My students and I are all learning: teamwork is hard work

I hated group work when I was a student. It was a real problem in Japanese schools I attended decades ago, where getting along with others and collaborating to complete assigned tasks were part of our daily routine. In addition to group activities in the classroom, we were expected to perform any number of tasks, like cleaning the classroom and distributing school lunch, in small teams. In elementary school, teachers were around and everyone did their part, more or less. When I got to middle school, we were suddenly left to work on our own. Most of the time, a couple of responsible kids — I was always one of them — ended up doing all the work for their teams, while others fooled around or ditched the group duty all together. When I got to college, I thought, thank goodness, the bother of having to do group work would finally end. I was bitterly disappointed when I was assigned into lab teams, where, once again, I ended up doing much of the work organizing lab assignments and getting the reports written on time.

How ironic it is that I’m now pushing teamwork in every one of the courses I teach. It all got started during the pandemic. Preparing to teach online for the first time, accomplishing the level of engagement I was accustomed to in my classroom seemed impossible. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine lecturing into a webcam the entire time without meaningful interaction with students. So, I made the critical decision: divide the class time equally between the lecture-driven whole class meeting and the interactive small group work. The first run of this format in Fall 2020 received positive enough feedback from students, and the improved version in Spring 2021 got good enough results that I decided to keep the format when we switched back to in-person teaching this semester.

After working through familiar teamwork problems with my students — team members not getting along, a few taking on the heavy workload while others coasted — I finally came to understand the reasons for my negative group work experience of the past: the lack of acknowledgement that good collaboration takes thoughtfulness and persistence, that teamwork is hard work.

Sociologists and anthropologists often call human beings “social animals.” We as a species seem to tend toward living and working together. What we often overlook is that we are also independent creatures driven by self-interest, and collective life takes work to develop and maintain. In highly stratified large-scale societies, cohesiveness is maintained through established mechanisms (like formal government, family, education system, law enforcement) that we call social institutions. In small-scale societies, where people are born into small social groups that consist of members related by blood or marriage, it is the social norms and expectations that act as the informal mechanism to encourage collaboration. Take, for example, ethnographic accounts of the Ju/Wasi (also known as !Kung). Subsisting on hunting and gathering in arid areas of Africa, collaboration and sharing of scarce resources ensured the group’s survival over the centuries. Yet, collaboration and sharing do not appear to come so naturally. Instead, obligation to share food and other precious resources creates social pressure to compel those who have more to help others by giving away what they have.

In my classroom, too, I have observed this battle between individual self-interest and collective good, and gradually added pieces to their teamwork requirements to make healthy, productive and even enjoyable teamwork experiences possible. Students stay together in assigned teams for the duration of the semester, as it takes time to develop team dynamics. They are given clearly defined and doable tasks ahead of time and are encouraged to come prepared to use their teamwork time effectively. I walk around to visit teams and respond to questions, but they are encouraged to figure out how to accomplish the given tasks without depending on an authority figure. At the same time, there are mechanisms to ensure accountability: every member of the team must contribute to the teamwork process in an equitable way, or they will not be allowed to take credit for the outcome of their team’s effort.

College students in the United States are avid individualists. It’s partly because of their upbringing in a society where self-reliance has been the core value for centuries; but it is also the result of their schooling, where they are told time and time again to “do your own work, or else.” Many have done group work in elementary and secondary schools, yet their experiences were lukewarm at best, outright negative (like mine) at worst. Pitching in and benefiting from the proverbial communal pot requires them to let go of some control and trust one another — hard work, indeed, for anyone who has been conditioned against doing so.

Fostering teamwork means a lot of work for the instructor, too. It takes a great deal of care to plan sound collaborative learning activities and emotional labor to be present when team dynamics go awry and require your support. But when students work through their initial hesitation and finally recognize the value of working together, the benefits they reap are substantial. Not only does the quality of their academic work improve significantly; they have also taken a big step toward building teamwork and collaboration skills, which will help them navigate their lives after college.