What's the Problem with Team Projects?
Over the past four years, Dr. Chris Lam conducted a series of empirical research studies examining ways to improve communication in team projects--all of which were conducted in UNT's technical communication undergraduate courses. While the value of building teamwork skills is obvious to most instructors and students, many team projects are fraught with problems stemming from a phenomenon known as social loafing--the propensity for individuals to expend less effort when working in teams than they would if they worked alone. To investigate potential solutions to this problem, Dr. Lam sought to discover the most important factors contributing to social loafing. Here are some interesting takeaways from his studies:
- Communication quality was significantly more important than team structures like group size, method of team formation, or the presence of peer evaluation in reducing social loafing. This finding flies in the face of much conventional wisdom like "keep teams small" or "don't randomly assign students to teams". While the research doesn't suggest ignoring team structures altogether, it does suggest placing higher value in explicit teamwork instruction.
- Students who received formal training on media choice (i.e., how to assess a communication context and choose an appropriate technology) saw significant improvements in their teamwork communication throughout a project.
- Communication quality significantly improved team cohesion, which in turn significantly reduced social loafing.
What Can Instructors Do to Prepare for Successful Team Projects?
One of the biggest issues for any instructor is time. 15-week semesters often fly by, and it seems impossible to include additional content on teamwork into existing courses. Based on Dr. Lam's research, however, it is essential to be intentional about preparing students for successful teamwork. Here's some simple strategies to consider trying:
- Conduct media choice training - Dr. Lam provides a 50-minute training module in one his research articles. The training teaches students to assess communication contexts and select an appropriate technology for addressing that particular communication context. Read the article below, or email Dr. Lam to request the training materials.
- Require a team contract, but include a communication component in the contract - Team contracts are not novel solutions to project management. However, Dr. Lam's research shows that explicitly including a communication component that includes agreed upon communication technologies and protocols can help curb social loafing. Read the article below, or email Dr. Lam to request a sample team contract.
- Assign simple, practical readings on teamwork - While it may not be appropriate to assign full-blown empirical research studies to undergraduate students, there are some practical and helpful teamwork resources for writing-specific teams. For example, Dr. Joanna Wolfe at Carnegie Mellon University, has an excellent resource on team writing. Find it on Amazon.
- Take teamwork instruction seriously - Teamwork is often referred to as a "soft" skill and sometimes even considered outside of the responsiblity of the technical communication instructor. Employers, however, have repeatedly pointed out the importance of teamwork in their potential employees. Instructors, then, should carefully consider structural components of team projects like group size, team formation, or peer evaluations, but they shouldn't stop there. Instructors should also consider and formally teach specific knowledge gaps like communication strategies, media choice, and project maangement.
Check out the Research Articles
- The role of communication and cohesion in reducing social loafing in group projects, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly
- Improving technical communication group projects: An experimental study of media synchronocity theory training on communciation outcomes, Journal of Business and Technical Communication
- The efficacy of text messaging to improve social connectedness and team attitude in student technical communciation teams: An experimental study. Journal of Business and Technical Communication
Follow Dr. Lam on Twitter @doctor_lam