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Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]
Getting the teamwork edge: Sustaining skills for future employability

Linda Riebe, Dean Roepen and Bruno Santarelli
Edith Cowan University

The 'Employability Skills Framework' developed by peak industry bodies, The Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has identified that teamwork is a skill that is highly sought after by Australian employers. The ability to work in teams has also been identified as a significant graduate outcome of higher education. However, there are issues associated with engaging students in teamwork at university, for example: student perceptions of working in teams; free-riding; and, valid assessment of both process and product aspects. This paper shares some insights into some problems of teaching teamwork skills, as well as some solutions, from both the literature and the authors' personal experiences. Tuckman's model of group development is used to identify how teamwork skills might be better facilitated to positively engage students in teamwork, so that they are more than just surviving an assignment, but learning skills they can sustain and transfer to the workplace.


Teamwork is incorporated within higher education curricula for a number of reasons including: assisting students to construct knowledge with alternate viewpoints, improving communication and providing students with the opportunity to practice the generic skills required for the workforce (Staggers, Garcia, & Nagelhout, 2008). In addition, teamwork also enables facilitators to more effectively utilise their time by reducing their overall workload (Devlin, 2002). However, experiences involving the implementation and subsequent assessment of teamwork are often met with a number of difficulties. Taking a collaborative approach to learning in the higher education environment is often challenging for both students and assessors. In essence, the higher education environment often seeks to norm-reference students competing for grades, such that some students may perceive that poor teamwork results will impact their future career or higher degree aspirations. This perception may also then work to disrupt the collaborative process (Kriflik & Mullan, 2007).

This paper examines the practices implemented in one Business Edge unit to address student perceptions of working in teams in order to effect positive change and sustain transferable teamwork skills.

Business Edge and teamwork

The Business Edge program is a set of four integrated core units offered as part of the Bachelor of Business degree at Edith Cowan University. The program was developed specifically to provide business students with the opportunity to develop key employability skills. Students are exposed to many teamwork activities across the four units and as a result, they are provided with the opportunity to learn by experiencing, developing and refining a wide range of the generic skills associated with working in a team. It is important to note that the process of working within a team itself provides an effective vehicle to both experience and develop many of the generic skills that form the foundations of teamwork (Watson, 2002). With this in mind, the formalisation of skills teaching is seen as critical pedagogy in the Business Edge program.

Valid assessment

Burton states that, "in order for assessment to be valid, it must be directly aligned to the unit objectives" (2004, p. 2). Constructive alignment (Biggs, 2006) ensures that the assessment supports the students' understanding and development of process skills in order to more fully engage them in the task and further embed process knowledge as a sustainable skill in the longer term. Quite often however, assessment criteria for teamwork are geared towards meeting "course-specific outcomes that do not always correlate with learning the skills and intricacies of teamwork" (Volkov & Volkov, 2007, p. 61). Assessing only content may lead to conflict over grade aspirations by individuals within teams. When determining exactly how to assess the skill of teamwork, it is important to remember to also assess the generic skills behind the final product, thus constructively aligning the intended learning outcome with the activity and the assessment.

Acknowledging generic skills behind an effective team

There are a number of characteristics, generic skills and processes which form the foundations of an effective team. Oakley, Felder, Brent, and Elhajj (2004) suggest that members of an effective team often: work together by assisting one another to the greatest possible extent; are effective at managing conflict; and, ensure that each team member is responsible and accountable. Watson (2002) suggests that skills such as time management and organisation, record keeping, planning and goal setting as well as the ability to lead, communicate and the ability to make decisions are all required for a truly effective team. In addition to these skills, Watson (2002) also suggests that reflective practices such as an awareness of interpersonal strengths and weaknesses, as well as the ability to analyse and evaluate the team's performance can also greatly contribute to the overall effectiveness of a team. An understanding of group norms is also essential for members of an effective team. Group norms include attendance at meetings, constructing and adhering to timelines as well as having an expectation of group members' performance (Houldsworth & Mathews, 2000).

Watson explains that in order to be an effective team member, students should "show an aptitude for many or at least some of these generic skills" (2002, p. 2). Therefore, in order to ensure that assessment of teamwork is valid, it is these generic skills that should make up the assessment criteria. It is important to note that these skills should not be simply assessed; they also need to be taught and made explicit. Palinscar, Anderson and David (1993) suggest that students will need significant support with developing skills, particularly with reflective practices such as evaluating a group's progress or overall performance.

