Teams vs Groups in Learning


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What do you think — how should we refer to student groupwork,  “groups” or teams”?

Although there are many common group-based activities in learning, such as study groups and collaborative learning in the classroom, the importance of assigning group work with more formal learning groups, such as a group project or assignment, requires a higher commitment level. In this context, formal learning groups should be called Teams! An insightful takeaway at the POD 2014 (Professional Organizational Development) conference in the session, Transforming Students from Groups to High-Performance Learning Teams, was that if you want your students to work successfully in groups, you should always refer to them as teams, not groups. This session, facilitated by Cheelan Bo-Linn from the University of Illinois Center of Innovation in Teaching and Learning, focused on not only the why in calling our learning groups ‘teams’, but also the how as a pathway to successful learning teams. Two things we need: one, prepare our student teams, and two, have regular team check-ins.

Why Teams? When forming formal learning groups it is important to understand that each individual member of the team is focusing on the same outcome, therefore they have a vested interest in the same goal. Team also speaks to a sense of “membership”, and/or belonging. Bo-Linn compared learning teams to a specialized team, like a football team; a team works to win and there can be some competitiveness amongst teams. TEAM, she said, stands for: Together Everyone Achieves More. Our “teams” during this session took a natural path to competitiveness when simply working to play a memory game!

How can we create successful teams? Begin with a good size for learning teams, about 3-5 people per team. Then consider these five steps: (1)Team member introduction of self,  (2) Goals for effective teamwork, (3) Teamwork checklist, (4) Mid-point feedback, and (5) Final feedback/evaluation.

First, have each team member provide an individual introduction of self to their teammates. Focus on points such as:

  • Responsibilities (personal and professional)
  • Interests (this helps develop commonalities and differences that can connect team members)
  • Strengths brought to the team
  • What team members would like to know about me
  • What I hope to gain from team experience
  • My expectations of my team members

Second, have students create a Team Contract where they work together to discuss team goals and expectations and on the following:

  • attendance
  • communication
  • timeliness
  • workload/collaboration
  • effort
  • contribution of skills and resources
  • contribution of ideas
  • other

Third, have your teams work on a Team Checklist, which focuses on areas that may cause trouble, such as lack of clarification or procedures, not listening, allowing some to dominate, not compromising, team member doesn’t contribute on time or at all, respecting feelings of others.sample of a team contract

Fourth,  create a Mid-point feedback form (midway through a specific project or semester) that focuses on the specific goals and expectations for effective teamwork that teams discussed on in step two, the Team Contract. This should include a self and peer feedback section. If teams are having trouble, this is where you guide them back to their Team Contract and what they had agreed to do as a team.

Fifth, the final feedback form provides a reflective piece, as well as a useful evaluation of the team process, a critical skill in today’s world.


In preparing your teams to be successful, you might discuss some of the following:

  • the benefits of working on a team (words like like diversity, skills, perspective, workload are some they tend to crop up)
  • the downsides of working on a team (words like conflict, personalities, workload, skills also tend to crop up)

The idea here is that there can be many things that can be considered both a benefit AND a downside to working on a team.  Take workload for example. A benefit would be that a team could distribute the workload amongst team members instead of one individual taking it all on. A downside could be that on a team, workload distribution could be distributed unevenly.

Pareto Principle: 80% of the team problems are due to 20% of the issues


Tuckman’s Developmental Stages of a Team