The Journal of Effective Teaching
an online journal devoted to teaching excellence


Journal of Effective Teaching, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1999

Guiding Collaborative Teamwork In
The Classroom

by Sandra A. Howard, Ed.D.
Business Education Department
School of Business and Economics
North Carolina A&T State University
Greensboro, NC 27411
Office Phone: (336) 334-7656, Ex. 4015
FAX: (336) 334-7093


    Unparalleled technological advances, escalating global competition, and other forms of workplace turbulence have led to dramatic changes in the American business arena. Major decreases in the size of company workforces, particularly in management areas previously untouched by organizational restructuring, have led to a continuous increase in the prevalence of workplace teams (Alexander & Stone, 1997; Hart, 1997). After implementing the team concept within its organization, Federal Express reported a 40% increase in productivity. Similarly, Boeing experienced a decrease of over 50% in engineering problems on its 777 passenger jets after instituting the team approach (Davis and Miller, 1996). Today, leaders in business and industry across the nation are citing the ability to work collaboratively as requisite to success in the global economic environment (Lookatch 1996). However, employers indicate that today’s entry-level workers lack this critical workplace competency (Alexander and Stone, 1997).

    Traditionally students in America are taught that success means competition rather than cooperation -- independence rather than interdependence (Flynn, 1995; Graham & Graham, 1997). Hence, after a lifetime of working in competition against others, entry-level workers may find the concept of teamwork rather perplexing. Postsecondary students can find working as team members particularly challenging, as many of those students must hold jobs in order to stay in school. Some must also support spouses, children, parents, and/or other relatives. Thus, the idea of fitting team meetings into their schedules can be especially problematic for these students.

    Through skillful guidance, postsecondary educators can help students (a) learn to work successfully as part of a team and (b) develop critical teamwork skills and qualities that are important for workplace collaboration (Davis and Miller, 1996). This paper focuses on strategies that can be used in guiding students effectively through the collaborative process. Strategies are discussed in terms of a hypothetical class divided into teams, with each team conducting research that will be used in creating for teacher evaluation a written report, a PowerPoint presentation, or some other tool for demonstrating comprehension, critical thinking, and/or academic growth (McCahon and Lavelle, 1998).

Promoting Student Insight into the Importance of Teamwork

    The concept of team brings to mind terms such as group and collaboration. Dishon and O’Leary (1994, p. 11) define a team as, "a group of two to five students who are tied together by a common purpose, to complete a task and to include every group member." Benne and Seats (1961) assert that the major premise of a team is for everyone to function as productive players working cooperatively toward the final outcome. Emphasizing the element of cohesiveness, Duin, Jorn, DeBower, & Johnson (cited in Jorn and Duin, 1992) define collaboration as a process in which two or more persons plan, implement, and evaluate a project together.

    Although students may use the term "group" in the discussion of what a team is, they may have difficulty recognizing the importance of working together to achieve a "common purpose" (Ravenscroft and Buckless, 1995). Team members who do not understand this concept may fail to prioritize team goals above individual goals. Hence, those persons may miss meetings, ignore deadlines, and fail in other ways to carry out designated responsibilities promptly and efficiently.

    Students who appreciate the role of workplace teams may be more willing to learn teamwork skills. Teachers can use a variety of approaches to help students acquire this insight. Among strategies that may prove beneficial in achieving this objective are the following: 

Forming the Teams

    The amount, nature, and complexity of the work involved are key factors in determining the size and make-up of a team. While a team should always have enough participants to handle the responsibilities without leaving the members feeling overwhelmed, a large group with little to do can become bored and frustrated. Some teachers may prefer to introduce the team concept with very small groups -- perhaps composed of only two or three people -- in order to give the students an opportunity to become familiar with the concept of working cooperatively with others. A general recommendation suggests that a classroom team consist of two to seven members. An odd number is recommended for greater success in working through conflicts. For classroom projects involving research that culminates in a written report and/or an oral presentation, teams of three to five members can be quite effective.

