A Berkeley College professor relies on five key elements that, when used together, target student engagement, like these people using teamwork at a whiteboard.

5 ways a team strategy helps boost student engagement

A Berkeley College professor relies on five key elements that, when used together, target student engagement

One of the unique challenges for many college educators is to design interesting yet effective pedagogies consistently—pedagogies that continue to pique student interest while also developing employment-ready skills.

While so many college educators continue to underutilize team projects for practical and other reasons, I have focused more of my teaching energy and knowledge of psychology over the last five years on how best to design manageable and interesting team projects.

Related content: 3 great ways to supercharge student engagement

Collaborative problem-solving is a skillset often desired by many employers, as evidenced by annual employer surveys. I have experimented with team debates, flipped classrooms, and case-study competitions, and through much trial and error in my psychology and social sciences courses, I have found five key elements or general principles to implement engaging team projects successfully. These five elements include challenge, choice, collaboration, accountability, and reward.

The benefits of implementing these five key principles have helped drive enrollment into my classes and led to some of my best educational outcomes, including higher weekly classroom engagement, higher course-level retention rates, higher student satisfaction course ratings, improved demonstrated student skill development, and closer, more positive peer-to-peer relationships among students.

Following is an example of how I have applied these five elements in a 15-week Human Relations course.

Principle 1: Create a student-centered team challenge. Based on feedback from our employer advisory boards, Human Relations is a required 3-credit liberal arts course for every Berkeley College undergraduate. In my version of this course, students are required to participate in a two-month team project called “Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work for Team Project,” worth 20 percent of the final grade. Two or three student teams select two organizations from the same industry from the annual Fortune’s 100 list. The teams compare and contrast how the organizations they selected address the American Psychological Association’s five psychologically healthy workplace categories (employee growth and development, employee involvement, work-life balance, health and safety, and employee recognition.)

Student teams must collaborate, research public information and conduct interviews with current employees, and present their slideshow during week 14 in front of a panel of guest judges. This team process phase, which includes the 20-30 minute slideshow presentation, is designed to help students apply and practice human relations skills while also learning about how some top-rated organizations take care of their employees. In my experience, career-focused students are intrinsically interested in this type of learning activity.

Principle 2: Allow students opportunities to exercise choices. Just like happy employees, happy students often feel more involved, in control, and interested in any learning activity when they get to make as many choices related to the project’s content and process. For this project, I have experimented with various student choice points, including how and when teams are assigned, which organizations are selected, how often student teams meet, how the presentation will be formatted, and how the grading rubric will be determined for the final project. Providing input from all members and making decisions collectively is one of the key responsibilities for cohesive teams. Likewise, faculty should always empower students to co-define the learning activity. Students with higher involvement in the design of the project also report higher student satisfaction, show more sustained interest and motivation, and perform better.

Principle 3: Provide structured collaboration and practice time. One of the challenges of any team project is having enough collaboration time, space, or practice time. A lesson I learned from failed team projects was the need to carve out at least 30 minutes each week of in-class time. You may have to sacrifice or shorten that awesome lecture you worked on so much. Students need this time to make decisions and to collaborate. During “team-time,” I am actively observing the team’s problem solving and live group dynamics. I also help structure the team’s use of collaboration apps and CANVAS tools. Allowing plenty of structured time helps the teams to build cohesion and trust and allow for proper planning. Another lesson I learned was to structure required presentation practice times. I require each team to practice privately in front of me at least once in the classroom, and I recommend another practice for each team outside of the classroom. The team performances improved dramatically and it was worth using the valuable class time during the weeks.

Principle 4: Establish mechanisms for peer feedback and accountability. In order to avoid the dreaded problem of “social loafing” among some team members, all students are informed that they can “fire” any student who fails to meet his or her responsibilities, consistently participate, or demonstrates disruptive human relations skills. Over a two-month period, each member of the team is required to submit a bi-weekly peer feedback form using the Microsoft FORMS link owned and managed by the professor. I ask students to share their private thoughts about the team’s research, the team processes, team strengths and challenges, and any at-risk students.

My students consistently have appreciated the fact that I empower their ability to hold their peers accountable. I notify the at-risk students in advance and give them the chance to respond to the team feedback. If the at-risk student takes no corrective action, two weeks prior to the final team presentation, all at-risk student members may be fired, based on a team vote with professor permission. I have witnessed this “firing” option in several sections of my Human Relations courses over the years. The result of this student accountability option has led to higher team morale, greater participation, and more transparency among members.

Provide 5: Reward student performance with creative incentives. I often look to television for inspiration to improve my classroom work. As seen in many of today’s popular reality TV shows like “The Voice,” “Shark Tank,” or “America’s Got Talent,” people seem to be highly engaged, entertained and interested in competitions in front of expert panels and audience members. Likewise, what happens when we make our classrooms like these game shows?

I started incorporating the use of guest judges to evaluate the final team projects. My guest judges have included fellow faculty members, staff members, former students, employers and alumni. I did not anticipate how much the guest judges were honored to be asked to come to my class or how much they loved the opportunity to engage with my students. I have also invited other students as audience members, and we have had departments donate food and beverages during the final team presentations. My job prior to the presentation is to get the student teams ready, and on presentation day, act as the host and timekeeper.

Whether it is from the social facilitation effect or the need for competition or just the chance of winning, the mere presence of new guest judges (and an audience) creates greater student motivation, interest, and a higher level of team performance relative to the mere presence of the professor alone. Finally, I sweeten the deal when I inform the students that the winning team as voted by the judges will be exempt from taking the final exam one week later. I wish there was a way to express the excitement in my students when they learn about the “No Final Exam” incentive for the winning team. Ironically, this project is really more like the “final exam,” based on the learning objectives of the human relations course. However, students seem so excited to avoid taking a final exam no matter how big or small it really is. Perception is the reality.

In conclusion, I have learned that student-centered, engaging team projects can work effectively, despite the risks of failure. Students will rise to challenge and respond well to challenging team tasks when they have some sense of control and choices, adequate planning and practice time, some accountability assurances, and amazing social and personal incentives to perform. I believe my willingness to open up my classroom to guests has led to greater rewards for my students, my colleagues, and my institution. I believe that other educators in a variety of disciplines can also design similar learning activities using these five key principles or elements.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool Media Contributors

Oops! We could not locate your form.