Case Study #1

Erika Pribanic-Smith, Department of Communication

Project Description

My goal was to determine if interventions to improve team cohesion through interpersonal communication would result in better team performance as measured by presentation cohesiveness on the final project. I conducted this assessment in a required course for all majors in the Department of Communication. Initial enrollment for the course was 123 students; four withdrew before the semester ended, and nine additional students stopped attending class but did not drop.

Each semester, students self-select into teams of 6-7 students on the first day of class. Students work in these teams throughout the semester on discussion exercises after lecture, team quizzes, and ultimately, a team presentation. In previous semesters, teams that communicated well with each other delivered excellent presentations, but most delivered the dreaded “patchwork project”; team members independently completed their tasks and then cobbled everything together at the last minute without knowing what others on the team were doing. Furthermore, Student Feedback Surveys indicated that a few students loved the team aspect of the course, but many hated it.

Employing team cohesion literature as well as Decision Emergence and Social Penetration theories, I hypothesized that developing stronger interpersonal ties among teammates via self-disclosure would assist in developing team cohesion, which in turn would motivate students to achieve team goals as a unit and keep each other accountable. I encouraged self-disclosure by developing discussion exercises that required students to come up with examples from their own lives for theoretical application. The disclosures grew more personal over the first half of the semester, starting with “Describe a situation in which you were misunderstood” (General Semantics Theory) and progressing to “Describe a situation in which someone shared your secret or you shared someone else’s” (Communication Privacy Management). A second intervention I employed to improve communication involved guided in-class team meetings, in which I assigned specific tasks related to the presentation assignment and provided instruction on the teamwork behaviors that should be exhibited at that stage of the project.

To measure team cohesion, students completed a team cohesion assessment survey (adapted from a Group Communication textbook’s team cohesion index) at four points during the semester: Week 2, Week 6, Week 10, and Week 14; the index consisted of 20 Likert-scale questions and one open-response question (“Is there anything you’d like to add?”). A Toastmasters list of criteria for group presentation cohesiveness was converted into a rubric for analyzing team performance on the final presentation.

Project Evaluation

Overall, the team cohesion assessment revealed a steady decline in team cohesion from the Week 2 survey to the Week 10 survey, then a spike between the Week 10 and Week 14 surveys. However, the literature recommends assessing team cohesion at both the individual level and the group level, and each level of analysis told a slightly different story in this project. The assessment survey included both individual-level and group-level questions, such that most individual-level questions (e.g., “I identify with the team and its members”) had a group-level counterpart (e.g., “Members of the team identify with the team”). The index of questions that gauged individual team members’ level of connection and commitment to the team demonstrated a relatively even measure of cohesion across the first three surveys with a slight bump in the second survey; the individual-level index rose sharply for the fourth survey. However, the index of questions that asked students to assess their fellow team members’ level of connection and commitment to the team sharply declined from Week 2 to Week 6, stayed nearly the same from Week 6 to Week 10, and then sharply rose by Week 14. In each survey, the individual-level index was higher than the group-level index, though the two indices were closer at Weeks 2 and 14 than in Weeks 6 and 10. (See figure below.)

Significantly, the Week 6 survey coincided with a presentation progress report deadline, and the Week 10 survey occurred around the deadline for teams’ presentation outlines. The open-ended responses at Week 10 in particular indicated that tensions were running high on teams in which students perceived their teammates were not doing their parts to complete the work. The Week 14 survey fell in the middle of presentations, and the overwhelming success of the presentations seems to have generated good will among most of the respondents.

Only one out of the 20 teams failed to score 100 percent on the presentation cohesiveness rubric, for an overall average of 96.4 percent (per Blackboard statistics). Nearly all of the presentations had good flow, consistent visuals (design of each PowerPoint slide), and consistent voice. In most cases, each teammate demonstrated knowledge of what each other teammate was doing. The presentations were tight and well-rehearsed. In short, most teams met the criteria for presentation cohesiveness. However, some went well beyond the Toastmasters criteria. Some teams coordinated their wardrobes; a few even coordinated the size and color of their notecards. Overall, with only one exception, the presentations were engaging and informative. Anecdotally speaking, they were the best presentations I have seen in my seven years teaching theory at UTA. A few even drew enthusiastic ovations from their peers.

