Getting groups started
In this unit
This unit includes suggestions for helping groups start off on the "right foot". It will cover a range of team-building exercises that will help your students:
- get acquainted with their fellow group members
- develop ground rules and norms for their groups
- learn how to work cooperatively
Why use group exercises?
After groups have been formed, students are usually expected to begin working together. For many lecturers, there is an assumption that students know how to work cooperatively from their very first meeting. Unfortunately, most students find their first few meetings difficult to run. Rather than let groups struggle, it is advisable that their first few meetings are structured. An effective way to do this is to use a number of team-building exercises. The main aims of these exercises are to:
- open communication channels within the group
- facilitate the sharing of information and expectations between group members
- encourage the social bonding process
By serving these aims, these exercises will help group members:
- get acquainted with each other
- participate in the group's opening exchanges
- feel comfortable with each other
- begin trusting each other
This unit will also discuss some techniques to help students organise and run their group meetings.
What team-building exercises could I use?
Most of the team-building exercises available to facilitate group work fall under three broad categories: 1) getting acquainted exercises, 2) norming exercises and 3) ice-breaking games.
Getting acquainted exercises
As the name suggests, these exercises help group members get to know each other. When students first meet, most do not like to ask too many questions. Furthermore, most students tend only to make "small talk" (eg. where do you work?). While this information is useful, students tend not to ask questions related to the group work ahead of them. For example, students rarely discuss issues such as the mark each hopes to achieve or their likes and dislikes of group work. All too often, students unfortunately find out this information the hard way. The point of these exercises is to encourage students to discuss these issues early, so as to avoid the simple misunderstandings which often result in conflict.
While there are many "getting acquainted" exercises available, most have been designed for organisational work groups (ie. work teams). As such, many are not fully applicable to student-based groups who have limited class time available to run group exercises (ie. most tutorials are only 1 hour long). The Institute for Interactive Media and Learning (IML) at UTS has addressed this issue by designing an exercise specifically to help students get acquainted with their fellow group members. This exercise requires members to interview each other on set questions which allow students to discuss issues such as their strengths and weaknesses as a group participant and their likes and dislikes of group work. By the end of the exercise, students will have developed a much better understanding of their fellow group members. The information required to run this exercise (called "Getting to know you") can be downloaded. You should run this exercise in the group's first formal meeting (eg. straight after your groups have been formed).
The main aim of these team-building exercises is to help group members develop a shared understanding of how their groups will operate. Groups always work more effectively when they have set some common goals and ground rules. Unfortunately, many students fail toexplicitly discuss this information and often "pay the price" some time later. It is therefore crucial that group members communicate their expectations to each other as early as possible. It is far easier to deal with mismatched expectations before, rather than after, they have come into play.
Despite their importance, students rarely express their expectations to each other. Whilst most would like to, they often need a little encouragement to do so. This is where a norming exercise is most useful. In general, norming exercises are those where groups are required to discuss and document what they will be doing and how they will go about doing it. Examples of such exercises are those where groups make a mission or vision statement, an agreement or contract. Their purpose is not to make something "legally binding", but rather to produce a document that has emerged through discussion and agreement. It is the act of producing the document that is crucial in the norming exercise. The content of this document is an added bonus.
Most team-building books contain at least one norming exercise. As most of these exercises have once again been designed for industry teams, they are often not fully applicable to student project groups. One exercise by Federman Stein and Hurd (2000), that has been specifically designed for student groups, is a little too long for student groups at UTS. Rather than devise an alternative, IML has adapted Federman Stein and Hurd's (2000) charter exercise so it can be run within a shorter time frame (ie approximately 30 minutes). In this exercise, groups are required to collectively answer questions dealing with ground rules (eg. where and when will meetings be conducted) and goals. Groups are then able to use this document as a point of reference to help keep them on track and to manage any minor disputes which may arise. The information required to run this exercise (called the "Charter exercise") can be downloaded. It is advisable to run this exercise in the group's second formal meeting. However, it can be run in the their first meeting (along with, but after the "Getting to know you" exercise) if time permits.
Another type of team-building exercise is the ice-breaking game. Primarily, their purpose is to encourage interaction between group members. This is usually achieved by making the group's task engaging and fun for participants. Whilst they aim to "ice break", they are also designed to help group members bond and gain experience working together.
Unlike the getting acquainted and norming exercises discussed earlier, most ice-breaking games are generic and apply to both work teams and student groups. This means there are a large number of such games available to use. Quite often, it is the more "hands on" games which are the most popular with students (particularly undergraduates). These games usually require groups to build a structure together from items such as cardboard boxes, string and masking tape.
In Federman Stein and Hurd's (2000) book, the authors suggest a number of "hands on" games which can be run with student groups. Their tower building activity (where groups are required to build the tallest tower from drinking straws and masking tape), is probably the easiest to run within the least amount of time. The instructions offered by Federman Stein and Hurd (2000), however, are a little unclear about the materials needed. Once again, IML has adapted this exercise to make it more "user friendly" for UTS staff. The information required to run this exercise (called the "Tower building exercise") can be downloaded. We recommend that you run this exercise in the first few weeks of the group's life. It is best run straight after one of the previously mentioned exercises (ie. the "Getting to know you" or the "Charter exercise"). It can also be run as a "stand alone" exercise if needed. If so, it should be run after groups have participated in the other two exercises.