Perceptions of unfair assessment

Volkov & Volkov (2007) suggest that free riding or unfair assessment in teamwork is a common complaint amongst students. Working toward a team assessment has shown to be an issue in previous UTEI feedback where the value of team process skills was not made explicit. For example:
I have a huge workload. Having to carry another two students doesn't help, not to mention that I don't get any credit for it and these students get to cruise through their degree on other students' work! (UTEI comment, 2009).
Addressing this perception can be achieved in a number of ways. Kriflik and Mullan (2007) suggest offering team contracts where individual team member's grades are scaled according to contribution. Keyton and Beck (2008) posit that exposing values in establishing team processes from the outset supports the evaluation of the team and individual members. Scott-Ladd & Chan (2008, p. 244) suggest including peer evaluation feedback as part of the assessment process "so students knew they were accountable to their team" Pfaff & Huddleston (2003, p. 38) state that, "not including peer evaluation in the grade may adversely affect student attitudes to toward teamwork" and "a sense of fairness may prevail when students know they can provide input and create an impact on the grades of team members" (p. 40).

Assessing process and product in a team assignment: One example

In order to address student perceptions of invalid or unfair assessment, facilitators should begin by "critically questioning whether their assignments really value the process of teamwork" (Frederick, 2008, p. 446). The table below shows how assessment criteria for one assignment within one Business Edge unit is constructively aligned with unit outcomes and assesses the final product and the generic skills behind the process of teamwork. Student perceptions of unfair assessment are addressed by: making team process skills explicit; assessing both teamwork product and processes; and, incorporating self and group reflections.

Table 1: Assessing process and product in a team assignment

Table 1

In the above example, assessment of the final product is based on criteria such as: academic standard of writing (correct conventions and application of standard Australian English; correct referencing); content (contemporary research of theory; vision for the organisation; scope of coverage); and, effective communication of information in the oral and written presentations (presentation skills; formatting; typography of slides; persuasion of arguments).

Teamwork processes are measured with both formative and summative forms of assessment. The summative assessment of teamwork process skills is evaluated through textual tracking of wikis and minutes of meetings. Criteria for assessment of these skills include: the development of mission statements and team norms which guide expectations about process; participation in project development on the team wiki to measure participation; and, the recording of minutes during each meeting to measure the team's ability to assign tasks, display time management and demonstrate individual accountability. Formative assessment occurs in the form of a midpoint evaluation survey where students are required to evaluate themselves, their peers and their team's overall performance. On individual completion of the survey, formative feedback is transmitted between team members based on process items such as the establishment of team norms; respect for diverse viewpoints; conflict management; the decision-making process; and, time management. Team members also evaluate one another on four criteria: cooperation; communication; preparation; and helping the group excel. Team members then give each other feedback on positive aspects of their teamwork behaviours and constructive criticism on any area requiring improvement. Peer feedback is also given to each team by another team on completion of the oral presentation component of the assessment.

Explicitly teaching teamwork: a practical model

There is some recent literature that forecasts the success of teamwork when grounded in critical pedagogy (Ding & Ding, 2008; Keyton & Beck, 2008; Kolb, Jin & Song 2008; Seibold & Kang, 2008); practices of team development (Bushe & Coetzer, 2007; Frederick, 2008; Kriflik & Mullan, 2007; Staggers et al., 2008; Scott-Ladd & Chan, 2008; Tuckman, 1965) and preliminary explicit generic skills teaching (Kriflik & Mullan, 2007). However, Scott-Ladd & Chan maintain that there is still a gap in research in the area of "giving students practical skills for building team cohesion and managing team processes" (2008, p. 234). Bushe and Coetzer (2007) describe two sequential developmental phases, membership and competence, as being essential to developing high performing teams. The membership phase is important for individuals to psychologically join the team and would be most likely to occur during Tuckman's forming and storming stages. The competence phase, where members conform to team goals, norms, objectives and where leadership and influence are likely to have an impact, align more closely with Tuckman's norming and performing stages.

The teaching of explicit skills is not a linear process; however, it can be aligned with the stages of team development in order for the teacher to facilitate timely delivery of theory and skills. The role of the facilitator is an important one in teaching team skills. Expert facilitation is more likely to elicit teams that "are more likely to become highly developed" (Bushe & Coetzer, 1977, p. 186). In this case the authors looked at the Tuckman model of group development in line with the generic skills teaching and learning process and students perceptions of the process.