Therefore, the class achieved the ultimate goal of cohesive team presentations, and despite dips in the middle, team cohesion was higher at the end of the semester than at the start. I do not believe the self-disclosure intervention affected team cohesion as anticipated, however. Reflections submitted the last week of the semester revealed that several students learned communication is a crucial part of effective teamwork, and some students even indicated that getting to know their teammates made a difference. I think much of that communication and bonding occurred outside of class, though. More significantly, because the team cohesion index increased amid successful presentations, team achievement affected team cohesion more than team cohesion affected team performance. I believe improved communication affected presentation cohesiveness directly rather than affecting team cohesion as a mediating factor.

Though a few students stubbornly insist that teamwork is terrible and they do better work on their own, the end-of-semester reflection responses were overwhelmingly positive, demonstrating that students found the teamwork experience this semester to be not only valuable but also enjoyable. Several students indicated they made close friends or at least expanded their campus network, and some said they loved the class because of their teams. (See responses to the teamwork reflection in Appendix A.)

In sum, I believe the project was successful, not only at improving the team presentations but also at improving most of my students’ ability to work in teams and their view of teamwork in an academic setting.

Despite the successes outlined above, some issues arose that limited the development of team cohesion in some teams and specifically hampered the self-disclosure intervention. These are issues I hope to address in future semesters:

  1. Several students were absent the first class, and a handful missed the whole first week. Therefore, some students were placed into groups that already had formed and were not able to self-select into teams, and a few of those students were vocal about disliking the teams to which I assigned them. Significantly, the one team that consisted entirely of people who first attended on the second day of class had a disastrous presentation, and direct communication with some of the students on that team revealed they never gelled.
  2. Attendance throughout the semester became an issue for multiple teams. Based on open-ended survey responses, some students who missed a lot of class did not bond with their teammates as much as students who did attend, and those students also missed a lot of the decision-making and task-planning for the presentation, so they were not as involved or invested in the project as other team members.
  3. Some teams did not fully and properly engage in the self-disclosure exercises. I eventually discovered that some teams skipped the discussion altogether and just had the person who was providing the real-life example write out the discussion report due at the end of class to save time. Therefore, the members of those teams weren’t learning about each other at all; they just treated the exercise as something they had to turn in for a participation grade. Furthermore, although a different person was supposed to provide an example each time so that everyone was disclosing about themselves, some groups had the same person sharing an example every time.
  4. Attrition occurred on a handful of teams as some students officially dropped the class or simply stopped coming. Two teams suffered severely; both began the semester with seven members, but one presented with three members at the semester’s end, and another ended the term with only two members. Those few teammates certainly bonded, but their view of the team experience was negative.

Future Direction

Given the general success of this project, I will continue emphasizing communication in future semesters. However, to overcome some of the issues I encountered this semester, I will make a few changes.

