Teamwork can help students learn skills such as research and problem solving, but also how to work effectively with others. Using teams takes planning both in terms how they relate to the goals of the course, but also how to manage the mechanics of teamwork. This resource concentrates on how to help teams working on longer-term projects. However, many methods are relevant for group work (short term discussions or projects) as well.

Table of Contents:

Include teamwork in course design

Tie teamwork to student learning. Team activities should help students meet course learning objectives and/or prepare for other assignments. Collaboration is a pedagogical tool to enable students to interact with course content in an unique way. Resist the urge to layer a project on top of traditional readings and assignments for no reason. For long-term projects, ask yourself if the project is engaging enough to require contributions from all members of the group. Are the skills and content for the project being practiced and talked about actively throughout the course?

Organize team projects to facilitate student engagement. Team projects give students a chance to learn the course content by creating a tangible output. Ideally, the team task requires student interdependence—in other words, they can’t do it on their own. Promote interaction by assigning tasks that require consensus or concrete decisions based on analysis of a complex issue. One way to highlight interdependence is to assign roles, such as Facilitator, Recorder, Reporter, Timekeeper and Reality Checker.

Authentic activities connect learning to experiences. Team projects are most effective when they tackle real-world and novel subjects. This makes course content feel more relevant and help students see applications for their new skills and knowledge.

Allow class time for teamwork. Many project-based courses dedicate at least one class session to help teams build a strong foundation. Thereafter teams might spend 15 minutes a week to assess progress and set priorities. Be sure to dedicate time to those meetings in your course plan.

Deliberate team formation can reduce barriers to success. It is important to take into account how the project could be helped or hindered by the makeup of a team. Teams should be created by the instructor. When students form their own groups it is likely to lead to homogeneous groups who do not benefit from a diversity of approaches. There are a several key considerations when forming long-term teams: 

  • Would it be helpful to survey students about their previous knowledge to form diverse teams? 
  • Are you creating teams that inadvertently isolate minority groups? 
  • If online, should students be grouped by time zone? 

Diverse teams can be encouraged to talk about what each team member brings to a project and help them efficiently assign roles and tasks to teammates, plus find common experiences that may guide their project.

Communicate goals of team projects

Explain why you are assigning team projects. For example, learning is more successful when they are grappling with a problem together and hear other perspectives. You might mention the important role that team skills play in successful employment after college. This resource offers other ideas for overcoming student objections to teamwork. Whatever your reason for assigning team projects, if the students understand what skills they will gain or how team projects are relevant to the course content it will reduce resistance.

Schedule frequent check-ins. It is important to check in with teams to find out if things are working well or not. Ideally, check in weekly to find out if teams need help resolving problems or help progressing on tasks. Also be sure students know how to reach out to you to get help with small problems before they interfere with the group’s progress. Instructors often find it helpful to give teams short surveys or other ways to give their teammates feedback on how things are going periodically during a project.

Include project milestones in the syllabus. Requiring students to submit smaller parts of a project allows you to catch groups going down the wrong path and help refocus their efforts. Specific deadlines, milestone descriptions and grading criteria should be part of the assessment plan for the course. Feedback can take several forms that don’t include lengthy notes by the instructor, including rubrics and peer review. It is best practice to grade both individual and group work for any project to increase accountability and engagement. Example of individual and collective assignments include:

Peer feedbackProject plan
Activity logTeam check-in
ReflectionsFinal presentation

Students can use project planners to brainstorm ideas, gather documents and assign tasks. Microsoft Planner is a project planning tool that serves as a document repository, as well as a way to track team member contributions. Microsoft Teams or standard email are options for team communication. MindMeister is a mind-mapping tool available to create an outline of a project and assign tasks to team members. Less complex tools such as Box and Google Drive can also serve as the main organizers of the project. You can either indicate what applications they should use so you can monitor their work more closely or let them choose their own solution.

Explain how to be a good teammate

Establish guidelines for communication. Students may not feel comfortable communicating their ideas. At the start, students may lack the skills to contribute effectively to a discussion. As explained in a research-based approach to group work, “Novices in our discipline may not have developed the critical-thinking habits that are second nature to us. One way to improve their learning is to prompt them to explain their answers to each other” (Hodges 2017). Providing guidelines for discussions, emphasizing that all students should be heard and modeling contributions to team discussions are worthwhile strategies.

Students may need instruction on how to be a productive team member. One technique might include asking teams during class time to create a team charter that explicitly states their norms, such as meeting times, communication methods, deadlines and strategies for handling conflict. At the end of the session, meet with each team individually and ask them to share their communication plan and address any questions.

Have students fill out peer evaluations. Peer evaluations provide valuable feedback to team members to help them correct their behavior and make more valuable contributions. TEAMMATES and CATME are two commonly used peer evaluation tools that help form groups and distribute rubrics and qualitative questions among peers. It is best practice to ask students to fill out peer evaluations twice during a long-term project. The first time should be mostly qualitative feedback for their team members to read anonymously, but the instructor can award points for completing the work. During the second round, instructors can ask students to assign a grade to their team members if desired. Duke’s Bass Connections has a helpful guide on peer evaluations and self-reflection.

Teaching methods that rely on teams

Some instructors decide to turn all classes (not just projects) into team exercises. In these flipped classrooms, students are responsible for learning course content prior to class, using assigned readings, videos or other preparatory material. The majority of class time is set aside to allow students to explore, expand on and actively apply the course content using directed activities designed to meet course learning objectives.

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach in which students work in teams on complex, realistic projects for several class sessions. The instructor’s role is to guide and facilitate while allowing the student teams to make key project decisions. Project-based learning (PBL) is an effective way for students to learn new material.

Team-based learning is a collaborative learning teaching strategy designed around units of instruction (referred to as modules) that are taught in a three-step cycle: preparation, in-class readiness assurance testing and application-focused exercise. Each class typically includes one module.

Collaborative Project Courses are courses in which student learning is driven by collaborative engagement (often in teams) with applied projects that extend across an entire semester. Duke’s Bass Connections has extensive guidance for creating this type of course.

Additional resources


Building Teamwork Process Skills in Students (Shannon Ciston, UC Berkeley)

Working with Student Teams (Bart Pursel, Penn State)

Ten Research-Based Steps for Effective Group Work (Hodges, L. 2017)

Team-based Learning (TBL)

Learn TBL (James Sibley, University of British Columbia)

Getting Started with Team-based Learning (Michaelsen, L.)

Project-based Learning (PBL)

PBL Works

A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning (Thomas, J. 2000)

Collaborative Project Courses

Course Design Resource Center