Peer Feedback and Collaboration
“Everything we do is for the students and for their learning and development” -Norm Althouse
Group projects are a great way to develop communication and teamwork skills in students, but they can be difficult to implement, manage and grade. Sometimes it is unclear how much work each student contributed. Other times, instructors are forced to sort out groups that are having issues collaborating. However, Norman Althouse and his colleagues in the Haskayne School of Business have developed strategies that create strong teams and lead to better evaluation group work. He uses these methods in SGMA 217: Introduction to Business Skills, a mandatory course for first-year business students. Team development is a huge focus during the group project component of the course.
Althouse’s team building strategy focuses on the idea that groups cannot just come together and immediately work well together on a large project. There needs to be a period of time for group members to learn about one another’s strengths so they can effectively approach important tasks.
Students are given a seven-step team building exercise involving self-reflection, group discussion, and the formation of a team charter. They have to individually reflect on previous group-work experiences, personal strengths and talents, as well as what is required for a strong group. These reflections compared and discussed among group members. Groups come up with strategies for overcoming challenges and issues, as well as a team charter, which outlines the team name, visions, expectations and ideals. One class period is given to work on this exercise, but teams all need several hours outside of class to finish, as it is an extensive, thought-provoking process. All of this work is ungraded, but provides benefits throughout the group project.
One simple way that Althouse determines if teams are communicating and working effectively together is by having a Team Introduction mid-way through the project. Each team comes to the front of the class and members give the name and an interesting fact about one of their teammates. The catch is that students don’t know which of their teammates they will be introducing. They have to know enough about each of their five team members to introduce them in front of the class. This ensures that teams have been spending time together and working to understand each other, even in small ways.
The project is fairly straightforward. Students are assigned a company and are asked to use secondary research to determine its strengths, weaknesses and overall culture. Althouse encourages students to approach the project as though they are preparing to have an interview at their assigned company. Students are asked to write a report and give a common business-style presentation called a SWOT, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This is an objective type of presentation that highlights both good and bad points about the company and suggests ways to remedy any weaknesses. The presentation accounts for 5% of their grade, and the report for 15%. Detailed rubrics and expectations are provided. Althouse and his teaching team provide a lot of student support throughout the project. He meets with groups to discuss if they are following their management plan and if they are dealing with any issues. Any problems within groups are addressed immediately, but Althouse notes that the team building exercises have significantly reduced them.
Althouse marks students on their content, communication and research. Peer-evaluation is one way that he ensures grades are assigned fairly. Group members work together on a collective peer-evaluation to hand in with their report. They make note of how much each member contributed. This makes it clear to him which students did not perform at the same level as their teammates.
Althouse says that he has been really impressed with how well the team building and peer-evaluation have benefitted students. Most students really embrace the course work and see it pay off. They have better relationships with their teammates, as they have spent time figuring out how to work with one another’s strengths. Strong communication is fostered from the start. Very few internal issues are present, and most can be managed by the students.
Many upper-year business classes require group presentations and projects, so being introduced to effective strategies in one of their very first courses benefits them throughout their undergraduate and professional experience.