Making teams work for students…

… instead of making students work in teams. Read about how we tried a different approach to team work in one of our modules this year.

In some of our modules, team work is a key skill and a key part of our working process with students. We spend a lot of time helping students work mindfully, healthily, collaboratively and supportively in teams. We help them step up, step back, tackle conflict, express their anxieties, frustrations and upsets, support others and ask for and receive support themselves. We pride ourselves on elevating team work from a necessary part of completing an activity or task to the best part of that endeavour.

But we also have modules where the team working is secondary – or even complimentary to the core working processes. Times when students are working independently on their own projects, but in the company of other students. In these instances, we set up opportunities for peer support, informal presentations, peer review, team reviews and the production of shared, collaborative resources (such as annotated bibliographies, or shared process diagrams).

In these circumstances, we are not asking the students to collaborate directly on their work, and the nature of the team working or team environment is very different. It is in these situations that the team should be offering something more to the student than the student is necessarily putting into the team. It should be a comforting container and contextualised of their experience, rather than a product of their endeavour.

This became very clear during our delivery of the My World modules this year. Students in this module work in teams to research ideas relating to happiness, sustainability and smart living. They share their resources and readings, creating annotated bibliographies, process maps, concept maps and more. The students do not have anything particularly in common, and their work is divergent from their common starting place of researching, for example, happiness. The students then work to create posters and video diaries, theorising their own understanding of the concept, and mapping this to their own life and daily experiences.

Students draw from their communal annotated bibliography, share their poster drafts, provide feedback for each other and otherwise support each other in these independent tasks. The teams are low risk – the students are not depending on each other in the same way as when they are completing team ‘work’. However, in the final week before submission, some of the students came to talk to me independently. They were concerned that they preferred to work in a different way to other people in their team. They were concerned that other people in their team didn’t understand the way that they wanted to work on their own ideas. They were concerned that their very personal ideas might not be respected by other people in their team and were nervous to share.

I thought about this a lot. I would usually err on the side of keeping students in their teams and helping them tackle these concerns head on. Encourage students to be able to work with others in a range of ways. Encourage them to appreciate their differences. Encourage them to be brave in their sharing and respectful in their hearing of personal struggles. But in this instance, I felt that this would actually lessen the depth of the individual work. Would hold back individuals from pursuing their own paths.

And of course, in the on-campus classroom, students could sit closer to some people and further away from others. Could interact between teams, and find their own working companions. But in the virtual classroom that is not possible. Students are assigned to teams, and cannot casually make eye contact or overhear someone talking that then makes them want to wander over or sit with them another week. Everything has to be more deliberate and planned. What would be the solution in the virtual classroom, and could this also work in the on-campus classroom?

When I came to mark those first two assignments, something became very apparent to me. There were common approaches being taken by students from across the module. Common themes were being explored. Students were approaching their work in different ways. And were hoping to gain different things from their projects. As I waded through almost a hundred assignments, I realised that it might be possible to regroup the students to maximise these commonalities. To offer students a space where they might feel that they belonged, were welcome and were supported.

I set about identifying and defining these groups. But I was nervous to dictate to students where they should sit. Who they should work with. What their identity should be. Who was I to make that judgement? And perhaps students would feel differently as they worked through their project – on different days, in different weeks? I also was very concerned about potentially disempowering students. What if they perceived the identities as reductive or remedial? I spent a lot of time thinking this all through.

So I planned to set up six ‘identity rooms’. Each room would have a starting definition. Students could choose where they wanted to work – going to whichever room felt appropriate in that week – and then hopefully working with likeminded students for that session. I also set up flexi-rooms, that students could name for themselves if none of the predefined identities suited them.

In the next session students were due to begin thinking about transitioning to working on their projects. We began by thinking about ‘Project Support Networks’ – how will we work with each other to support each other during our projects.

Screenshot from the virtual classroom as this session got underway.

We talked about different types of peer support that we might find useful, or less useful. I introduced the ‘identities’ of the team rooms, and asked students to check out the room they felt most drawn to. They could change rooms if they wanted to – there was no fixed allocation involved. Once the students were settled in those rooms, I asked them to rename and re-write the room identity in their own words, or to suit the wishes of the students in that room at the time. We would then use these definitions moving into the future weeks.

