What I learned about online teamwork

What I learned about online teamwork

I have been teaching online teamwork for years. I know that my students were not taught how to work together in an 100% online format. For many of my students, this is the first time they have been asked to work in an online team. It means I need to teach them how to work in an online team – by teach I mean provide them with some tools that will help their work go smoother.

I’ve also had issues over the years. No matter how much I “teach” them about learning online, I end up with at least one group, per semester that doesn’t work well together – that runs into conflict where I am left backchanneling with the different members of the team, which is not ideal.

This semester I saw a change. I know that when online teams work well, they become a highlight of the students experience. They learn to love doing online teamwork (yes, it is true, it does happen!).

I’ve been asked to share some of the things I do to help support online learners, learn how to do teamwork online.

Setting up the teams

Unless the students already know each other well, I avoid having students choose their partners. In an online classroom, it is especially difficult for students to get themselves into groups. I have also always hated self-chosen groups. It means that students go to with students they already know, making the teams less diverse. Also, there are always a few people left out of the process. It is especially difficult if you are different.

I remember this happening in a senior class I was in during my undergrad. I was the only female in the class. We were supposed to pair up with people for projects. This is hugely awkward, and made especially worse because I didn’t know anyone else in the class. In the end, I ended up dropping the class, and the self-selected groups were part of the reason why.

I make teams of 3-4 people – that way if you get one person who is not contributing it doesn’t ruin it for everyone, but also chances are you’ll make a good connection with at least one of your teammates. I find that more than 4 people in an online group means that the group spends too much time on meeting logistics, and has difficulty focuses on the group project. Less than 3 and they aren’t really groups, they are pairs, and that is a completely different dynamic.

When I first studies online learning, the “best practice” was to use random teams. I used that method for several years. I used to let the LMS decide the groups. That didn’t work so well. I could usually tell by the second week of class which students should not be on the same team.

This semester I tried instructor assigned groups. I created a class roster or a survey – both methods worked – although I like the roster so I don’t need to worry about students not being able to find each other. I asked students to list their name, how they wanted to be contacted, and what times of day they prefer to do group work. This actually reduced one problem with groups finding meeting times, as those who wanted to work during the workday (and not in the evenings) were placed in the same group.

I also asked two other important questions. The first was, what skills do you bring to the group? The other was, what skills do you want to work on? This allowed me to ensure that each group had a diverse set of skills and when people wanted to work on something specific, I tried to put them with someone who was proficient at that skill. Using the roster which is visible to everyone, also meant that students could see who was proficient in the things they wanted to learn – and therefore, who they might ask for help from (either in that class or future classes).

I think the instructor assigned groups was one of the biggest contributors to the increased quality of the student presentations. In all my classes this semester, they surprised me with the creativity of what they came up with.


Since I teach grad courses, my lessons involve some readings – my readings vary from semester to semester, but generally, I land on some form of this:

Image by Angus Maguire, used with permission: http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/

I highlight from the beginning that the same is not equal. I try to give concrete examples within the context of the course – and highlight how divide-and-conquer is often not a fair way to divide up the work, but also misses the point.

Roberts, T. S., & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10(4), 257-268.

I use this as the assigned academic reading. It highlights the common issues and helps students try not be the problem student. It also justifies the self-and-peer assessments that I give after the teamwork project.

Tuckman’s 4 Stages of Group Formation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhSI6oBQmQA

A 5-minute YouTube clip

I find that some article or video that describes how groups form, helps students understand where their team may be. It helps them understand that they cannot jump directly to the “performing” stage. They need to get to know each other first.

Rains (July 19, 2011). 10 Ways to check your ego at the door. Retrieved from https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/openforum/articles/10-ways-to-check-your-ego-at-the-door/

The next is an article or video related to checking your ego at the door. Personally, I think it is the ego of different students and that need to compete with one another (something they are taught throughout schooling) that gets in the way of group work. When those with louder voices (I don’t mean literally, I mean figuratively) think to check their egos, there is more room for everyone on the team to contribute.

The Balance Careers (n.d.). 10 Tips for better teamwork. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/tips-for-better-teamwork-1919225

I also like to throw in something relating to tips for better teamwork. I try to keep the reading short and easy, but also something that highlights the need for effective communication.

Activities & Assignments

Online collaboration tools, such as Doodle, Google docs, Google Slides, Prezi, Zoom, Slack …

I curate a series of online collaboration tools and have an activity where each of the teams needs to use a few of the tools. The list of tools changes from semester to semester, as the technology seems to be ever evolving. I also let students introduce new tools – ones that I have not thought of.

Team agreement – I’ve tried this starting with a blank page and also with a set of leading questions

I give marks for the teams to create a team agreement. They are required to document how they will work together, how often they will meet, what their expectations are around turn-around time on communication, and other basic guidelines for their interactions. I ask them to talk about how they will manage conflict, and tell them that the answer to that question is not “go to the instructor”. That being said, I’ve had to change that a little and tell them to try something on their own first, but don’t be afraid to come to me if there are real problems.

The one rule I make every group put on the list is “assume good intentions”. I also highlight to students not to misinterpret silence. Silence might mean technical difficulties. It is why when I don’t hear from students, the email I send is usually “are you having technical trouble with the assignment”?

The project – ideally you want to assign something that is too big for one person to do alone.

The best group projects are ones that need multiple people in order to complete them. If the project is too small, then it can be frustrating for students – in part because they feel that group work takes more time than them just doing it themselves. Ideally, you want them to need to work together to complete the task.

I also highlight that at least part of the point of the group project is the group process itself. In my intro class, that is definitely the case. We largely have a group component so that students learn how to work as a group in an online setting. It also is a great way for students to get to know each other better. If students make good connections in their first class, they carry those connections into other classes. I think this is a critical part of being in a learning community – if each student can make a personal connection with at least one or two other students, that goes a long way to their sense of belonging in the program.

Self and peer evaluation

I didn’t used to do this, but it provides a way to ensure some accountability. If a group distinctly underperforms, it can help pinpoint the problem. Also, if someone is weak in an area, the evaluations can help identify that. It is a way to provide some constructive feedback to students who struggle with group work, to help them become better teammates.

I am always aware with self evaluations that women tend to be overly harsh on themselves and men tend to be overly generous. Now this is not a truth for everyone, and should not be taken as such. It is just something that research has shown, and so I’m aware of it. If I find a female student rating herself harshly, when her colleagues don’t, then I know to highlight this to her. Now, I do this for all students not just the female ones, I’m just aware that it is a trend that has to do with cultural upbringing.

The peer and self assessment is the only “individual” component to the teamwork project. If I find that one person did not adequately contribute to a team, I use this as a justification for giving one person a lower mark on the team assignment. It helps with the “freeloader” problem that is identified in the Roberts and McKinnerney article.

What do you to help your online students work as a team? What strategies have worked for you?

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