    A variety of issues may need to be considered in determining which students will be on each team. For instance, does a need for a broad range of perspectives suggest that diversity should be a factor in team selection:? If so, what kind(s) of diversity will strengthen the team? Should different genders, ethnic backgrounds, or ages be included? The purpose of the project, of course, is important in answering these questions.

    For a short, informal, in-class team exercise that requires no special types of skills, students may pair up with a classmate selected at random, a friend, or perhaps the closest neighbor. In other situations, students may form teams based on mutual interests. For example, if teams are researching career opportunities in various fields of business, mutual career aspirations may well be an appropriate basis for team selection. If this type of team activity is taking place in a very large class, however, some students may need to be placed on a team investigating a career area other than their first choice in order for each team to maintain an optimal size.

    Some degree of teacher guidance in team formation may be beneficial for complex activities in which a balance regarding certain skills or qualities is desired. In such cases, a preliminary survey may need to be conducted to determine the extent to which individual students have the desired skills or characteristics. Despite the desire for balance, however, it is important to remember that in the interest of helping the entire class master a range of important general workplace skills such as using the computer to conduct research or locate information, creating PowerPoint presentations, or keying in information with word-processing software, all students should have an opportunity to become proficient in pertinent skill areas. Therefore, rather than assigning to the more advanced students on each team the responsibility of performing the tasks requiring skills in which those students excel, it may be more beneficial to ask those students (a) to guide or coach the other team members in using those skills and (b) to be sure that the task requiring the skill is completed properly.

    Each team should have a leader to preside at meetings, to serve as a liaison between the team and the teacher, and to carry out other leadership functions. The leader should also work with the teacher to handle any problems that seem to need teacher assistance. Some degree of conflict is inevitable among team members, and teams may need teacher involvement in resolving conflict from time to time. However, the issue of what conflict is, why it occurs, and how it should be handled among team members should be discussed at the outset so that students will be able to recognize and deal with it effectively when it does occur.

    Students should be reminded that certain ways of expressing an idea are likely to get the message across effectively and achieve the results desired, while other ways of expressing the same idea are likely to cause offense and minimize the possibility that the intended suggestion will be considered seriously, if at all. This insight is beneficial in helping the students (a) become more aware of their own behavior and (b) recognize times when they should modify the way they communicate with their team members.

    The impact of peer evaluations on project grading is addressed later in this article. However, when individual students’ grades are affected by peer evaluations, team members may tend to be especially careful about trying to express their ideas in a manner that is not likely to cause conflict or resentment -- an important element in developing effective interpersonal skills.

Helping Teams Maintain Focus Through Written Aids

    Students are certain to forget important details about their assigned project as time goes by. Therefore, providing written reminders is an important aspect of guiding collaborative activities effectively. Examples of strategies that can be used to help the teams stay on task include the following:

Distributing Responsibilities Wisely

    Inequitable and/or unwise distribution of responsibilities can minimize the benefits of student collaboration. For example, a three-member team may have one member who has exceptional keyboarding competencies, one who has excellent research skills, and one who has outstanding report-writing abilities. If all team members agree that each person will do only the task in which he or she excels, the project can be completed in a timely manner, and all team members may be happy about the distribution of responsibilities. This arrangement may sound ideal initially, but it is important to remember that students must master a wide range of general proficiencies in order to be competitive in the workplace. Although specialization can fortify strengths, it can also reinforce weaknesses and limit opportunities to obtain or enhance important competencies. Accordingly, as suggested earlier in this article, in order to acquire as many benefits as possible from collaborative teamwork, team members should accept responsibility not only for tasks requiring skills that have already been mastered, but also for tasks requiring unmastered skills that can be learned or enhanced during the process of completing the project.

Promoting Accountability and Responsibility

    Realistic workplace preparation requires that students learn to appreciate the necessity for accountability and responsibility not only from the team as a whole, but also from each person on the team. Policies may be set up by teacher directive, by team agreement, or through student-teacher consensus, depending on teacher judgment. Whatever the process for establishing policies, team members must understand that they are responsible for attending all meetings, contributing to project discussions, and completing assigned tasks in a competent, timely manner.

