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Team Assignments – When Two Plus Two is Really Four

Dear teachers, tutors, and professors. I am sorry, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. Similarly, there is no such thing as “magical synergy during team projects”. Just – no. Trust me.

Team assignments are the second worst invention one sometimes involuntarily encounters (beaten only by Hannah Montana games – no, really). The idea that “if you put students together, it will make it easier for them to come up with amazing ideas and enable them to do more than each person individually” is unrealistic at best. It would work only under very specific conditions, namely that:

a) all students are equally motivated to do the assignment (i.e. you don´t have one hard-working student and three slackers)

b) all students are equally skilled (i.e. you don´t have three students with an average of D and one with an average of A+) and

c) the group actually works as a team (i.e. you don´t have four control-freaks who prefer to do everything on their own and then be accountable for their own mistakes)

Unfortunately, these conditions rarely hold in real life. So, in contrast to what many teachers believe, 2+2 is not “5” (yes, I am counting the extra magical synergy/creativity/what-have-you), but can be equal to 1, or 2 – if you are lucky (depends on how many ambitious students that particular group has).

However, there IS a way out for all those unhappy high-flyers who always did the team assignments on their own because “they had a terrible team”: It is called “division of labour”. Let me give you three simple steps how NOT to do a whole project alone:

1. Find a (reasonably) good team. Find either smart people, or at least the hard-working ones. Avoid party-goers, irresponsible guys and demotivated do-nothings.

2. Divide (and rule). Split work evenly, try to give everybody a part he or she feels comfortable with (i.e. do not force someone who hates maths to calculate monopoly profits or do not force a shy IT-guy to prepare a presentation). Make sure you control if people do what they were assigned in a timely manner, so that you don´t have to redo something in a rush just because somebody forgot.

3. Meet before the deadline, put everything together, all people check that all parts are of good quality. If you are all happy, submit it; otherwise correct it together.

There. Done. You might not get the mystical “creativity boost” in this way, but at least you won´t have to carry the world (project) all on your shoulders. Good luck!

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Posted by on 23 September, 2012 in Education

 

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The Tragedy of TeamWork

Continually do our professors lecture us on the importance of teamwork. The whole theory that “if you learn how to get on with others while doing a project, you will have it easier at work” however, hinges on the assumption that teamwork is actually carried out by the whole team. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Do not get me wrong. I am not against the idea of teamwork. I actually think that – in theory – teamwork is much more efficient than the same number of individuals working on their own (preparation sessions of the Czech National Debate Team before debate tournaments come to my mind with a touch of nostalgia…), but needs one specific prerequisite: These individuals have to be (at least roughly) motivated to the same extent and equally skilled.

Why? Consider a situation when one ambitious control freak who is used to doing everything perfectly is forced to work with five other people who a) do not have the slightest idea what to do, b) do not care about the issue at all or – worst of all – c) are both clueless and careless. The result is that instead of sharing the burden, the control freak does this assignment more or less on his or her own (or redoes parts done by others because they are of inferior quality), resulting in frustration on one side and plain free-riding on the other. And now imagine that the result of this assignment is directly tied to grades or pay, i.e. when feckless people get benefits for simply being lucky in having someone to do the project for them…

Real-life example: For one particular course we were supposed to submit papers in pairs. My “teammate” sent me a “draft” of our “paper” (quotation marks intentional) that horrified me. I was nowhere close to an argumentative essay: He just randomly mentioned some points (who cares about structure, obviously), wrote a feeble conclusion and failed to mention his sources of information. Needless to say, I was furious and had to rewrite the whole thing. So after we get our grade, he will get the same one as me, although his contribution will be close to zero – and the professor will never know who actually wrote the essay. If this is not unfair, I wonder what is.

A daring question: Shouldn´t a university degree be awarded to individuals who managed to not only pass the exams, but also demonstrated some academic skills? A logical follow-up suggestion: Drop the team assignments at the university (especially in the first year) to force people to prove that they “deserve” that shiny Diploma.

 
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Posted by on 5 March, 2012 in Education, Entrepreneurship

 

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