Teaching students how to build better teams

November 15, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Scott Westfahl, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law SchoolScott Westfahl, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, intentionally develops students’ team-based collaboration skills in his law school courses on leadership fundamentals and innovation. Throughout the semester, student groups learn, reflect, and act on what makes a great team in real-time. Westfahl begins with a focus on the academic frameworks for successful teams. Then a series of scaffolded activities and assignments allow students to collaboratively reflect on what they want as a team, consider over time what is working and what isn’t, and work on projects throughout the semester. At the end of his innovation course, Westfahl surprises his students with a “graduation,” where he reads aloud paraphrased reflections from students on each of their group members’ contributions.

The benefits: Students develop a stronger appreciation of their classmates’ strengths without a sense of competition or insecurity. “When the team starts to understand and communicate about their perceived working styles, it gives them a common language to work across those differences better.” With TypeCoach, Westfahl and his students can look each other up using a sharable dashboard that provides helpful tips for how to work across perceived differences in working styles. Westfahl explains that “although MBTI has been de-bunked somewhat as a predictor of human behavior, consulting firms like McKinsey and BCG continue to use it with their teams because it sparks non-judgmental observations and discussions that help team members to work across perceived differences more effectively.” Students leave the classroom with clearer perspectives about how to foster more inclusive teams, and they learn and grow from direct peer feedback.

“Difficult problems in this world are being solved by teams, not individuals.”

The challenges: “Our students often experience the free rider problem in high school or college,” Westfahl reflects, “so they don’t want to be put in a team.” Beyond student skepticism, one of the biggest challenges is balancing group discussion in a fair way. “I try to be really explicit with teams about inclusivity,” Westfahl explains, including offering frameworks and methods from his direct observations in the field. One option, he suggests, is asking group members to write out three ideas on Post-its, sticking them to a board, and having each person explain their idea without judgment from the team. “Only after every voice is heard, every wild idea is on the board, can they start to group them,” Westfahl states. “I’m deliberately teaching my students to have an inclusive broadening discussion before they narrow option sets to their best solution.” This helps to mitigate either a few people dominating what gets proposed or a competitive tendency to critique first.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Model care and trust. Westfahl takes extra measures to facilitate a sense of mutual trust and belonging in the classroom. Before the semester even begins, he circulates a pre-class survey to mine students’ backgrounds and prior experiences before law school. “I pretty much commit that to memory before the first class,” he notes. He posts the information on Canvas and uses it to call on students to share their relevant experiences or connect after class. From this, Westfahl explains, they see that “I care about their backgrounds and they can learn as much from each other as they can learn from me.”
  • A strong start makes all the difference. The team launch is especially important. Student groups create a set of expectations and a mutual vision for what makes a great team. “Important research about teams shows that a team launch meeting is highly predictive of whether that team succeeds.” Westfahl requires students to reflect independently and write short essays on their own past team experiences—one that went well and one that went poorly. Then they share their essays with their assigned team members as part of their initial team meeting. This activity enables them to “get on the same page about who they want to be as a team.”
  • Create projects and reflection assignments that require interdependence. For students to develop these team-management skills, they must actually work together. That is why Westfahl constructs assignments that are multi-variable—they have research, presentation and visual components which require students to meet with each other, rather than purely divide up the work and complete the project asynchronously. Moreover, he requires teams to do a collective reflection on what is going well and what they “should look at fixing.” Over the semester, this allows student teams “to see the improvement of their projects as they got better as a team.”

Bottom line: Group work must be incorporated into the classroom intentionally. Students should be given the scaffolding and guidance to learn how to manage teams well, rather than assuming they will develop these skills organically. “You have to teach them about how to work in teams and give them some context and structure as a primary goal of the course.”