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Four Strategies to Set Up Successful Team Projects

Seacrest Teaching Fellow's Research Finds Innovative and Effective Ways to Improve Education
Four Strategies to Set Up Successful Team Projects
As a Senior Seacrest Teaching Fellow in the College of Business, Amanda Gonzales, associate professor of practice in accountancy, '03, researched and tested ways to make group projects more successful for students in her accounting classes.

Group work often gets a bad rap for allowing some students to do all the work while others coast for the same grade. However, there are strategies faculty can employ to set up successful student teams, according to new research by Amanda Gonzales, associate professor of practice in accountancy, '03.

The Seacrest Teaching Fellows program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business, made possible by the support of Rhonda and the late James Seacrest, fosters a community of teaching excellence among business faculty by supporting teaching innovation and collaboration. As a fellow, Gonzales investigated how to improve the dynamics of working in team settings in her courses.

“Students can enjoy their team project experiences. Anonymous student feedback about team experiences in Research and Communication in Accounting (ACCT 455) was overwhelmingly positive. Students identified characteristics of well-functioning teams included clearly defined goals, expectations and assignments; equal engagement; mutual support and respect; and timely communication and completion of tasks,” Gonzales said.

4 Key Strategies for Setting Up Team Projects

Gonzales found many ways instructors can set up team projects for success. They include the following four strategies:

1. Have teams create “team charters” that describe the team’s goals, roles, responsibilities and norms.

Establish an assignment that requires students to outline how their team plans to work together to accomplish its goals. Provide a template outlining the team objective and examples of roles individuals can play. Each team should create its own charter.

“Our research showed quality team charters had a strong positive association with performance for both team and individual assessments related to the team project,” Gonzales reported.

2. Encourage students to apply their natural talents to facilitate successful team and task assignments.

Research in positive psychology finds utilizing each person’s natural talents increases individual engagement and achievement. The College of Business leans into this as a strengths-based school. This starts with all first-year business majors taking the CliftonStrengths® assessment to identify their natural talents then receiving one-on-one coaching to help them leverage them for success.

“Students identified leveraging each other’s strengths as a positive part of their team experiences. There is such a prevalent strengths culture in the college that students leveraged their team strengths in the final project even when not explicitly reminded to do so,” Gonzales said.

3. Incorporate strategies that encourage students to fully engage in the team.

Describe to students the benefits of team projects and why you chose to make the assignment a team effort. Ask students to reflect on how the project can help them achieve their personal goals. Enhance accountability by incorporating ways to evaluate individual performance. In the study, students verbally shared their research with practicing professionals and completed an individual writing assignment based on the team's research, so it was more difficult to freeload.

“You also can increase students’ intrinsic motivation by creating team projects that are inherently interesting to students such as topics related to contemporary issues or representing tasks relevant to their careers. Students in our project were motivated by presenting to practicing professionals, rather than the instructor,” Gonzales found.

4. Discuss and model effective team practices.

In the study, students discussed best practices for fostering a productive and supportive team environment, creating agendas and notetaking before each student was required to lead a team meeting implementing those skills. Students also practiced the role play with someone outside of the class prior to the final role play. This mandatory interim deadline encouraged them to prepare ahead of time and gave them an opportunity to receive and incorporate feedback.  

“A key takeaway in our project is that 95% of respondents to the end-of-semester survey reported a positive experience with their teams. I think most instructors would be delighted to have students feel so pleased with a team experience,” Gonzales said.

She shared these course strategies and more with College of Business colleagues in the fall alongside Steven Cain, '11 & '14, to help other instructors achieve similar results in their classes. They were also invited to share their research at a national faculty conference this summer.

“Group work is also a passion of Steven's, so we joined forces on this research. He added insights from his background in pedagogy and higher education. It’s much more fun to work as a team, putting our research into practice by leveraging our natural talents together to be successful,” she said. 

Gonzales and other fellows in the College of Business continue working to identify new methods and practices in their teaching and studying whether these changes are helping students. The Seacrest Teaching Fellows program allows faculty to share ideas and continually strive to enhance the student learning experience.

“As new generations of students and new technologies emerge, we must adapt how we teach so our students graduate ready to lead the future of business. The Seacrest Teaching Fellows are leading the way in our efforts,” said Sam Allgood, faculty director of the Teaching and Learning Center and Edwin J. Faulkner Professor of Economics.

Published: February 14, 2023