How to Assign Team Projects to University Students

power meeting from above

I recently was contacted by a university professor asking for some success tips in giving team assignments to university students.

When I was a visiting faculty member I experimented to find out what worked best. My students were generally Juniors and Seniors at The University of Texas at Austin.

Here’s what I learned and shared with the fellow who asked.

Conditions for Success

1) I gave students the opportunity to form their own teams. We played some fun relationship-building games and gave them class-time to interview each other so they could get to know one another and gain some insights about what it might be like to work together.

I told them if they did not choose a team, I would assign them to one.

I never had to assign a student to a team. However I was prepared in case I did get to make such an assignment. I would ask the team if they were willing to accept him or her and I would ask the individual if they are willing to accept the team — of course looking for a “yes,” indicating a level of ownership of the decision.

2) The team earns one grade. No individual grades. No individual appeals will be heard. Period. Don’t ask.

This is key (and seldom considered). Why? For two important reasons:

  • The team’s performance comes at least as much from their interactions as from their individual contributions (from Buckminister Fuller’s definition of synergy: wholes unexplained by examining the parts). When teams click (i.e., work well together) no one outside the team is ever in a position to know who contributed what, so it isn’t fair to try to figure out who did or didn’t. When managers and professors intervene with individual grading, we actually create a scarcity condition (where individuals compete for attention) that would not otherwise exist.
  • And, for clarity of focus and attention, I wanted every student to know that the only game available to themselves and others for getting a grade was through the team.

3) The members of a team can choose to distribute the grade evenly or unevenly. That is, they can negotiate for how much effort/reward they each want.

They must turn in a statement signed by all members stating how the grade is to be divided among them. They can turn it in anytime from the initiation of the project to the conclusion. And they can modify it anytime as long as all team members sign the statement. However, I strongly recommend that this decision be the first piece of business they address as a team. 

Why? Effort versus reward is always the issue in team assignments, right? So why not call it out, drive it forward, have the team negotiate it, and give them a practical means to manage it? Make it visible and transparent.

4) I taught them the framework for individual success in shared responsibility situations (discussed extensively in this site and blog, and in my book and workshop).

Predictable Results

These team projects have been an unqualified success. Most were “A+” projects. The students were thrilled with the experience.

I never had a team choose to distribute the grade unevenly and I never had a team produce a poor result. I have never had an individual student appeal or complain, and received stellar feedback from students in these classes.

Why? I’d like to hear your thoughts about this (leave a comment). Here is one of mine: The conditions for success (and failure) were straight forward, known, clearly put in place, minimized “gaming” the system, and communicated in a way that put maximum freedom, power, and choice in each student’s hands.

In fact, I recently heard from a student in one of these classes that it was the single best class of her college career. Why? Because she learned high-integrity life-long principles for taking responsibility for herself in groups.

Some Final Tips

Always teach the Leadership Gift and it’s application to team building and to leadership.

If you are required to grade on a curve, then that requirement can be treasonous to this framework (see Jerry Harvey’s Learning to Not*Teachchapter in his book How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed In The Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife? And Other Meditations on Management.) When I was an instructor, I was a visiting faculty and not held to the faculty grading curve policy.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Build a responsible team (or family) and master your leadership skills with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.

Posted in Teamwork on 02/20/2012 01:45 pm
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