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Career Advice

Alone or with others?

What place should be given to teamwork in university education? Reflections on a teaching practice that relies on collaboration and solidarity as essential vectors of learning.


This is a reprint from Dr. Jutras’ blog, housed on the Université de Montréal website. Read the original post

“You were in your bubble.”

It was an accurate observation, but brutal. I had just spent a lovely evening with friends I enjoy. The laughter was infectious, memories were shared, the stories were entertaining, the latest news from this one and that, the gossip amusing – all the essential ingredients were on the table and around it. But for some reason I remained rather silent, leaving it to the others to keep the conversation going. I wasn’t tired, or sad, or irritated – quite the opposite. I was just… passive. Laughing, totally aware of the general good humour, but doing nothing to contribute to it. My wife was right: conversation is a team sport (or art). So … one yellow card for me.

Not long after that evening, I saw a documentary about Formula 1 racing, which underlined how much the work of each individual, in addition to the talent of the driver, is crucial for the team’s success. When changing tires in the pit, a single false move can spell disaster; the seconds lost can’t be recovered. I have also learned that the same holds true in music performance. Musicians in a string quartet have to listen to each other very carefully, not only to maintain the tempo, but also because the instruments don’t have a fixed intonation. Each player has to adjust their technique to attain a common pitch – not easy to do alone, and even harder with four musicians.

In short, in the world around us, teamwork is everywhere. No man or woman is an island.

Does this mean that university education must necessarily include activities carried out in small groups? Is it beneficial for everyone to have the experience of teamwork?

Let’s start by saying that most students don’t really like working in a group. I’m basing this on the premise, verified time and again in my courses, that the vast majority of students don’t like being evaluated as a group, even if they’re happy to learn in a group. Students’ reluctance is not an insurmountable obstacle. Above all, it’s important to explain why teamwork is a relevant and beneficial framework for learning.

First of all, we need to distinguish between different kinds of group interaction. In “real life,” group activity is very variable. To come back to the string quartet, those musicians represent the most integrated kind of teamwork, where the success of the performance depends at all times on the close collaboration of each member of the group. At the other end of the scale, work on a conventional industrial assembly line is team-based in that everyone contributes to the finished product, but the contributions are added consecutively rather than taking place simultaneously. In some cases, teamwork occurs in an egalitarian framework, where everyone participates freely in the project according to their means and resources. In other cases, the division of responsibilities is highly structured, with specific tasks allocated to each team member, sometimes under the authority of a designated project coordinator.

The same is true in an educational context. Teamwork can take many forms, each one supporting distinct pedagogical objectives whose relevance may vary according to the discipline and the context.

Professors should therefore be clear about what type of team experience they want the class to have. Some educational activities encourage the sharing of ideas and skills. Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on nursing, where students in small groups of eight or nine produced a decision tree related to a case study. Problem-based learning, in this context, is similar to my dinner with friends. Each intervention moves the conversation forward in a way and at a pace that would be very difficult to replicate on an individual basis. The multiplication of points of view allows you to have a peripheral view of the problem and, in the best-case scenario, to come up with a better solution. This is a classic form of ongoing collaboration: the exercise is designed to make participants realize that several heads are better than one, and that a lack of communication, in a therapeutic context for example, can lead to sub-optimal results. It also allows each person to test certain ideas, or even make mistakes without any consequences, in a context that fosters mutual trust.

Other team-teaching activities impose greater individual responsibilities on each person. For example, my students have sometimes written dissertations or essays in the form of a chain novel, where each person takes the text as it stands and tries to move it in the right direction. In other cases, I’ve asked each team to write a single text, while requiring the team members to add their respective comments in an appendix. I could have required the finished product to be signed by all of them collectively, while assigning each team member a specific role or responsibility for some aspect of the work. Exploring further, I have also proposed written presentations in the form of a transcript of a dialogue with four or five voices, each one distinctly identified. A very difficult exercise, but a rich learning experience.

There are many possibilities, depending on the skills and modes of learning that you wish to develop: listening, compromise, planning, coordination, synthesis, creativity, and leadership – angles that are not as easily explored in individual work. It will be helpful to be explicit in this regard, as not all the skills required to work effectively in a team are known or mastered by students. At times it will be helpful to guide teams through each step of the process: task and timeline planning, risk management, research design, writing and editing processes, etc. But the effort will be rewarded. All forms of teamwork can engender amazement at the plurality of views, skills, and working methods. They all allow us to see otherness as an essential vector of knowledge, but also as the great challenge of human experience. Hell is other people, but so is heaven.

When it’s a matter of a presentation or an exercise that counts for the final mark, the question of evaluation must be decided on. At Université de Montréal, our pedagogical regulations establish guidelines for the evaluation of teamwork: “In the case of teamwork, each student must be evaluated individually unless a course objective justifies collective evaluation.” In this regard, some students are concerned about the loss of control over their results that comes with teamwork. Others are concerned about the potential for conflict within the team, or the presence of freeloaders who receive credit without contributing to the collective work. These concerns need to be listened to, as well as those expressed (or not) by others who are less socially at ease and who may have difficulty joining a group, or others who may have a personal situation (parenting, employment, etc.) that makes it more difficult to coordinate team meetings. In all cases, it is up to the professor to create the conditions for the success of the exercise. And one should not hesitate to intervene to free a group from the rigid framework of the team when serious conflict breaks out between participants.

Each of my teaching experiences based on teamwork has taught me a little more about human nature. I have seen conflicts both minor and major, and dramas that need to be defused, but also revelations and great collaborations that stand to be encouraged. I remain convinced of the benefits of these pedagogical contexts where synergy and solidarity are put forward as essential vectors of learning. What a joy, at the end of the day, to have contributed, with others, to the success of something bigger than oneself: teamwork, a collective project, a Mozart quartet, or a convivial dinner between friends.

Note to my wife: next time, just kick me under the table. That should knock me out of my bubble.

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