Learning in teams – full article

by Dr. Benno Volk and Pascal Schmidt

Learning in the social context of a group has many advantages. Team learning combines the diverse thought patterns and approaches of individuals and interactions between them, and harnesses these for deeper learning on the part of all group members. Addressing topics with peers, aids not only knowledge acquisition, but also fosters communication, reflection and teamworking skills, thus facilitating successful approaches to complex tasks and issues (Bialik et al., 2015). Here learning in teams promotes the key competences of the 21st century (Fadel, Billig & Trilling, 2015). Today the ability to cooperate and communicate in a team is regarded globally as a central competence, in both the professional and academic worlds. The increasingly complex social, political, economic and ecological challenges of the modern world can mostly only be addressed and managed by functioning interdisciplinary teams. From the didactic perspective, group work, project work and teamwork also foster the learning success of all participants and are an important component in the future employability of students.

If learning in teams in the form of project work or group work is to deliver the desired results, forward-thinking didactic planning and detailed organisation by the instructor are necessary. The following three aspects are central. First, the composition of groups must be expedient and appropriate to the task, e.g. in terms of the level of knowledge and competences required, personal skills and knowledge of methodology, and interdisciplinarity.

Second, adequate supervision of group work is also important. Here the instructor must have knowledge of group dynamics and team phases. Third, clear documentation and the sharing of results among individual groups are decisive for the learning success and sustainable learning processes of all students on the course. The instructor must decide per case which of the above aspects is the most relevant and which will contribute the most to team learning.

Composition of groups

In forming groups, aspects such as the previous knowledge, individual skills and social competences of prospective group members may be relevant. A possible goal may be to explicitly mirror the diversity of course participants in every group, in terms of gender, origins and disciplines. The roles played by students in a team should be determined in advance by assigning clear tasks and responsibilities. The distribution of responsibilities in a team-based learning context itself fosters students’ personal, self-regulating learning processes (Stein, Colyer & Manning, 2016). There are various, partly contradictory approaches to deciding how to allocate team roles. The nine team roles defined by Meredith Belbin (2010) are relatively well known and explained in detail. To allocate student roles objectively, allocation should, according to Belbin, be based on a competence test or self-assessment via a questionnaire and subsequent feedback from independent observers. This type of team building is, however, seldom used in university teaching due to limited resources. In contrast, other authors such as Mitch McCrimmon (1995) believe, that excessively strict role allocation can make it harder for group members to spontaneously deal with conflict, be creativite and problem-solve. In the end, it is the job of the instructor to determine whether team roles are expedient and what they should be in the context of the learning objectives, the theme and the extent of group work.

High-Quality tasks and supervision

In task-setting, the high quality and relevance of the theme or issue are not the only significant aspects. Time and spatial resources, relevant information sources, and a range of other aids must also be ensured (Whitley et al., 2015). Learning in teams is usually linked with students’ deep immersion in the theme, and therefore individual working steps, as described in Tuckman’s stages of group development, should be elaborated in detail for everyone (Tuckman, 1965). Detailed written instructions and a description of basic parameters (sources, locations, times, results expected) help to catch misunderstandings early, thus avoiding the associated bad feeling and loss of efficiency.

The supervision of teamwork represents a further challenge for teaching staff, because the role of “guide on the side” implies an approach which is different to that of traditional learning settings (Dierolf, 2014; Hanover Research, 2015; The University of Florida, 2016). To avoid influencing individual groups unduly and to guarantee fairness and comparability of student performance, support for groups must be situation-specific and appropriate. Group work results, or the group work process, should not (as often happens) be evaluated by the person responsible for group supervision, as this can distort student performance.

Sharing of results and documentation

The third aspect central to team-based learning is ongoing compilation of results and discussion of these with all students in plenum. This requires advance planning, with the goal of adding value for all and generating a motivating and sustainable effect. This positive effect can be reinforced with a poster exhibition or presentations of group findings to an audience. A question-and-answer session to deepen participant knowledge and stimulate reflection is also recommended. Even if group work, teamwork or project work involves much effort on the part of instructors before a course actually happens, it saves time in the end because the responsibility of teaching no longer rests entirely on the input of the instructor.

In any case the exact planning and organisation of social learning scenarios is well worth it, to guarantee maximum learning success and positive results for all students.




Belbin, M. (2010). Management Teams. Why they succeed or fail. 3rd edition, New York: Routledge

Bialik, M.; Bogan, M.; Fadel, C. & Horvathova, M. (2015). Education for the 21st Century. Boston: Center for Curriculum Redesign

Dierolf, K. (2014). Solution-Focused Team Coaching. Bad Homburg: SolutionsAcademy

Fadel, C.; Billig, M. & Trilling, B. (2015). Four-Dimensional Education. The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed. Boston: Center for Curriculum Redesign

Hanover Research (2015). Best practices in instructional coaching. Arlington, VA: Hanover Research. Available online at https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/Best%20Practices%20in%20Instructional%20Coaching%20-%20Iowa%20Area%20Education%20Agencies.pdf

McCrimmon, M. (1995). Teams without roles: empowering teams for greater creativity. In: Journal of Management Development, Vol. 14, Issue: 6, pp.35-41. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1108/02621719510086165

Stein, R. E., Colyer, C. J. & Manning, J. (2016). Student Accountability in Team-based Learning Classes. In: Teaching Sociology, Vol. 44, Issue 1, pp.28–38. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X15603429

The University of Florida, Lastinger Center for Learning, Learning Forward, & Public Impact. (2016). Coaching for impact. Six pillars to create coaching roles that achieve their potential to improve teaching and learning. Gainesville: University of Florida. Available online at https://learningforward.org/docs/default-source/pdf/coaching-for-impact.pdf

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. In: Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 63, Issue 6, pp. 384–399. Available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0022100

Whitley, H.P.; Bell, E.; Eng, M.; Fuentes, D.G.; Helms, K.L.; Maki, E.D. & Vyas D. (2015). Practical Team-Based Learning from Planning to Implementation. In: American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, Vol. 79, Issue 10, Article 149. Available online at https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe7910149