Profs Need to Prepare Students to Succeed in Team-Based Work: Here’s How

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by Debra Mashek

In just a few months, throngs of college graduates are entering the workforce. Many may not be ready.

Employers rate “ability to work in teams” as the most important skill required of college graduates; 62 percent of employers said this skill is “very important,” while another 31 percent rated it as “somewhat important,” according to a recent employer survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

And that’s where the problem lies. While employers overwhelmingly feel that collaboration matters, only 48 percent perceive recent graduates as “very well prepared” in this regard.

While employers overwhelmingly feel that collaboration matters, only 48 percent perceive recent graduates as “very well prepared” in this regard.

In many cases, college students agree with this assessment, according to a recent survey of 500 students currently enrolled in 4-year institutions in the U.S. by College Pulse, an online survey and analytics company.

Students’ responses to the questions about their teamwork experiences and attitudes are striking.

When asked how much training, if any, their college had “provided for ways to make team-based class projects more effective, enjoyable, or productive,” 65 percent of respondents said “None.”

Another 22 percent answered: “A few minutes.”

In other words, 87 percent of the students sampled said they had received no real preparation in the skill most valued by employers.

This preparation gap is complicated by an enthusiasm gap. Nearly half (49 percent) of the students characterized their feelings about team-based class projects as either “somewhat negative” or “very negative”; 22 percent felt “somewhat positive” about such work and only 2 percent felt “very positive.”

Women were more likely than men to feel negatively about group work.

Echoing what many work-from-home employees have experienced over the past year, students saw remote collaboration as especially challenging.

When College Pulse asked a separate sample of students what their biggest challenges have been during the pandemic, 40 percent responded  “coordinating group projects and keeping group members accountable.”

The challenges are surely amplified for those 35 percent of students who have been assigned three or more team-based class projects during the current academic year.

Although students generally dislike and rarely receive any formal training about how to do group work well, they know that their future employers value the ability to work in teams. They estimate that 71 percent of employers consider this skill “very important” — in line with the actual ratings by employers in the AAC&U report.

This data suggests that college graduates are woefully underprepared to exercise a skill highly sought after by employers.

So, what can professors, colleges and prospective employers do to better prepare tomorrow’s workforce to engage effectively, and enthusiastically, in team-based work?

First, professors can and should provide instruction on how to collaborate well. This instruction would ideally take place alongside group work, so that students can immediately practice the principles taught. These should include basics like defining shared objectives and setting expectations around communication (e.g., channels, contact information, frequency, responsiveness) and where shared documents will be housed.

The principles should also include defining roles and responsibilities, and the importance of knowing and tracking who will do what by when.

Second, colleges can provide opportunities to students to learn how to collaborate well. These could be offered within the footprint of a required core curriculum, through career centers or as standalone courses, such as the Psychology of Collaboration class I taught while on the faculty at Harvey Mudd College.

One challenge, of course, is that faculty and staff members may not have themselves received formal professional development on how to collaborate well, which can make it difficult to see and communicate what works and why.

While there are many great collaborators in academia, most of the requisite learning occurs through happenstance and trial and error. Plenty of academics avoid deep collaboration altogether, choosing instead to go it alone.

Nevertheless, some students leave college prepared to work effectively in teams.

Graduates who enjoy team-based projects, if even just a little, should highlight that fondness in cover letters and ensure their resumes include a prominent line that demonstrates experience and aptitude in this domain.

They should also mention any collaboration training received, whether at their college, online or elsewhere.

Employers who value the ability to work in teams will be well-served by ensuring that their onboarding provides new employees with both a clear understanding of what effective group work looks like within their context and low-stakes opportunities to practice that preferred mode of being and doing.

New and established employees alike will benefit from professional development opportunities to hone these critical skills. Whether we call it group work, teamwork or collaboration, employers value employees’ ability to work together to advance shared needs and a common mission.

Collaboration is hard work and difficult to do well. Employers don’t value collaboration because it is simple or fun. They value collaboration because it offers a pathway to do together that which cannot be achieved alone.

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