Designing Successful Team Projects (Dialogues recap)

December 1, 2017

wide shoe of panelists for Designing Successful Team Projects, November 6, 2017

What are the key ingredients for creating successful teams in a classroom or research setting? How does this look different across different disciplines and what are the benefits for student learning?

On November 6, 2017, Sean Burns (Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship) moderated a dialogue with Bob Full (Integrative Biology), Sara Beckman (Haas School of Business), and Seth Lunine (Geography, American Cultures Engaged Scholarship) about their experiences and suggestions for running successful team-based projects.

The panelists opened by describing their work and the context within which they use teams. Sara Beckman talked about co-teaching a course in engineering that led her to  realize the need for (and then to develop) tools and resources to help student teams work together effectively. Since then, she has coached numerous faculty and introduced team projects into many courses.

Beckman underscored the lasting impact on student learning, citing research that showed team projects stood out as significant for students 10 years after graduation, and outlining several fundamental components of successful team projects:

  • Developing collaborative plans to launch a project
  • 360-degree feedback (all team members evaluate each other) midway through the project
  • Providing another opportunity for feedback again at the end of the project
  • As an instructor, knowing when during a course to include a team project and using the end feedback (percentage effort from each member) to determine the assignment grade

She also notes the distinction between groups (people working in coordination) and teams (people who are “in it together” working towards a common goal).

For Bob Full, doing team projects in class grew out of his own experience with successful research collaborations. Each of his three courses takes a different approach to group work, but all focus on giving students experience with professional scientific practice. Full also spoke effusively about Beckman’s teaming modules (available through this bCourses site).

  • In Full’s upper division Mechanisms of Organisms course (20 students, generally half from biology, half from engineering), students are required to make an original discovery (previously unknown) to pass the class. The course is structured around several progressively more difficult projects that help students learn to use equipment, understand (through failure) how to take measurements, and move through phases of critical thinking. Many projects end up getting published.
  • In his comparative physiology course with 60 students, most of the course is taught as lecture, but for the final project, students select from a list of scientific papers, pretend to be the author(s), then present (and defend!) their findings at a mock symposium.  Conference “attendees” must pose questions to one another, and good questions may get chosen for the final exam. [Full noted that colleagues who are the true authors of some papers have been so impressed with students’ presentations that they have asked for permission to use their slides.]
  • Finally, for his Bioinspired Design course, which draws 200 students from many different disciplines, Full has the class work individually and then in collaborative teams to create and present an original biomimicry design project for an end-of-semester public showcase.

Working with the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship Program, Seth Lunine puts together student teams that partner with local activists and community-based organizations on urban issues such as gentrification, homelessness, and displacement. Students in his geography courses self-select by applying to participate, and they produce a “deliverable”--something of use to the community partner--by the end of the project. Lunine relies on a graduate student fellow and a lead community organizer to support the work, and he emphasized the importance of building relationships and developing trust, not only among the team members but between students and community members. Lunine describes these kinds of projects as “intense” but invaluable and unique.

Why focus on teaming at all? What’s your investment in this, given that team projects invariably involve more work?

For Beckman, there’s no replacement for experiential learning--giving students first-hand experience--but it’s too difficult to do this with any depth for every individual student. Also, there’s great value in interdisciplinary collaboration and it’s important to teach students that they don’t have to be good at everything. The challenge, says Beckman, is not the fact of teams but that the work itself has a lot of nuance and it takes more time and energy to coach students through it. By necessity, the instructor must be a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.”

Teaming has also been identified as a great driver of business innovation. Beckman cited Amy Edmondson from Harvard (author of Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy), who argues that innovation is a learning process and teaming is the engine of organizational learning. Berkeley needs to prepare students to engage in that engine and this requires diverse perspectives and heuristics. Beckman also cited economist Scott Page, whose research shows that diversity trumps ability on teams. It’s important to teach students how to solve problems while leveraging diversity--not just ethnic and gender differences but also differences in perspective. Faculty should be doing this in their classes, too.

For Full, interdisciplinary teams offer a competitive advantage for securing funding and advancing cutting-edge research. The “mutualistic” model he uses is directly modeled on a common practice in research meetings where participants ask one another, “Have I advanced your subject/field?”

Full also echoed Beckman’s comment that learning happens best in “discovery-based mode,” and emphasized that teaching and research should not be viewed as separate and distinct, but intimately tied together. His upper-division seminar is literally organized around making new discoveries, but even in his seminar, when students “pretend” they are doing original research, the high quality of their presentations and discussion shows they are deeply engaged and actively participating. These kinds of assignments also help students to get a taste for scientific discourse, to practice it, and to feel a sense of belonging and participation, which can’t be underscored enough.

Even in his largest course, there is a focus on understanding inclusive excellence--learning how to leverage the diversity and creativity of the team--while learning scientific literacy and other fundamental concepts. As Full puts it, students only fail if they aren’t able to extract the unique voice and contribution of every team member.

