Teamwork workshop

Context: This workshop from MIT’s Project Laboratory in Mathematics prepares students to collaborate in teams of three to research mathematics, write papers, and give presentations. The purpose of this workshop is to give students tools they can use to help their teams function productively. The most important part of the workshop is the discussion that follows the team activity.

Authors: This workshop was developed primarily by Susan Ruff; the activity (not reported here) is from Google, via Robin Shostack

Communication objectives: Choosing when to write conceptually and when to write formally.

Board sketch:


How can you maximize the chances that teams you are on work well?
Today: Encouraging strong teamwork



Theory (5 min)

After stating the purpose and structure of the class, I give a brief summary of Tuckman‘s forming-storming-norming-performing stages of team development. I explain that we’ll do an activity to help them begin the forming stage, and then have a class discussion to give them strategies for negotiating the storming stage, which is likely to come at some point during the term.

Activity (40 min)

The activity is conducted in groups, each of which consists of 3 project teams (9 students). The activity is based on one led by a team leader from Google in 2009. I invited her to lead the teamwork workshop as a guest lecturer. I’ve since kept the core idea of the Google activity but have reworked the rest of the workshop, adding theory and discussion. She doesn’t want the activity published, so I won’t describe the activity in detail here: it’s a challenging activity related to mathematics that requires both communication and teamwork. As the primary objectives are to help teams begin to form and to prime students for the discussion that follows, another activity could work just as well.

The teamwork activity is followed by a short break for refreshments. (5 min)

Discussion (25 min)

During the class discussion, I ask students to answer the following questions based on the teamwork activity and on their past experiences in teams.

  • What makes a team work well?
  • What makes a team fail?
  • What can you do to maximize the chances that teams you are on work well?

During the discussion, as the opportunity arises, I emphasized the following points:

  • Different students in the class have different preferences about how teams should work and how problems with teamwork should be addressed. To illustrate this during the class discussion, when a student raises an issue that can cause a team to fail, I ask other students for suggestions for how to address such a situation. After a few suggestions have been offered, I take a vote to see who prefers which solutions. The class will usually exhibit a variety of preferences. Because different people have different preferences for how teams should function, it’s important for students to make an effort to understand their teammates’ points of view.
    Useful strategy
    : active listening.
  • To maximize the effectiveness of team communication, a common communication difference to be aware of is turn-taking pauses. In conversation, how long of a pause signals that the speaker is done speaking? In some cultures it’s acceptable for a second person to start speaking while the first person is still speaking, while in other cultures a long pause is expected. If a second person speaks before that pause has happened, they are considered to have interrupted.
    Useful strategies
    : If a teammate rarely speaks, consider leaving longer pauses. Similarly, if a teammate seems to continually interrupt, they may not think that they’re interrupting: consider either telling them so (see below for strategies for doing so politely) or adjusting your turn-taking pauses to match theirs.
  • Not every conflict must be addressed. A useful model for considering when and how to address a conflict was given by Blake and Mouton in 1970 (“The Fifth Achievement,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 6, 413-426.)
    Useful strategy: Before deciding whether and how to address a conflict, consider how important the outcome is and how important the relationship with your teammate is.

    • If the outcome of the conflict is more important than the relationship, then asserting yourself may be appropriate.
    • If the relationship is more important than the outcome, then smoothing things over may be appropriate.
    • If neither are important, you may choose to withdraw from the conflict.
    • If both are important, then it may be necessary to directly address the issue and collaborate to find a solution.
    • The middle ground may be best addressed via compromise.

    These situations can be memorably summarized in a grid and illustrated with examples.

  • When teamwork issues must be addressed directly, a useful strategy comes from conflict resolution:
    Useful strategy: phrase problems as being about yourself rather than as about your teammate. (e.g., instead of “You always finish your work at the last minute” say “When you gave us your draft for the last paper at 11pm the night before the paper was due, it took me all night to read it and figure out how to make my part fit well with yours. That was a problem because I couldn’t stay awake in my classes the next day. Could we figure out a way to schedule the work so I can go to bed by midnight each night?”)

The above points are the important points I try to be sure to hit every term. (My research with Mike Carter shows that active listening, giving constructive feedback respectfully, and working with people from other cultures are important communication skills, and my own experience makes clear that MIT students are often unfamiliar with the above strategies). In addition to these points, we also discuss any other topics that come up and I encourage the students to suggest their own strategies for addressing issues.

I conclude discussion by summarizing the main point of the discussion: different people have different teamwork styles so actively try to understand your teammates’ points of view, and handle conflicting viewpoints respectfully.


This workshop is followed up in the middle of the term by a short teamwork activity at the end of one of the classes. This activity comes from the kindergarten teacher of one of Dave Custer’s former students. Each student writes “a wish and a star”: one thing that they wish their team or a teammate would do differently, and one thing that they appreciate about their team or a teammate. Students then trade papers with their teammates, read them, and discuss.

Student Feedback

Students say that the team activity doesn’t really help them to begin the “forming” stage but that it’s fun and does prepare them to participate in the discussion that follows.

When 38 students over 2 different semesters were asked which ideas discussed during the teamwork workshop were most helpful, they listed the following:

  • Focus on the team’s goal (30 of the 38 students)
  • How to handle conflict depends on the importance of the outcome and the importance of the relationship (21 students)
  • Expect and tolerate differences (17 students)
  • Turn-taking pauses (15 students)
  • Active listening (14 students)
  • Strategies for discussing a teamwork issue (word the issue in terms of its effect on you) (9 students)
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