Students could also stay back and chat to me about what type of room they wanted to work in, or how they felt their identity might be supported in the class. Or just chat through the different rooms to see how they felt about them.

I thought this might be a messy moment – lots of students coming and going, perhaps not understanding or not feeling recognised by these identities. But in fact, all the students disappeared straight off into the rooms, there was a little switching around and then the students were deep in discussion about the purpose of their room, who they felt they were, what they felt they needed. It was amazing to watch.

So what were these identities?

  1. Warriors – I will be thinking at a deeply personal level, perhaps reflecting on my identity, struggles in my life, traumatic times or mental health issues. I might prefer to work privately or only share a little of my project with people who I come to trust in my team. I need to be in a space where people will respect my privacy, support my choice to work in a very personal way and be happy to hear from me if and when I am ready to share my work.
  2. Biomedicals – I’m really interested in the scientific or medical basis of my concept, and will be using that to frame my project. I am interested to see how this understanding intersects with my personal experiences and try to use a scientific rationale to create change in my life experience. Although I will be sharing some aspects of my personal experience, the thing that I want to share most in the team are the scientific ideas that will underpin my project.
  3. Philosophers – I love reading and integrating ideas about my concept from the great philosophers, theorists and writers. I think it will be interesting to use these ideas and test them in my own experience. I would also like to research, read or consider these ideas in more depth. I would like to be able to discuss these ideas with people in my team.
  4. Individualists – I believe that I really need to focus on my own actions and feelings in relation to my concept – rather than rely on people around me or the material world to help me. I also want to really focus on self-reflection and thinking critically within myself about what actions I can take to improve and enhance my perception of the concept. I want to work alongside other people who are thinking in the same way, but I might not want to share that much about my work.
  5. Cosmologists – I believe that understanding my concept involves understanding more about my relationships with other people. I am keen to develop new ways of interacting with others and there might even be some parts of my project that involve thinking about my interactions with others. I would like to share these ideas with the people in my team and perhaps some of us will explore similar ideas in our own experiences to see whether there are any common principles we can learn from.
  6. Scouts – I really have a lot of my own ideas that I want to test in the world. I like to come up with new and interesting ideas of my own and see how well they work. My ideas and approach might be very different to those around me. I am often inspired by obscure ideas and I want to work with other people who are not afraid to take risks and work in a similar way. My ideas might not make sense to others, but can really be enriched by discussion.

These rooms were all very busy except for the Philosophers Room, which often just had one student in it. I always dropped in to see if that student wanted to chat, or to move to another room. But they really just wanted to focus on their reading and quite enjoyed the solitude. Two additional rooms were often occupied by small friendship groups, who wanted to chat privately (and loudly) amongst themselves.

As the weeks went by, some students would switch rooms. Notably, if a student was having a stressful week, they might go to the Warriors Room to work quietly or get some support, before returning to another room the following week. They would say, I know that I’m an Individualist, but this week I need to be with the Warriors. Or I know that usually I’m an Individualist, but I want to try to be a Cosmologist to see if it helps with this stage of my project.

I followed up with the students who had felt uncomfortable during the poster and video diary assignments, and they reported feeling supported and ‘seen’ in their new rooms. They pursued the ideas that felt scary or risky to them, and excelled in their project work.

When contacting me during their project work, students would often refer to themselves as Warriors or Cosmologists, Scouts or Biomedicals. Justifying elements of their work on their projects by their team identity. The assumed identity became a short hand – but it also provided courage and justification for the way that they wanted to work.

This might seem like a very simplistic trope. It might not work in other settings – or even in this setting with different students. And of course, this was a single application of this idea.

But in this instance, it freed up something very important. Students were able to feel a sense of belonging and recognition. No one felt excluded or reduced by these identities. Students were emboldened in their interactions and their work by assuming their team identity. Students were able to interpret the identities in different ways to suit their own needs, whilst still feeling a sense of community and belonging within their rooms.

We can’t wait to find another opportunity to try this out. In the virtual classroom, we will need to think carefully about when to deploy these rooms – perhaps the initial frustrations of the students readied them for this experience. Or allowed them to express their needs, which in turn helped us to develop the room identities to be inclusive and span the range of needs identified by the students.

And in on-campus classrooms, will this be needed? Will it add something further to the student experience?

This is just a first step, but we can’t wait to try the next one.

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