Making teams work in higher ed

Teams are more interdependent than ever before, yet teamwork remains one of the great struggles
By: | Issue: November, 2018
October 23, 2018

At Saint Leo University in Florida, Jeff D. Borden brings ideas, strategies and philosophies to transform learning at scale. He is also executive director for the Institute for Inter-Connected Education (iceinstitute.org) as well as CAO for Campus—a product that provided the “glue” for the system he built at Saint Leo. He provides practical, researched, intentional strategies for changing learning. Borden has been trying to make ‘“earning innovation” happen for more than two decades. He believes strongly in teaching college students how to work in teams, thereby empowering tomorrow’s employees and managers today.

Borden will be a speaker at UBTech 2019, June 10-12, in Orlando, Fla.


Got a tech story to tell? Present at UBTech 2019.


What role do teams play in education?

Teams don’t play the role they should. They don’t have to be a dreaded experience. As educators, we need to provide a platform for group work success. When we work in groups, we’re essentially doing work in parallel, not work that one person is dependent on the other person to finish so they can finish.

Group work is difficult to grade and assess. To give four people a grade based on one product is hard for instructors, who prefer to know how much work individuals put in. As a result, groups are usually leveraged only 17 to 20 percent of the time in school.

In the workforce, graduates will likely be in a group 85 to 90 percent of the time.

How can we teach students to work in teams?

Instructors get frustrated because students don’t know how to be team members, leaders or gatekeepers. It’s a vicious cycle. It would be beneficial to look at developing a curriculum for a four-year or two-year experience.

Students begin by learning about interdependence, then about how to lead a team, then about how to be a member of a team and so on, building or “scaffolding” on those early experiences, with a strong grasp of what it is to be a teammate.

What advice can you offer educators?

Educators need to have a better understanding of teamwork. Most instructors didn’t have this kind of education when they were in school, so the onus has to be on them to find out about the 28 roles that make up a team.

Look at how teams are utilized in effective companies, or even in government. When comparing a successful team with an unsuccessful team, process is the underpinning.

Project management alone could make a heap of difference in an educational context. Educators can create a team with a leader, a project manager, an editor and a reviser. Students need structure and framework.

Education is so steeped in tradition. It’s going to take a cultural shift, and that usually has to come down from a senior administrator, a provost, a president, a dean, a chair. It’s going to take some design thinking that, unfortunately, is rare in higher ed.

What role does technology play?

Technology offers fantastic structural support for teams. I leverage Trello. It’s free, and you can see what tasks are assigned to whom, when they are due and if they were accomplished on time. Trello is black and white.

Without technology, it ends up being a he-said, she-said situation. Students can look and see who did what and when they did it. They can see a player on their team who actually helped in ways that they weren’t required to.

The technology is an underpinning support mechanism that a lot of professors don’t utilize. They’re missing out.


Melissa Nicefaro is UBTech deputy program director.