June 5, 2020

New team-training and assessment research helps students develop essential competencies for career readiness

UCalgary Teaching Scholars, led by Thomas O’Neill, develop teamwork research with real applications in today’s classrooms

Students need to be equipped with foundational teamwork skills to succeed in increasingly fluid and collaborative workplaces post-graduation. Employers consistently rate teamwork as an essential competency for career readiness, and research shows that collaborative learning has many benefits, including improved self-esteem, engagement, learning and achievement.

Teamwork, however, can also be a source of frustration. Social loafing — the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group — and unequal distribution of labour are common team problems, in both academic and professional settings.

  • Photo above: Integrating team feedback into grading has a big impact on how students perform in teams. 2019 photo by Tania Losev

New comprehensive research from a University of Calgary Teaching Scholars project shows that like any other skill, the ability to work well in teams can be enhanced through experience and training, and especially through feedback on personality and conflict management styles.

Led by Dr. Tom O’Neill, PhD (Department of Psychology), the group of scholars includes Dr. Melissa Boyce, PhD (Department of Psychology), Dr. Marjan Eggermont, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering) and Dr. Denis Onen, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering). Dr. Matt McLarnon, PhD later joined the group as part of a sub-project to support the statistical analysis of the complex multi-level, multi-cohort design. 

Tying team results to individual accountability

The team designed an experiment in PYSC 203 to examine the effectiveness of student accountability as a possible mechanism to maximize gains of teamwork while minimizing sources of team conflict.

Students reported enhanced teamwork on all measures taken. They noted that their teams were more potent, had higher standards, were more focused and had a stronger foundation of knowledge, skills and abilities.

The team was able to increase student engagement and satisfaction with their learning by identifying and incorporating individual accountability as an important predictor of successful teamwork. It was found to improve team satisfaction, commitment and learning. In other words, peer feedback can significantly improve individual effort and team productivity — when it’s tied to grades.

The researchers leveraged itpmetrics.com, an online team assessment tool developed in the Individual and Team Performance (ITP) Lab, led by O’Neill.

Tom O'Neill

O'Neill is a UCalgary Teaching Scholar and lead researcher from the ITP Lab.

Adrian Shellard

Applying research-based teamwork tools in the classroom

Itpmetrics.com is a research-informed online platform that is suitable for use in both professional and educational contexts. It includes assessments for team health, peer feedback, conflict management styles, leadership and personality, and provides comprehensive resources for instructors to learn how to effectively use the tool. More than 200,000 (non-unique) assessments have been generated since it launched in 2013.

“Incorporating these tools into my teaching and others’ teaching has helped thousands of students improve on their learning and development as well as equipped them with attributes and skills needed for jobs post-graduation,” says O’Neill.

This sentiment is echoed by Houston Peschl, an instructor from the Haskayne School of Business. Peschl has used the tool for several years in ENTI 317: Entrepreneurial Thinking, a mandatory second-year business course for 800 undergraduate students. In the course, 140 teams of five students per team are formed. Teams are required to develop an innovative business idea to pitch to investors and qualify for the RBC fast pitch competition at the end of the year.

Peschl says the tool “provided structure and guidance for the students to self-reflect and have meaningful conversations around being an effective team member.” 

Future teaching and learning research blends team-based decision-making with neuroscience

One of the most important — and unexpected — results of the Teaching Scholars program is how it creates opportunities for the cross-dissemination of ideas around teaching and learning between faculty members from diverse disciplines. Through the program, O’Neill is now collaborating with Dr. Kent Hecker, PhD, an associate professor from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in a cutting-edge project that explores brain activity associated with team decision-making through the use of hyperscanning — a method where multiple subjects can interact with others while their brains are simultaneously scanned using electroencephalography (EEG).

Learn more about the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning and its priorities for 2020-25 here.