Ashley Hall, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Stephen F. Austin State University
Have you ever thought about what it takes for projects to come to fruition in the workplace? Often, there are unwritten rules when it comes to completing work. It is rare for one to successfully generate and implement an idea or manage a project without involving others in the process. So how do students learn to navigate such an environment? Where do they learn about these unwritten workplace rules? When it comes to teaching the skills needed to be successful in the workplace, student collaboration should be high on the list.
Group Work Fuels Student Collaboration
Did you just get a bad taste in your mouth? Students aren’t the only ones who dread navigating team assignment woes like social loafers, technology preferences, and power struggles.
While some students prefer to work alone, learning how to collaborate effectively is crucial to their workplace success. Student collaboration, whether face-to-face or virtual, is enhanced by synergy. This is the idea that the sum of the parts is greater than the individual pieces alone. Instead of allowing students to believe they will unilaterally problem-solve and execute decisions, it is important to stress the need for teamwork in school and in the workplace.
When instructors develop assignments or projects that require true ongoing collaboration, students are faced with the challenge of working together. Through such experiences, students can learn the importance of bringing others in and the role of feedback in the collaboration process.
Teaching Students to Bring Others In
It is essential to keep stakeholders up to speed on the status of a project. By keeping others in the loop, employees can make good progress and become aware of issues earlier in the process. This is especially handy when handling pushback from stakeholders beyond the employee’s functional area. The application of “bringing others in” may differ between an office setting and a virtual work environment. The principles remain the same, however. For example, virtual status updates may involve scheduling a dedicated Zoom call or including updates as an agenda item at a weekly team meeting. In person, status updates can occur more naturally since workers can pop into a colleague’s office or a meeting room.
As educators, we can help set students up for career success by building required communication checkpoints into assignments to help students apply these skills. For example, you may set the expectation that students communicate on their official communication channel (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams, discussion board, etc.) a certain number of times per week and count this in the assignment grade.
Student Collaboration Requires Feedback
Class discussions on workplace readiness and the skills employers are seeking in new hires can help students understand that better solutions are often generated by soliciting feedback from multiple people with various vantage points. In a classroom or online, this can involve teaching students to ask quality questions of their classmates such as:
- What are your thoughts?
- What improvements do you think could be made?
- Is there anything I can explain further for clarification?
Essential Skills: Listening, Receiving, and Providing Feedback
Listening is an overlooked skill among today’s students. In our noisy culture with so many stimuli, it is easy to zone out or not listen effectively. This is especially the case during virtual meetings. On the other hand, if people are only listening to respond and thinking about what they want to say next, they are not engaged in quality listening either. It is essential that we teach students how to be effective listeners. This includes focusing their mind on the conversation at hand, genuinely listening, picking up on nonverbals or what the speaker isn’t saying, and replying in such a way that people feel heard in the process. Making people’s voice heard will also help create buy-in from others in the organization. This can be vital to the success of a project or idea.
Many students might be resistant to the idea of giving feedback because of the negative connotations they have. Helping them learn how to give useful feedback is not easy. Modeling and recounting personal stories that emphasize the positives of feedback can help. By engaging in peer review of course deliverables, students can practice giving and receiving constructive feedback.
Challenging Instructors to Teach Student Collaboration
As you plan your courses, I challenge you to consider how you will include student collaboration in your classes. Instead of assuming students will learn collaboration skills through an assigned team project, be intentional about highlighting the skills needed to collaborate effectively. To help students understand the significance, talk about the skills regularly. Reinforce them throughout the semester and give students opportunities to practice them in the classroom.
Some ideas for how to practice the skills include asking peers to evaluate each other based on work performance and collaboration skills at various points during the semester. You can also ask students to write a reflection of how they perceive their collaboration skills compared to the ratings they received from their peers throughout the project. Additionally, bring other voices and experiences into the class through guest speakers or industry interviews where working professionals discuss their experiences with collaboration and how it can make or break a project. Teach students about the importance of soliciting input from others and engaging in high-quality listening. Such skills will help make students better team members and serve them well when they enter the workforce.
Looking for more tips on preparing your students for the workforce? Read our eBook “7 Tips for Teaching the Soft Skills Employers Want.”