Campus: University of Washington 

2. Teamwork and Lifelong Learning

Educator: Jim Borgford-Parnell, Associate Director and Instructional Consultant, Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching
Context: In-class; Engineering courses with team projects
Keywords: teams, capstone/cornerstone, lifelong learning
Student Activity Time: 50–80-minute class session

In a capstone design course, students were in engaged in a workshop on teamwork and lifelong learning skills.

Introducing the Reflection Activity

Many educators want to equip their students with the skills to address challenges that commonly arise in teamwork activities. This educator has been invited into various engineering courses to facilitate a one-class workshop that leveraged students’ past team experiences as a method to assist students in thinking as a lifelong learner and an engineer. The purpose of this activity was to help students to identify and use lifelong learning skills to improve engineering team experiences.

The educator was invited to facilitate a workshop early in the academic term (but after students have been assigned to their teams) to address teamwork and the common issues that can debilitate student team progress or success. During the one-class workshop, students were introduced to three components of an effective learning cycle: retention of knowledge, transferability of knowledge, and accessibility of knowledge. In the presentation, the educator discussed how retaining knowledge, recalling it in various contexts, and identifying key access points is a critical skill for engineers who will work in dynamic teams throughout their careers. Students are familiar with the challenge of retaining knowledge between academic terms, so the educator introduces this experience as a first step to being an effective learner and team member. Second, transferability addresses the complex environments in which engineers will eventually work. Students are prompted to think about how their coursework and the knowledge that they have retained is relevant in many contexts, even unfamiliar contexts. Access points, also called “RE points” (“re-”, being a prefix that means to go back) are ways to help students recall past experiences and frame lessons learned in a new context. In order to use access points, students are provided a list of words starting with “re-” that help to describe the kind of learning that can occur when their knowledge is accessed. They include words such as remember and the more powerful reflect, which enables them to reveal, resolve, revise, and relate as examples to help them bridge their past experiences to the current context. The RE points are emphasized, because they provide opportunities to explore prior knowledge and build on it with new contextual information. Working in teams provides myriad rich RE points.

After the educator explained the model and its purpose in using prior knowledge, monitoring one’s own understanding, and the value of multiple perspectives, the reflection activity was introduced.  On their own, students were instructed to recall and reflect on their past team experiences, and list the characteristics of exemplary team members. After a short period of time to create their list, students were asked to convene in their actual teams to debrief and come to a consensus of a list of exemplary team member characteristics. Each team was then asked to report out their list to the class. Next, the educator prompted students to individually list characteristics of terrible team members on their own. Again, after a short period of time, the students reconvened with their teams to discuss. Each team then reported their consensus of terrible team member characteristics to the class. In a class discussion, the educator asked students to share how the exercise of developing a list of exemplary team member activities was helpful for the team or their own learning.

Although the in-workshop discussions appear to help team members get on the same page about what they expect of each other for successful teamwork, the educator does some additional work to tie the reflections to the students’ upcoming team project. After the workshop session, each team emailed the educator their consensus lists, and the educator used them as a basis for producing team member peer assessment forms. The educator took each consensus item (good/bad characteristics of team members) and reworded it into a criterion for the team members to assess each other on.

As a result of this activity, the educator reported a dramatic decrease of team issues that impact project success. Students reported that when issues arise within the team, having the criteria for assessing team members helped to neutralize what would normally be an emotionally charged situation.

 Recreating the Reflection Activity

Step Description
1 Ensure that students are already assigned to the team that they will work with throughout the project.
2 Facilitate conversation about learning and teamwork in the class, invoking the concepts of retention, transferability, and accessibility.
3 Give students the individual assignment of listing exemplary team member characteristics, then allow students to convene with their teams to develop a list, and report out to the class.
4 Facilitate a discussion about which exemplary team member characteristics help other team members learn and team success.
5 Give students the individual assignment of listing terrible team member characteristics, then allow students to convene with their teams to develop a list, and report out to the class.
6 Debrief the conversation of teaming and lifelong learning.
7 Return each team’s list of characteristics of exemplary and terrible team member characteristics as a set of criteria for team members to assess each other on.
In the words of the Educator: Tips and Inspiration

Get students to share their experiences. Part of the activity is getting the students to reflect and draw some lessons from their experiences, but the second part is to get them to talk to other people about those lessons. That process really helps them to make meaning of their past experiences. You know that the students are really focused on the assignment, and less focused on what they are learning or how they will make sure that everyone else is learning. That’s really the point of doing team activities. Getting them to recall good and bad experiences and connect them in a different way by setting up their team’s social norms, helps them to practice the kind of learning that they need to do in a capstone course. 

Start with individual responses and exemplary characteristics. In the exercise, my goal is to get students to reflect and draw some lessons from their experiences. First, you have to give them time to think on their own and remember those experiences. Accessing memories of good team member characteristics are harder to recall, mostly because there isn’t usually a powerful emotion attached to those experiences. I like to point out how loud the exercise gets when they’re discussing past terrible experiences because they all have them and they are really memorable. It’s also important to remind them that remembering those experiences and attaching them to new meaning, the peer participation form; it can become a powerful way of learning.

What was the inspiration for the reflection activity? The purpose of the workshop is to help both the student and the professor with team activities. When you’re on a team with a bunch of other professionals as an engineer, your part is to know and contribute something specific. Sometimes that means being able to recall something you’ve learned as a student, and you have to quickly recall it. I’ve never been asked to do a workshop for students on learning, and that’s really central to being a great team member. Once teams understand learning, and take control of their learning they can become better team members as well. After I’ve done this workshop, students and faculty completely understand the importance of teamwork to a lifetime of learning. Teamwork experiences are possibly the most powerful learning situations that engineers will ever be in with other people. If they are going to be successful engineers they need to continue to learn.

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