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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Research Link / Student Teamwork

Research Link /  Student Teamwork - thumbnail
When employers are asked what qualities will best prepare students for the modern workplace, they often mention teamwork—the ability to cooperate and communicate with others to reach common goals. As Brown points out,Group effectiveness skills, including interpersonal communication, negotiation, and teamwork, are essential in today's diverse classroom and workplace. (2001, p. 1)
School practices, unfortunately, often emphasize competition and individual achievement over collaboration and group achievement. Cooperative learning, a strategy that has grown in popularity since the 1970s, offers a way to not only enhance student achievement but also give students the opportunity to develop teamwork skills. By using cooperative learning groups for some instructional activities, teachers can help students develop problem-solving skills and the social skills that they will need to work with others in such areas as communication, leadership, and decision making.
Simply setting up cooperative learning groups, however, does not automatically foster students' teamwork skills. Teachers need to structure groups appropriately. Several recent research studies have examined the conditions that facilitate student teamwork and give students positive experiences in working with their peers.

Sufficient Time

Mueller and Fleming (2001) observed and conducted interviews with cooperative work groups of 6th and 7th graders to gain insights into the “internal mechanisms” of these groups. The researchers concluded that although there are frustrations and inequities in such groups, the accomplishments of the groups outweighed these problems. Students in the study generally developed teamwork skills and felt positive about engaging in group work. Students identified three conditions that made the groups function well: sufficient time for group participants to talk and plan; opportunities to exchange ideas with others; and the chance to present their findings to one another and to outsiders.
Eastman and Swift (2002) found that teachers often assigned group projects without allocating class time for groups to develop cooperative skills or become cohesive. Perhaps as a result of this lack of time, groups frequently failed to work together effectively. Groups often simply divided a project into individual portions for each group member to complete.

Careful Planning

Mueller and Fleming (2001) also found that teachers needed to play a central role in setting up conditions for collaborative learning and opportunities for enhancing student teamwork skills. This requirement presented problems, the researchers found, because many teachers were uncomfortable with the collaborative approach.
Ettington and Camp (2002) found that when teachers provide proper advanced planning, student teamwork skills improve. Specifically, teachers must first design group tasks with explicit consideration of objectives for skill development and content learning. Next, teachers must create groups that will use the skills required for the task. Third, teachers must monitor group progress to ensure that students are developing the skills. Finally, teachers must evaluate and reward the development of group process skills. Anticipating this evaluation and reward process positively affects student motivation and teamwork.

Training in Group Skills

Gillies and Ashman (1998) found that students who were trained in cooperative group processes worked together better and were more committed to their group than were students who did not receive such training. Gillies (2002) examined the long-term effects of such training. She studied 5th grade students in mixed-ability groups who had received training two years earlier in small-group interpersonal behavior and cooperation. These students engaged in more cooperative behaviors—listening to one another, sharing resources, and staying on task as a group—than did their peers who had received no explicit training in group skills.

Teamwork Outside the Classroom

Pellegrini and his colleagues (2002) found that students can learn teamwork skills in the early grades and not necessarily in the classroom. The games that children play at recess are an important developmental activity, especially for boys. These researchers found that children used their facility with games to achieve social competence with their peers and adjust to early schooling. Further, the researchers found that the social rules and roles that children learn with their peers on the playground and the classroom foster rule-governed behavior and cooperative interaction with peer groups.

Teacher Training

Lopata, Miller, and Miller (2003) found that teachers who participated in professional development for cooperative learning were more likely to engage students in activities requiring teamwork skills. These researchers found that to be successful, this professional development must focus on the collaborative components of cooperative learning—specifically, positive inter-dependence, face-to-face interaction, and group process.
Learning teamwork skills is an important developmental process for students, one that will serve them well as they embark on their adult lives in a diverse society and workplace. By providing positive, well-planned experiences working in cooperative learning groups, teachers can help students develop these skills even in the earliest years of schooling.

Brown, B. L. (2001). Group effectiveness in the classroom and workplace (Practice application brief No. 15). Columbus, OH: Center on Educational Training for Employment. Available:http://ericacve.org/docgen.asp?tbl=pab&ID;=105

Eastman, J., & Swift, C. (2002). Enhancing collaborative learning: Discussion boards and chat rooms as project communication tools. Business Communication Quarterly, 65(3), 29–41.

Ettington, D., & Camp, R. (2002). Facilitating transfer of skills between group projects and work teams. Journal of Management Education, 26(4), 356–379.

Gillies, R. M. (2002). The residual effects of cooperative learning experiences: A two-year follow-up. Journal of Educational Research, 96(1), 15–21.

Gillies, R. M., & Ashman, A. (1998). Behavior and interactions of children in cooperative groups in lower and middle elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 746–757.

Lopata, C., Miller, K., & Miller, R. (2003). Survey of actual and preferred use of cooperative learning among exemplary teachers. Journal of Educational Research, 96(4), 232–239.

Mueller, A., & Fleming, T. (2001). Cooperative learning: Listening to how children work at school. Journal of Educational Research, 94(5), 259–265.

Pellegrini, A., Kato, K., Blatchford, P., & Baines, E. (2002). A short-term longitudinal study of playground games across the first year of school: Implications for social competence and adjustment to school. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 991–1015.

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