Tuckman (1965) hypothesised that small group development progressed through a number of stages which were grounded in explicit generic skills teaching. He completed an extensive review of the relevant literature in order to propose four stages of group development which he labelled forming, storming, norming and performing. Tuckman further reviewed the 'new' literature on small group development in 1977. He concluded that a final 'termination' stage had been overlooked in his initial research and so amended the Tuckman model "to include a fifth stage: adjourning" (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977, p.426). Each stage was characterised by an attempt to distinguish between group structure (the interpersonal relationships and behaviours of group members) and group orientation to the task (the specific content of the task); however, he noted that these could both develop simultaneously. Working in teams within a higher education environment often requires students to complete problem-based tasks where they will move through all of these stages rapidly. Reaching the performing stage is imperative to the achievement of completion of the task.

What follows is one explanation of how teamwork skills are implemented within a Business Edge unit using Tuckman's model.

The Forming Stage:

Tuckman (cited in Staggers et al., 2008, p. 478) believes that individual behaviour is driven by a desire to be accepted by others. The forming stage is a time to get to know and develop opinions about each other. It is considered to be the polite stage where a premium is placed on avoiding conflict.

Clarity of purpose is offered by facilitators:According to Kriflik & Mullan, "clarifying the group work activity assisted students to perceive the benefits of the activity" (2007, p. 21).

The most important first step in engaging students in developing sustainable teamwork skills is to allow time in class for discussion of effective teamwork skills, theory and past experiences. The unit teaches Tuckman's (1965) teamwork model of forming, storming, conforming, performing and adjourning, as new teams need to understand the stages of team development.

The facilitator needs to be an enabler of learning through scaffolded introduction of knowledge of team processes and "must work consciously to help teams work productively by offering skills and reflection at strategic points in the semester" (Staggers et al., 2008 p. 476). This is done in the unit by scheduling checkpoints in assignments. Debriefing at certain points along the way is considered to be imperative to optimal functioning of teams.

Team introductions and team building activitiesThese should be completed in class time. These activities can allow students to interact informally prior to commencement of the team project.

Goal settingBrainstorming in new teams should be undertaken in class time to establish goals for the team and for explicitly clarifying each individual's grade aspiration.

A mission statement is then written using SMART objectives in order for team members to agree a clear purpose for the team's existence.

The Storming Stage:

This stage may bring conflict to the fore and obstacles encountered must be overcome for teams to prosper in the long term. It is the stage where team members may question the goals, the task and interpersonal relationships.

Establishing ground rulesDecide on norms for the team:
  • Work norms: e.g. How will work be distributed? Who will set deadlines? What happens if a team member does not follow through on their commitment? How will work be reviewed? What is the guideline for quality of work? How will individual work habits impact the team?
  • Meeting norms: e.g. what is everyone's schedule? (work/class commitments). Is there a preference for when meetings are held outside of class? Who is responsible for organising team meetings? Where will they be held? What are the consequences of missing meetings?
  • Communication norms: e.g. what is the preferred medium of communication, email, phone, wiki? Importantly, how will conflict management be handled?
    (Examples adapted from Breslow, 2000)
Agreed norms are recorded on the team wiki within the week.

Roles and responsibilitiesIndividuals may seek to wield power or take leadership rather than earn it. It is in the realm of the facilitator to provide constructive feedback and negotiate fluidity of roles across the life of the project.

Conflict managementConflict management responses are explicitly taught to students in the unit prior to undertaking teamwork. Students develop awareness of the five main approaches to conflict management (forcing; accommodating; avoiding; compromising; collaborating), through theory and role-play.

The Norming Stage:

In this stage relationships are established and team competencies are developed. The team begins to "function as a unit and team members become comfortable in their setting, they experience pressure to conform to emerging norms...they begin to value team goals more than their own personal goals" (Carlopio & Andrewartha, 2008, p. 460).

Team competencies explicitly developed through in class activities in Business Edge
  • Active listening skills
  • Clarifying and summarising skills
  • Time management skills
  • Flexibility with team rules
  • Conflict management skills
  • Awareness of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills
  • Accountability aspects of teamwork.

The Performing Stage:

By the time a team reaches the performing stage, they are generally effective and have established mutual trust between team members. Individuals demonstrate loyalty and commitment to the team and as a result, facilitators are able to step back and allow the team to function independently.