  1. I feel self-selection works great for the most part. However, I will shift team selection to the second day of class to reduce the number of students who are absent at the time of selection and do not get to select their own teams.
  2. I will monitor the self-disclosure exercises more closely to ensure that teams are a) actually discussing and b) distributing the self-disclosure across team members more evenly. Though it will make attendance record-keeping more difficult and eliminate a valuable check on students’ understanding of the concepts, I will consider doing away with the written report so that students are more focused on the discussion and not just submitting something for a grade.
  3. I will have more in-class team meetings. We only had three this semester, and they were in the last half-hour of quiz days because I knew most students would be present for the quizzes. Some students stated in their open-ended responses that coordinating schedules outside of class was difficult, though, and they wished we had some full class periods designated for team work. Therefore, I will work some full-class work days into the schedule next time. Deadline stress and failure of teammates to contribute seemed to hamper team cohesion more than anything else, but hopefully having more time to work together in person will increase participation in the project and decrease tension. Doing so in class also will give me more opportunity to guide their communication and teamwork behaviors.
  4. Some students still will skip class and fail to become a true part of the team or contribute meaningfully to the project. Therefore, I will do more to monitor and alleviate those situations earlier in the semester. Some teams exercised their ability to “fire” team members after the outline, but others didn’t realize or remember that was an option and complained that they presented with teammates who hadn’t contributed to the research and writing. Furthermore, teams only exercised the firing option after the outline was due; none did so earlier in the semester. I believe completing a large component of the project with dead weight increased tension and decreased team cohesion. I will make sure at every checkpoint that students remember they can remove teammates who are not participating in the project, and I will increase the number of peer evaluations students complete to facilitate this process. After they present, students complete a peer evaluation that evaluates each teammates’ cooperation, timeliness of contribution, preparation (research, writing, selecting/producing visuals), and presentation performance. I considered implementing a modified version of that evaluation at each checkpoint but decided against it because I didn’t want students to confuse the peer evaluations with the team cohesion assessments or become overwhelmed with paperwork. I will discontinue the team cohesion assessments, though, and have students complete peer evaluations more frequently instead. These will alert me to issues earlier while encouraging students to think critically about their teammates’ contributions throughout the process and take action as needed. Hopefully issues coming to light sooner will enable me to combine teams that may end up with few members well before the presentation.

Appendix A

Reflection: What is the most important thing you learned about teamwork this semester? (unedited responses)

Be flexible when working with everyone’s schedules

Being ahead of the curve.

being flexible and allowing others to contribute

Coming together in person can make a lot of things a lot simpler as opposed to doing it all online

Communication is the key for a successful team environment.

Communication so the team can adjust to fit everyones’ needs.

Don’t let negativity ruin a good presentation.

Everybody has to work together toward the team’s goals. One person can’t carry the team effectively and if one or more people don’t do their work it make the rest of the team’s jobs much harder and more frustrating. With that said, when people do actually participate it helps to bond those members together and make a better, cohesive, end project.

How to collaborate

How to communicate & get things done on time by planning as a team.

How without fail, working as a team is awful.

I didn’t learn it because I already knew it, but the most important thing I already know is that I work better alone and I still really don’t like group work with random people.

I know now to be here the first day of class, so I can pick my own group members considering I have to pay over a thousand dollars a class.

I learned how to better understand people’s opinions and what they had to say about the issues we were talking about.

I learned that a lot of the time someone on the team will not put in as much effort and will just float along in which the other members will have to carry the extra weight.

I learned that if everyone is on the same page and at least somewhat dedicated to the end goal, the group work will be successful and maybe even enjoyable, which contradicted my previous ideas of group work.

I learned that if you set up expectations for how you want your team to work, it will be more successful.

I learned that most people are not willing to work on teams no matter how old they are or the level of education they have.

I learned that working on big teams is difficult and its important to find meeting times.

I learned that you cannot expect the same amount of effort from each team member, but that oftentimes other members of the team will step up and fill the gaps made. The best strategy for success is to work well with those who demonstrate a willingness to give their time and effort to making the project the best it can be.

If you don’t get to know the people you are in a group with, it makes it hard to work with them.

It definitely takes a lot of work to make your team effective. You must always put in effort to try to restructure your schedule so everyone can meet. You also have to trust and depend on one another.

It is tough to have all team members focus on a task and be organized, especially when we each have much more going on in our lives, but as long as we all communicate well the job can definitely be done. Communication is key, for sure.

Leaders shape the future, and every team needs a strong leader to succeed.

Learning to speak up and state my own opinion even when I’m not entirely confident. Communication and openness is key in order to fully thrive in a group project. I enjoyed my group and the time we spent working together. I consider them my friends.

making new friends 🙂

Making sacrifices to achieve the big picture the team set out to attain.

Most people do things last minuet and you can’t make anyone do anything on your time frame.

Not everyone is going to do their part, but what counts is that the other members have the integrity to step up and cover the people who are slacking.

Organization is important

Planning and communication are key

Sometimes, you gotta pick it up and be leader.

Start the team project ahead of time and not wait until last minute because then you might get some team members that do not contribute.

