‘ … offering students the opportunity to work in groups on projects or development, without also attending to process, has created a vacuum of responsibility’ (Brockbank and McGill, 1998.)

 Teach teamwork

Teamwork needs teaching. No question.

Leave learners to get on with it by themselves, and the results are often ugly: the native speakers may resent ‘carrying’ those with language weaknesses. The shy or introverted may fade into the background. The strongest may pull all-nighters at deadlines having flattened the opposition. Those with social difficulties – Autism, for example – or mental health problems may be quite severely damaged by the experience. And many international students will be bewildered by this kind of assessment since they don’t experience it in their own culture – the boss tells you what to do, so it’s not relevant.

First then, teamwork needs discussion, and learning designers need to create regular moments in the curriculum to discuss it. Learners need to know why they’re going through this very trying experience. What is it? Why is it important? Why is it so challenging? Showing learners how often teamwork assignments will appear in their course will demonstrate the importance given to it. Its value in the western workplace also needs discussion: if students know that becoming a good team worker is important for their future, they are likely to take a more positive approach to it. 

Enable a shared understanding of teamwork skills 

There is an immense amount to learn around teamwork, and there’s a lot to be said for making a list of these skills and focussing on two or three of them for each piece of groupwork. This builds understanding incrementally.

Where might you start? Possibly with respect and empathy? They are at the heart of Terry Barrett’s (2019: 56-7) rules of engagement for crits and could usefully be extended into teamwork. Of course, respect may be the knottiest challenge of them all, and you may find it still at the forefront of your teamwork sessions in Year 3: in a world where views are becoming increasingly polarised and bitter (see the chasm between US Republicans and Democrats, for example), where are the role models? And how do you overcome the simple certainty of: I’m right; if I’m right you must be wrong? How do you teach students to accept ambiguity? ‘There is’, as Barrett says, ‘very little closure in life. Most of the solutions we discover are at best tentative and hypothetical’ (ibid).

Since we’re preparing students for the global workplace, cultural humility and ‘transcultural competence’ need analysis and discussion. For Stella Ting-Toomey, this last requires ‘a wealth of interaction skills that permit individuals to cross cultural boundaries flexibly and adaptively’ (1999:261). She lists: tolerance for ambiguity; open-mindedness; flexibility; respectfulness; adaptability; sensitivity and creativity. And – thank heaven – a pattern begins to emerge: much of what we teach in the early stages of teamwork development can be the building blocks for ‘crossing cultural boundaries’.

There is something to be said for sometimes assigning roles within teams and making it clear that everyone will get a chance at every role; this is an opportunity to work on one’s weaknesses as well as build on one’s strengths.

Assess teamwork

When designing assessment of teamwork projects, it’s also advisable to include learners’ reflection on the development of the teamworking skills within their group. It deserves a session before every piece of groupwork. Encourage the development of teamwork skills by embedding this process in the assessment criteria:

  • Knowledge of (explain) how teams work to achieve successful outcomes;
  • Understanding through (work)ing effectively as a member of a team;
  • Technical and applied skills of: (demonstrate) professional teamwork practice.

Make it clear that marks are awarded for the way students have worked within their teams – and that these marks are not simply token marks.

There are useful materials on ‘teamwork theory’ on Google to give you some solid ground on which to build. One theory recommended by Ding! is Tuckman’s five-stage Group Development Model: forming, storming, norming, performing and mourning/adjourning.

No need to reinvent the wheel.


  • Barrett, T. (2019) Crits: a student manual London: Bloomsbury
  • Brockbank, A. and McGill, I. (1998) Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. In: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press At: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED423743.pdf
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1999) Communicating Across Cultures New York: Guilford Press
  • Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.

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