Col-Lab: Designing Group Experiences to Build Smarter Teams

Col-Lab: Designing Group Experiences to Build Smarter Teams

“How many of you took that class in high school about how to collaborate well with others?” Jesse Harris asked one recent Friday during his workshop.  The silence around the room and Harris’ suggestive smile told us we might finally get that class.

Why is it that some groups work really well together while others leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed? Harris designed a two-day workshop where participants discover the ins and outs of group work firsthand so that they can develop dynamics to produce optimal results.

Particpants compare notes at the workshop.“Collaboration is challenging, beneficial, and must be engineered in order to be successful," says Harris.

His workshop covers the phases of small group development, why some teams are more successful than others, and how to engineer teams for maximum success.  

Harris is a graduate student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Learning, Design, and Technology program, studying collaboration, teamwork, and online learning. He is also able to draw from experience gained from over ten years in corporate learning and development. But this workshop isn’t about taking his word for it.

Says Harris, "It's not me giving out tips like, 'These are the best practices.'  In this experiential workshop, you get your hands dirty and learn by doing."  

The format of this immersive experience allows for discovering different aspects of group work dynamics. On day one, participants form groups to design a solution to a particular challenge inherent to group work. Some examples might be:

  • How do we make sure that all the group mates are contributing equally?
  • How do I find compatible partners?
  • How do I hold people accountable to deadlines?
  • Who claims which contributions?
  • How tight should collaboration be?
  • How many people should be in a group?

Participants will then present these interventions during the second session, keeping in mind the goal of the workshop: to take a design approach to engineering effective group dynamics.  

“We'll use design thinking, role playing, brainstorming, Post-Its, and other creative tools to explore frameworks and useful approaches for team formation, setting goals and expectations, managing conflict, and evaluating team performance,” Harris explains.

The first day of the workshop, I saw all of this put into motion.  The workshop was fast-paced, and we did a number of activities, but allow me to highlight just one of them below.


In groups of three or four, we followed Harris' instructions to write on three Post-It notes in the following manner:

Note #1: What is one behavior that can be really annoying to you in group?

Note #2: What is one behavior that you quite like in a group member?

Note #3: What do you think you do well as a group member?

Then we all flipped the notes upside down and pooled them in the middle of the table. "Take one, read it, and keep it to yourself. Now, as a group, I want you to come up with a team name, and as you work, each person  should enact the behavior described on your note."

List of pain points.For many of the groups, dysfunction ensued, while for others, creative names seemed to be coming up right and left. The debrief after this activity gave us welcomed catharsis as well as an opportunity to talk about what potential hang-ups might be for our group members. While reminding us that conflict can be an opportunity for group growth, this activity also provided us structure to brainstorm some group norms that might address these issues should the arise in the group's future.

Who should design group membership?

One common challenge facing teachers at all levels is deciding how to form groups.  In the workshop Harris quickly outlined three ways that groups are typically formed in the classroom and what research has shown about each one:

  1. Randomly-Formed Groups - The research shows that this approach does not optimize results, at least by most measures.

  2. Student-Formed Groups - By letting students form their own groups, you can optimize attitudes regarding the task at hand. Students feel empowered by being able to make their own selections.

  3. Teacher-Formed Groups - Research shows that thoughtfully selected groups can optimize group output. ("Work with somebody not in your major" or "Work with somebody you have never worked with before" don't really count.) With some care, teachers can provide a curated group learning experience.

These three modes of group formation are not mutually exclusive, of course. In fact, Harris advocates for teachers to give students agency to form their own groups as long as they are provided careful scaffolding by the instructor.

Radar Graph (Harris' Scaffolding Prototype)

Two radar graphs side by side.As an example of a prototype designed to address the challenge of group formation, Harris designed the Radar Graph, which is a circle with several preferences regarding group work along its circumference. At the top of the page, it reads, "I like completing assignments..." Each participant fills out this self-evaluation by marking where he or she would fall along each continuum. For example, "I like completing assignments ASAP" would be one extreme on the continuum for preferred timelines for completion. We marked off five points on the radar graph and then connected the dots. This allowed us to put our radar graphs together and quickly and easily compare compatibility. An additional chart at the bottom outlining availability was similarly designed to compute schedule compatibility.

"It's interesting as an icebreaker," one participant observed. Indeed, it gave each of us a reason to approach a total stranger and feel out whether or not we would work well together. It also helped us identify where problem areas might be, so that we could then agree on some common norms to address those issues.

Next week, in part two of the workshop, students will pitch their own prototypes designed to tackle group work challenges.

What are some ways you have found to successfully engineer group dynamics in the classroom?

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