Teams hold me down and block me from my shine  I learned I don’t work well well with others. But the assignment was cool. Groups make my head hurt

that communication is very important

That everyone needs to do their part to make the team run smoothly. Also, communication is key.

That google docs saves lives. It is very easy for everyone to be working on the same slides at once and that automatically save once you stop typing so nothing gets lost.

That some people are disrespectful. I also learned that others are extremely respectful. Projects definitely can’t be pushed back to the last minute. I also learned that understanding concepts after a lesson were much easier to understand working in a group because we were able to apply them to things we knew in real life.

That time is a key concept in getting things done in the time allotted, giving us the opportunity to finish our work thoroughly to where we have time to go over it a second time.

That time managing is essential to being prepared.

That we all have busy lives and we all work differently but we all trusted each other and that we would get all of our parts done, not micro manage each other and it would all workout.

The important thing I learn is that communication is one of the most important things to make a team successful. We kicked a few people out of our team because they did not execute their role as agreed. Once they were notified they were kicked out they were offended because the rest of the team did not understand their personal life situations, nonetheless, they never spoke about the problems they had at all to maybe find an alternate way as a team to complete each task as we had agreed to. We could not help them at the end nor feel empathic because they were not communicating with us how they said they were. Everyone was open about their situations they had going on outside of class, either school related, work or even personal but those people never did. They would agree to everything and say they would do it but at the end they did not and we did not feel compassionate about it because they never once did communicate anything about the possible encounters they could have or had been facing.

The longer we worked together the more stuff we had in common and accomplished our goals.

The most important thing I learned about being on a team is that unplanned circumstances happen and you have to be ready for them.

The most important thing I learned about working in a team is that sometimes, you can’t count on everyone to keep their word.

The most important thing I learned about working with a team this semester was planning and working around difficult schedules, improvising to get the job done.

The most important thing I learned from working in a team, was mostly time management and working together to achieve the same goal. Our theory had a lot to do with how our team functioned so it was nice to incorporate the two together.

The most important thing I learned on this team is that its best to not be last minute about things but to be ahead of things.

The most important thing I learned this semester about working in a team is how busy schedules can impact your plans. This led to working even harder in finding the best solution, where sometimes it meant dividing up who meets up on one day and who the other, with some meeting both days. Figuring out schedules can be the most daunting task but it can easily have a solution if you begin making a plan.

The work gets done when everyone is involved!

Things move better when you work together

This has been one of my favorite classes yet and I am thrilled to have gotten to meet every member in my group. I personally believe we will all never forget each other.

This semester i learned that even in a college setting where everyone is here to learn and get a good grade you may still encounter other that don’t play well. Sometimes it takes someone to be the bigger person and groom the team to just understand that we are all here just to get the job done.

To be more assertive in all aspects of my life.

To listen more than anything because there are so many things to learn and value about one another. We all come different places but somehow we all ended up in the same group! I love my team!!

To make sure that I am available to the team and to organize my time around the team’s schedule so as to make sure we get everything done.

to properly plan and create timetables for the group assignment.

We’re all different and unique, but yet we all think as one, all have the same mindset in order to reach our goal for this semester.

When everyone puts out and carries their own responsibilities like they should, the team can take ideas and form them into what we need, be it for an assignment or anything else.

Working in a big team is difficult but if at least most of the members coordinate to work towards the same goal then the team can create a fantastic piece of work.

Working in a team requires a lot of organization and patience. Now that we are in college, we all have different schedules and sometimes is hard to contact each member of the group however it’s not impossible. I have seen many people with busy schedules and still made the effort to contribute to the team. I have learn that we must be willing to work hard, have patience, and organization in order to have a strong contributing team. I am glad this class requires to grade our members because in that way I can show the great or minimal effort that each member did on the project.

You have to be willingly to sacrifice your schedule in order to work effectively with a team.

You need to be patient with people, but you can’t be a pushover.



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Teamwork: An Open Access Practical Guide - Instructor Companion Copyright © 2020 by Andrew M. Clark and Justin T. Dellinger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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