Helping students manage their group meetings
For groups to be effective, they must have regular and productive meetings. Group members need to know what their fellow members are thinking and doing on the assignment. For this to occur, it is important that groups have open communication and stay task focused as much as possible. It is very easy for groups to avoid making decisions and let valuable time slip away. On average, groups will meet once a week for approximately one hour. This meeting usually takes place straight before or after class. Due to their short time frame (ie. usually one semester), groups may only meet around 15 times throughout the semester. It is therefore crucial that each of these meetings is productive. To help this to occur, it is often beneficial for students to take minutes in their meetings and adopt a rotating role structure.
An effective way to help students run effective meetings is for groups to take some form of minutes. Keeping minutes helps a group by:
- providing a structure to their meetings
- keeping meetings running to time
- keeping a record of decisions made and documenting important events
- recording each member's responsibilities
- allowing members to see their progress and achievements over time
While minute taking can be effective, many students (particularly first year undergraduates) do not know how to keep them. Federman Stein and Hurd (2000) has addressed this concern by providing students with a meeting report template. This template is easy to complete and covers key areas of an effective meeting. An adapted version of this template has been produced by IML and can be downloaded. It is recommended that groups receive a copy of this template before each meeting (or in bulk at the beginning of the semester). It is also advisable for students to keep copies of these minutes sheets for their own records. These copies are particularly useful for students if they are required to keep a reflective journal as part of their group assignment (see Unit 7: Helping Students Reflect on their Group Experience).
Adopting a rotating role structure
One of the biggest problems in student-based group work is the existence of equal status (ie. each member having the same power in the group). When equal status groups meet, an informal pattern of leadership and followership will emerge almost immediately. Unfortunately, the adoption of leadership tends to be driven more by personality and often results in conflict (particularly if there is more than one dominant student in the group). Rather than let the leadership role(s) emerge, it is far better for groups to adopt a rotating role structure.
A rotating role structure is one where the position of leadership is deconstructed and distributed or shared among the group members (rather than being bestowed on any one member). This means that all group members are responsible for a specific function or leadership duty and thus tend to be more active in group meetings. This is particularly true for students who tend to speak up less in groups (eg. through shyness, cultural norms, etc.), as they have the positional power to enact the roles.
There are a number of functional role typologies available. The most generic comprises these five roles:
- "Facilitator" - who is responsible for chairing the meeting
- "Time keeper" - who ensures that the meeting keeps to time
- "Recorder/notetaker" - who is responsible for taking the minutes of the meeting
- "Devil advocate" - who is responsible for critically examining the ideas of the group members and trying to avoid "group think" emerging within the group
- "Team players" - who support the other roles through active followership
For group meetings to run effectively, it is important that these five roles are played. Rather than allowing them to emerge or be picked, it is best if these roles are randomly assigned in the first meeting and then rotated on a regular basis (eg. weekly or fortnightly). By rotating the roles, each student has the opportunity to develop skills in each role and observe it being played by the other members. Students should also be encouraged to provide each other with feedback so as to encourage peer-learning.
Options to consider
- Keep a copy of each group's charter. It may help resolve some of the many sources of conflict which arise in student groups.
- It is important for students to know why they are doing a group exercise. Point out the learning objectives before and after you run the exercise.
- Ice-breaking games work best when there is a little prize for groups. A small bag of M&M's works well!
- Ice-breaking games can be used any time during the group's life. They are often effective in the latter stages of the group's life because they work as a "tension release", allowing the group to work together on something other than their group assignment.
- If you need a short exercise, try giving groups a brain teaser puzzle or riddle to solve (you can find lots of brain teasers on the internet). Alternatively, you could also run your own trivia quiz either as a "one off" session or as an ongoing competition
- It is possible to use the adoption of roles (ie. how well students played each role) to derive a peer-assessed mark for the group assignment. For example, these roles can be used as part of the peer-assessment criteria in SPARK (discussed in Unit 6: Assessing Groups).
Where can I find more team-building exercises?
UTS library has a large collection of books which contain team-building exercises. These include:
- Parker, G. M., & Kropp, R. P. (1992). 50 Activities for Teambuilding. HRD Press: Amherst, MA (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/PARK/).
- Michalak, B., Fischer, S., & Voehl, F. (1994). Experiential Activities for High Performance Teamwork. HRD Press: Amherst, MA (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/MICH).
- Mears, P., & Voehl, F. (1994). Teambuilding: A Structured Learning Approach. St. Lucie Press: Delray Beach, FL. (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/MEAR).
- Francis, D., & Young, D. (1992). Improving Work Groups: A Practical Manual for Team Building. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. (UTS Call No.: City 658.3128/FRAN).
- Harshman, C., & Phillips, S. (1996). Team Training: From Startup to High Performance. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY (UTS Call No.: City 658.3124/HARS).
UTS also holds the serial called the Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators (UTS Call No.: City 158.2/20) which is an excellent source for team-building exercises.
Federman Stein, R., & Hurd, S. (2000). Using Student Teams in the Classroom: A Faculty Guide. Anker: Boston, MA.