    A student who must be absent from a meeting should handle the situation responsibly by contacting the team leader or another team member to explain the problem. When feasible, that student should also send pertinent written ideas, reports, and/or completed assignments to be shared during the meeting so that the team can operate on schedule despite the absence. After the meeting the person who was absent should again contact the leader or another team member to find out what took place during the meeting and to get a copy of any paperwork or assignments missed due to the absence.

    Including self and peer evaluations as a component of student project grades may provide extra incentive for individual team members to demonstrate appropriate levels of responsibility and accountability. This issue is addressed in greater detail later in this discussion.

Promoting Improved or Enhanced Writing Skills

    Teachers in general are often advised to assign writing projects as a way of helping students strengthen their writing skills. However, simply making the assignment is not enough to achieve this objective; additional measures are necessary. In recognition of this fact, some teachers may announce that points will be subtracted from papers that are not written well. As a result, the team member who writes best may be given the task writing a team report. While this strategy may lead to a well-written team paper, it does not necessarily help weak writers improve their writing skills.


Preliminary lessons requiring individual students to express their ideas in writing will provide initial insight into the writing abilities of the class. Students who do not write well can be identified as the papers are graded. A number of measures can be used to help those students learn to improve their writing, including strategies such as the following:

Providing Initial Guidance and Ongoing Feedback

    After project directions and guidelines have been distributed and thoroughly explained, teams could have their initial meeting in class under the teacher’s guidance. As team members assign responsibilities, plan strategies, and begin working on their tasks, the teacher can check to be sure that the students understand what is to be done, as well as when and how it is to be done. Additional class periods can be reserved from time to time for meetings that will allow team members to continue working together on their projects while the teacher continues to monitor student interactions, make sure that the teams remain on task, and provide assistance as needed. However, students should complete the majority of their work outside of the classroom.

Using Record-keeping Forms for Organizing and Planning

    Record-keeping forms for managing tasks can facilitate effective planning and scheduling of meetings and other team activities. Using these tools can help the teams stay focused and complete their projects correctly, efficiently, and promptly. Moreover, the process of completing the forms fosters student development and enhancement of organizational skills that will prove beneficial not only in the classroom, but also in the workplace, in social settings, and in a variety of other situations.

    Team members should work together in filling out their forms, and each person should keep copies of the completed papers in his or her project notebook. The team leader should promptly submit a copy of each completed form to the teacher for use in continued monitoring of team activities and in providing prompt feedback as needed.

    When feasible, the teacher might arrange for the teams to complete their forms online, thus facilitating teacher access to the records at will, and eliminating the need for the team leader to give copies directly to the teacher. Examples of such forms, which can be designed by the teacher alone or by the teacher and the students together, based on teacher discretion, are discussed below.

Communication roster

    When a team is formed, the members should exchange information that will enable each person to contact all the other team members whenever the need arises. This information can be recorded on a communication roster (see figure 1), which should have spaces for indicating the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all team members. Students who have e-mail addresses should include those addresses, as well.

    Teachers may wish to help students who have no e-mail addresses arrange to receive free, personal e-mail accounts from Microsoft, Yahoo! or other commercial providers. Information on this process has been available at sites such as Juno at and Free E-Mail at Discussing the availability of this service and its implications can result in added enrichment for the students.

    The communication roster is particularly useful in the event that a team member finds it necessary to miss a meeting. That person will have more than one way to contact other team members and handle the absence in a responsible manner.

Task Sheet

    After team members have discussed the project and determined the tasks for which each person will be responsible, the students should keep written records of that information, along with the deadline for the completion of each item. Task sheets (see figure 2) can be used for that purpose. This form can help the students avoid the needless duplication and wasted time involved when more than one person does the same job because of confusion about whose responsibility it was. Similarly, this tool can help teams avoid having an important responsibility neglected for the same reason, or because the person to whom the task was assigned forgot about the obligation.

    Prompt teacher feedback is an additional benefit of using the task sheet. By examining the completed form, the teacher will be able to determine (1) if all important tasks have been included, (2) if the responsibilities have been distributed fairly and equitably, and (3) if the deadlines are reasonable. If changes are needed, team members can be informed immediately so that modifications can be made without delay.