Lunine echoed the importance of providing students learning opportunities that can’t be replicated in a classroom. Working with distinctly different groups is inherently innovative and requires collaboration and collective problem solving. For first-year students, it can also be a meaningful introduction to social justice issues, informing their sensitivity and (re)shaping their educational trajectory. Some students come from backgrounds similar to the community partners, some are good with data or policy--these kinds of projects bring out different strengths and ground theory in real people’s lives. On a personal level, this work also allows Lunine to draw on his non-profit background and helps him be reflective about teaching.

Beckman added that so much learning and knowledge is already available online that what’s “left” in education are these kinds of powerful, authentic experiences. The challenge is in scaling this to more people or larger groups. It requires more trainers or very carefully constructed exercises.

What’s your process for composing teams?

In Lunine’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) classes, students self-select by applying to participate. (Only a small subset of students in each class are involved.) Community members and students decide together what they want to address, so projects look different every time. The community partner also reviews student applications. Lunine pointed out that this work is often asymmetrical--we represent Berkeley, while community members are letting us in, being open about their biographies and problems, showing vulnerability--so he tries to reciprocate in whatever ways he can. These projects are a huge time commitment on both sides, so Lunine has had to reduce the number of students he accepts to make it manageable. Other ACES courses/projects take different shapes and forms.

For Bob Full and Sara Beckman, group projects involve the entire class, so they have different strategies for composing teams. They NEVER allow students to self select. Full gives students an initial survey with 10-15 questions and gives extra weight to the ones that are critical to success (e.g, in the research course, there needs to be a certain number of biology majors). He considers content knowledge, past experience with research, and gender balance, as well as what role students want to play in the final presentation. Recently, in his bio-inspired design class, Full and his four GSIs spent a week trying to decide how to structure the teams. (Since this is a newer class, he hasn’t figured out how to weigh different factors such as scientific knowledge, creativity and making/design skills.)

Beckman’s strategy varies depending on the class. In her Clean Tech to Market class, students fill out applications and she sorts them based on a balance of different factors. Generally speaking, she notes 4-6 is the ideal number for a team, and if there is a shortage of women, it’s better to put 0 or 2 on a single team rather than spread them out across teams and having them feel isolated. Like Full, she collects data from students on parameters that matter (these sometimes emerge from the students’ collaborative plans) in addition to weighing content knowledge. When there’s no other reason to assign students to a particular project, she gives them the option to do something they care about. (Putting people on a project where they don’t care doesn’t go well.)

To help student build skills and capability, she has them work on short iterative cycles before diving into longer projects. This reduces anxiety and risk for students, particularly since time and schedule conflicts are often a concern.


How do you identify community partners and resources?

  • Lunine: It’s important to have a strong partner and develop sustained collaborations, because partners have to do a lot of work to facilitate students’ participation. It helps to have an inside connection or pre-existing relationship.
  • Beckman: Pick a topic of focus and find out who is working in that space, interacting with one another. As Lunine says, it’s important to stay with something and “ladder” it (start small and climb)--your involvement will get deeper and more interesting over time.
  • Watch Resistance University Session One, which talks about developing a wider perspective and building social movements

How do you scaffold the students’ experience and help them develop the skills they need to be successful working in teams?

  • Full: In his 200-person class, he starts by sharing his own research and breaking down important concepts. (Learning to extract this information through a method Full calls “discovery decomposition” is taught as a core skill in the course.) Students then do an individual project graded by a GSI. Next, they pick a research paper and create an individual design from that. Then they follow Beckman’s teaming module, make a gecko design (team), make a robot (team), then create a final 5-minute video (team). There’s also a multiple-choice midterm.
  • For extra credit, students can complete the “connections” assignment ahead of lecture: submit a talk, course, or area of research on campus that is related to the content of the course. Full picks out a few submissions at the start of each class and spends a few minutes discussing them. Students LOVE to do this, and it helps them understand how what they’re learning ties into the real world and other work that’s happening around them.
  • Beckman designs individual assignments that contribute to a team project. Students describe each other’s contribution in writing and then distribute 100 points to their team members. This helps them develop empathy, learn how to give and receive feedback, and also understand the difference between critique and criticism.

How much do you assess on collaboration skills directly?

  • Beckman grades students’ collaborative plan (and sometimes has them rewrite it) and generally grades effort vs. outcome, rewarding points for doing things on time and thoughtfully.
  • Both Full and Beckman look at final presentations, noting that teams that don’t invest during the semester tend not to do a good job on the final showcase.
  • Full: Grade for what you care about. He focuses on broad assessment at the beginning and the final project at the end, and uses Likert scales for major themes like interdisciplinary thinking, communication and collaboration.
  • Mark Wilson’s book Constructing Measures is helpful, examining self-reported changes in attitudes and habits.


Sara Beckman’s “Teaming with Diversity” bCourses site (open to anyone at Berkeley but requires self-enrollment)

Now in its fifth year, Dialogues is a regular campus-wide discussion on pressing topics related to teaching and learning, hosted by the Academic Innovation Studio, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching.

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