Improving the team experience with reflection questions

We all struggle with how to enable a positive experience for students in teams. Here I explore how reflection may provide a way for students to understand their own experience so they can make it more positive.

One of the hallmarks of effective active learning in our College is the concept of lightweight teams. These are teams in which students are placed in groups before the first class, given seating assignments for the semester, and the impact of the team performance on their grade is small. The term “lightweight” implies the low impact on the individual final grade. The intention is to reduce the stress of students who worry about having people on their team that know a lot more or a lot less than they do. The benefit of lightweight teams is that it encourages students to get to know each other while engaging in activities related to the concepts being taught in the class. At the end of this post are some publications that describe the benefits of lightweight teams in more detail.

Lightweight teams are effective in introductory classes but at some point, the learning about how to be effective in a team needs to transfer to teams in which the stakes are higher. These high-stakes teams are the more traditional use of teams in education. The literature on forming teams is pretty well established.  Students can be placed in teams randomly, algorithmically, or by self-selection. Regardless of whether you are forming lightweight teams or high-stakes teams, many factors can get in the way of a positive team experience such as differences in work ethic, personality, and ability.

To address potential problems with teams, I introduced a reflection survey in my HCI class. The reflection survey consists of 9 open ended questions that the students answer as individuals during a class period. There is no grade associated with the reflection – it is a class activity that allows me to record attendance. The questions are intended to have the students reflect on their experience in the team, not to give the instructor feedback on the quality of their work. The premise is that just answering the questions will change the students’ behavior in a team. Here are the questions:

  1. Do you have trouble remembering the first names of the members of your team? Which names do you remember now?
  2. Who in your team talks the most during team meetings in class? Who talks or communicates the most outside class?
  3. How would you describe the collaborative style of your team? For example: the team waits until the last minute to finish, the team gets things done as quickly as possible, the team does a lot of the preliminary work for the final report ahead of time.
  4. Do you feel like you talk as much as you would like in team meetings?
  5. Do you feel like you talk as much as others, or more than others?
  6. Do you feel like your team works together, or works separately and combines the work after?
  7. Do you feel like you are part of the team? Why?
  8. How do you feel about the quality of the work your team does?
  9. Do your team members like the quality of the work you do for this project?

Students are not very self-aware of their behavior in teams and the reflection questions asked them to think about names, how much they talk and contribute, and how they liked the quality of the work the team produced. Asking the questions was more about asking the students to be self-aware than about the instructor using the answers to change the formation of teams.

Here are some of my favorite answers (names are changed to preserve anonymity):

  • I usually struggle with names but I know everyone’s name in this group. I’m absolutely terrible with last names though. I remember Donald, Keifer, Kay, and Peter.
  • I like them overall, although John’s contribution to the team I wonder about. Other than that, everything is good and I really like my team; John included.
  • I do not feel I talk as much as I may in other team meetings, and I think it’s because I am the only girl in my team. While the guys in my team are nice, I would probably feel more comfortable with at least one other girl on the team.
  • I do not feel like I am fully a part of the team. I feel that way due to my absence in the last class that this team met. I feel as though they may think I’m a slacker because of it. I just do not feel like opening up as to why I was not here.
  • As I have gotten to know my team better I talk frequently to contribute my ideas.
  • I feel like I talk the least in my group and I would like to change that.

I have the students answer these same questions 3-4 times during the semester, even though they are in the same teams. The changes in answers show that the feelings about the team experience improves. The students get better at remembering names and there is a better distribution of talking.

Publications related to Lightweight Teams:

Latulipe, C., Long, N. B., & Seminario, C. E. (2015). Structuring flipped classes with lightweight teams and gamification. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 392-397). ACM.

Stephen MacNeil, Celine Latulipe, Bruce Long and Aman Yadav. (2016). Exploring Lightweight Teams in a Distributed Learning Environment. In Proceedings of the 47th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 193-198). ACM.

Maher, M. L., Latulipe, C., Lipford, H., & Rorrer, A. (2015). Flipped classroom strategies for CS education. In Proceedings of the 46th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 218-223). ACM.

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