break the ice, promote awareness of differences within the group, encourage reflection on the stresses of working within a group, and point out the demands of working in a group.
- Have students participate in trust challenges. For example, try the trust-fall, in which individual group members fall backward off a table and are caught by their fellow group members. Or blindfold individual students, and have their group members guide them orally through an obstacle course.
- Encourage students to participate willingly and ask questions of others. To encourage listening skills and ensure that everyone in the group speaks, try the "circle of voices" exercise. See Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) teaching tip "Group Work in the Classroom: Types of Small Groups".
- After students have worked in their groups for a couple of weeks, have them fill in a "Are we a team?" checklist individually, then discuss their answers within their group. Have them repeat this exercise when they have completed their task. See appendix B for an example of this checklist.