Meeting Schedule Form

Another important task that team members should complete at the beginning of the project is to schedule meetings outside of class time to discuss ideas, share information, adjust plans, and perform other duties that are necessary for completing the project. A meeting schedule form (see figure 3) can be used for recording meeting dates, times, and locations. Some teams may work with the teacher to schedule meetings in a classroom during a time when no classes are being held there. Other teams may prefer to take turns meeting in the library, in dorms, at one another's homes, etc. Whatever the arrangements, a completed meeting schedule form filed in the project notebook is a convenient tool for use in recording and using this information.

    While scheduling meeting dates and times, team members should also develop and record clearly defined objectives for each meeting (Bowen, 1998). Dates for and topics of progress reports to be made by team members should also be included on the form. Thus, each student will know from the outset what is to take place at each scheduled meeting.

Meeting Agenda Sheet

    In addition to the general, long-range meeting schedule, each team should develop a tailored plan for individual meetings. A meeting agenda sheet (see figure 4) can be used for this purpose. In addition to the overall objective(s) of a given meeting and information on progress reports to be made, this form should identify other activities that will take place. For instance, the agenda sheet might indicate that team members are to evaluate and correct a draft of a paper that is to be submitted to the teacher.

    Including on the meeting agenda sheet a place for "other business" provides a means of addressing in a timely manner pertinent concerns that arise after the agenda sheet has been completed.

    To facilitate a smooth flow of business from one meeting to the next, team members can end each meeting by completing the agenda sheet for the next meeting.

Meeting evaluation sheet

    Davis and Miller (1996) assert that to maximize learning opportunities from involvement in team activities, students should discuss and evaluate their team experiences. A meeting evaluation sheet (see figure 5) completed by each team member at the end of each meeting can facilitate this process.

    Attendance, completion of assigned tasks, contributions to discussions, interpersonal skills, and other factors that will be evaluated should be listed on the meeting evaluation sheet, which can be used for both peer and self evaluations. To ensure meaningful assessments, team members should provide evidence to support their ratings. This stipulation (a) highlights the importance of providing details in order to strengthen generalizations and establish credibility and (b) helps to emphasize to each team member the necessity for individual accountability and responsibility. Teams can use their meeting evaluation sheets to assess their progress in achieving meeting objectives and to aid in final peer and self evaluations after the completion of the project.

End-of-Project Evaluation Sheet

    Like the assessments at the end of each meeting, an overall, end-of-project evaluation is an effective means of enabling students to learn from their team experiences. This process also helps to bring about closure at the completion of the project. End-of-project evaluation sheets (see figure 6) can be used for these purposes. Recorded details from the meeting evaluation sheets will be particularly important in enabling the students to make accurate, justifiable end-of-project peer and self evaluations based on solid evidence. Again, details justifying peer and self assessments should be included on the form.

    The role of peer and self-evaluations in the grading of projects is a controversial topic. Some researchers and educators believe that the concept of working as a team means that the entire team should share the same grade; however, others denounce this approach on the grounds that it causes the more conscientious team members to assume a disproportionately large portion of the work in order to compensate for a lack of responsibility demonstrated by less conscientious team members (Kagan, 1995; Holt, 1997). How this issue is handled, of course, is ultimately at the discretion of the teacher, although some educators believe that student input should also be included in making the decision.

Providing Ongoing Feedback

    Ongoing teacher feedback is critical in helping students learn to carry out team projects successfully. This feedback can be especially beneficial when complex projects are divided into smaller, interim tasks such as answering research questions devised by the teacher, reading and summarizing articles on the topic being explored, or creating an outline for a report. Working sequentially on smaller project components allows team members to focus on one major aspect of the project at a time and organize their efforts in a logical manner.