Attributes that can be seen in high performing teams include:
  • Production of performance outcomes - satisfactory achievement of the goal/task
  • Specific shared purpose and vision
  • Mutual internal accountability
  • Blurring of formal distinctions - team members do whatever is necessary, regardless of former roles/responsibilities/outside positions
  • Co-ordinated, shared work roles - one product, not a set of individual products
  • Efficiency - members can anticipate each other's moves and the team becomes more efficient than single people working alone.
    (Carlopio & Andrewartha, 2008, p. 466)

The Adjourning Stage:

This is a debriefing phase that occurs when the project has reached its conclusion. Teams should be given a chance to recognise and discuss their achievements, "disengage and consciously move on" (Staggers et al, 2008, p. 485).

Reflection and peer evaluationFacilitators explicitly debrief the skills and attributes associated with teamwork development in a whole class forum to ensure every individual is aware of their ability to transfer and sustain these skills and strategies to new teams, either at university or in the work place.

Peer evaluation as part of the team assessment process. This is seen as being a significant part of the process to students in the current literature (Ding & Ding, 2008; Fermelis & Tucker, 2008; Frederick, 2008; Kriflik & Mullan, 2007; Pfaff & Huddleston, 2003; Scott-Ladd & Chan, 2008).

Teamwork process evaluation. Students are given the opportunity to complete an end of semester teamwork survey. The survey allows students to rate skills learned on a five point Likert scale to evaluate their perceptions of the most effective skills necessary for teamwork.

Student perceptions of teamwork skills and the Tuckman model

The end of semester teamwork online survey was optional and time was provided for completion in class. The survey attracted a 78% response rate from the second year unit in Business Edge. Students were asked to rate their experience with teamwork in the unit and comment on their experience with the Tuckman model. The outcome for facilitators was to learn more about student perceptions of their experiences with teamwork.

Ten items were listed for rating the extent of positive student experience of teamwork processes in the second year unit.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Rating by students of positive aspects of teamwork during the second semester

The introduction of setting team norms was done for the first time and had a positive impact on the student experience. An extract from one reflective journal entry gives some insight to this process:

The questionnaire also assisted our group to come up with a set of norms in regards to work standards, communication and facilitation. This practice was particularly helpful, as it ensured that all of our team members were on the same track and shared some similar ideas.
Finally, students were asked to comment on their journey through the team development process using the Tuckman model. There were 160 responses of which 132 (82.5%) were positive, 23 (14.5%) were negative and 5 (3%) with no comment. Students noted the following:
Forming is the first stage in establishing the team. We performed so good in this stage with areas such as introducing team members. We chose a place and time for group meetings. Each member talked about their expectations when working in a group. We agreed to choose a team leader and also identified goals for our group. All members agreed to finish the report as soon as possible.

During the norming stage, there were some conflicts as some wouldn't turn up to meetings or communication was harsh. But during the performing stage, things went extremely well. In fact, encouragement and motivation was the tool that influenced our performance as a team.

In addition to students commenting on team development through Tuckman's model, general comments also indicated a greater awareness of interpersonal strengths and weaknesses. Students commented on the skills which their team performed successfully and they also articulated the teamwork skills which required further development. The explicit teaching of teamwork skills and processes has effectively developed a greater level of awareness in students, which in turn, has ultimately contributed to the development of sustainable and transferable teamwork skills.
Although our team work was not as efficient and effective as it could have been, the challenges that we faced were enlightening. The conflict that we were confronted with and the methods that we used to resolve this conflict gave us the experience for future team work situations.


This paper has explored how one employability skill, linked to a graduate attribute, can be taught within a university business course to positively engage students in the teamwork process. By using the Business Edge course as an example, Tuckman's process-oriented approach was investigated and was found useful in making generic teamwork skills both explicit and valued. Our research is a simple overview of a complex set of issues, attributes and challenges which underlie the processes involved in implementing, facilitating and assessing teamwork. Future research, through engaging past Business Edge students in focus groups and the feedback loop, may assist in identifying the processes considered most beneficial by the students themselves in sustaining cohesive, transferable teamwork skills.


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Authors: Linda Riebe, Dean Roepen and Bruno Santarelli, Edith Cowan University. Email: l.riebe@ecu.edu.au, d.roepen@ecu.edu.au, b.santarelli@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Riebe, L., Roepen, D. & Santarelli, B. (2010). Getting the teamwork edge: Sustaining skills for future employability. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/riebe.html

Copyright 2010 Linda Riebe, Dean Roepen and Bruno Santarelli. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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