    Providing team members with a copy of the project grading sheet (see figure 7) that will be used in evaluating each interim task will remind the students of the standards that should be met in completing their tasks, encourage the teams to evaluate their completed assignments in terms of those standards before submitting the work to the teacher, and highlight the importance of paying attention to specific details included in the project guidelines. Using the project grading sheet while completing their tasks can help students learn to improve their writing skills; enhance their ability to evaluate their own work; and develop and strengthen important skills in planning, organizing, and working cooperatively with others.

In addition to content, format, and organization of the submitted paper, teacher feedback might also address grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and other elements that reflect the degree to which the work is consistent with written project guidelines and specifications. Feedback may be presented in various forms, including oral communication, e-mail messages, or comments written directly onto the paper. Whatever the medium, all team members should use the teacher's response as a guide in making revisions. If feasible, revised work may be re-submitted for further comment before being incorporated into the final project.


    Postsecondary educators must implement strategies that will enable their students to learn important skills needed for successful team collaboration. It is imperative that the students appreciate the necessity of working together as a team and of prioritizing team goals and objectives over individual goals and objectives. Ensuring that the teams understand clearly what they are to do, as well as how they are to do it, is also essential.

    Project notebooks and record-keeping forms for planning and organizing activities, and for filing important handouts and other papers, can be instrumental in helping students learn to carry out team projects in an well-organized, timely manner. Ongoing teacher guidance and feedback, effective peer and self evaluations, and emphasis on both individual and team responsibility and accountability are also vital elements in achieving this objective. In the process, students can also develop interpersonal skills and other competencies that they will need in carrying out team responsibilities in the world of business.
























Figure 1

Communication Roster


Project Title:

Team Leader:

Team Member Phone Number Home/Dorm Address E-mail Address








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Figure 2

Task Sheet


Project Title:
Team Leader:

Other Members:

Name Responsibility Due Date






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Figure 3

Meeting Schedule Form


Project Title:
Team Leader:

Other Members:

Date Time Location Objective(s) Report Topic Person Reporting








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Figure 4

Meeting Agenda Sheet


Meeting Location: Starting Time: _____

Ending Time: _____

Project Title:
Team Leader:

Other Members:

Meeting Objective(s):
Scheduled Activities:
Activity Person Responsible Comments






Other Business:


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Figure 5

Meeting Evaluation Sheet


Project Title: Evaluator:
Meeting Purpose: Starting Time:
Ending Time:


Attendance (AT) Codes: P = Present A = Absent AT = Tardy
Activities Codes: CATs = Completed assigned tasks CTDS = Contributed to discussions

IPS = Interpersonal Skills

*Rankings Codes: 1 = Outstanding 3 = Good 5 = Poor
2 = Very good 4 = Needs Improvement 6 = Not applicable

*NOTE: Please place ranking in parentheses ( ) and indicate brief reason(s) for each ranking to the right of the ranking number; if you need more space, place additional comments on the back of this form.

Team Member AT CATs CTDs IPS Other Comments
  ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )  
  ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )  
  ( ) ( ) ( ) ( )  

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Figure 6

End-of-Project Evaluation Sheet


Project Title:
Team Leader:
Evaluator: Date:
Other Team Members:
Activities Codes (to be assigned rankings of 1-5):

AT = Attendance CATs = Completion of assigned tasks

IPS = Interpersonal Skills CTDs = Contributed to discussion

*Rankings Codes (to be placed in parentheses):

1 = Outstanding 3 = Good 5 = Poor
2 = Very good 4 = Needs Improvement 6 = Not applicable

*NOTE: Please indicate brief reason(s) for each ranking to the right of the ranking number; if you need more space, place additional comments on the back of this form.

Team Member AT CATs CTDs IPS Other Comments
( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
( ) ( ) ( ) ( )
( ) ( ) ( ) ( )

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Figure 7

Sample Grading Sheet -- Written Report


Project Title:

Team Members:

Total Score: _____/100
__/2 Names __/2 Assignment Title __/2 Top __/2 Left
__/2 Dates __/2 Course __/2 Bottom __/2 Right
__/4 Career Area Explored  
__/2 Single space paragraphs __/2 Double space after subheadings
__/2 Double space between paragraphs __/2 Triple space before new sections
__/4 General alignment  










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