Teamwork in Online Courses: How Can We Encourage Effective Participation?

Why does the thought of teamwork assignments make entire classes of students and professors cringe? Despite years of research and numerous articles emphasizing the need for teamwork experiences in higher education, few instructors have been formally educated in methods to teach teamwork. There are even fewer courses devoted exclusively to teamwork, despite some excellent texts (Freshman, Rubino, & Chassiakos, 2009). Many of us stumble along, and, if we are lucky, find mentors who have years of experience in classroom teamwork assignments. I was fortunate to have colleagues who believed in the need for teamwork for our discipline, even when many other faculty members found it too frustrating to deal with.

We shouldn’t wait until people are in post-graduate programs to introduce them to applied teamwork (Nash, 2008; Newell, 1990). That road leads to disappointment. Habits of doing everything alone have been instilled and teaching teamwork must undo many of these “I can do it all” or “I should do it all” attitudes. Teamwork education must begin at the undergraduate level and continue through graduate school and beyond (Drake, Goldsmith, & Strachan, 2006; Lerner, Magrane, & Friedman, 2009). Once employed, our graduates will be judged by their supervisors and colleagues on their ability to be team players. In healthcare, lives literally depend on good teamwork (Sehgal, Fox, Vidyarthi, Sharpe, Gearhart, Bookwalter, Baker, Aldredge, Blegen, & Wachter, 2008).

So, how can instructors encourage effective teamwork participation in the online environment? Here are some tried and true methods I have used you can apply to your courses.

  • Post a syllabus that explicitly addresses the value of teamwork and the rubrics by which students will be judged. Students want and deserve to know what they need to do to achieve their educational goals in a course. The proportion of their grade for the course related to teamwork should be meaningful. One to five percent of a course grade is not adequate to motivate students to actively engage in teamwork. A bare minimum of ten percent of the course grade should be assigned to the team projects. In addition, for teamwork, they should be judged by their peers, not only by the instructor. There are a number of teamwork rubrics; I happen to like the one I created with my colleagues (Buchbinder, Cox & Casciani, 2012, p. 374). The tool addresses key criteria for successful team players, including: attendance, preparation, collaboration and goal identification, active participation, open-mindedness and willingness to modify opinions, concise presentation of ideas, timely submission of assignments, respectful and considerate interactions with teammates, fulfillment of responsibilities and active work on achievement of group consensus. Used as an Excel file, students can easily total up the scores. Students are required to explain why they gave a teammate a score of under 3 or over 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.  They must also indicate whether they would work with this person again (Yes/No) (Buchbinder, Cox & Casciani, 2012, p. 374).
  • Establish ground rules for netiquette. Most universities have guidelines for student civility and for respectful online interaction with instructors and peers. Place these guidelines in your syllabus and separately in your online course, and make a point of referring students to these documents. If a student behaves inappropriately later on, he or she cannot claim ignorance.

  • Do not allow the students to self-assign to teams. Just as you have students who will congregate in face to face courses, alliances will appear in online courses. Students often “see” each other again and again in online courses and know how their colleagues interact. As the instructor, it is up to you to assign students to teams. You can do this by alphabet or by random number generator, but however you do it, make sure the assignment is transparent to the students. Remember, students always look for equity in the classroom. Teams can be for the duration of the course, or for one project, but you set up the teams.
  • Create group rooms for each team. Most online teaching systems have options for group rooms. The instructor usually has to enable these. Assign the students to teams with names that do not have a value-laden association. You can make it something fun and competitive, like baseball, NHL, NBA or NFL team names depending on the season. You can even use bird names if you’re a birdwatcher, but no “Vultures,” or “Hummingbirds,” please. Require students to post all group work in these rooms. There should be no offline conversations on projects. Again, transparency is critical here.
  • Assign yourself to each team in each group room and monitor the conversations. In a very short time, you will be able to see who really takes leadership and who is lurking and slacking. I recommend you do not interact with the team, unless there is some major problem that needs to be addressed, e.g., team members drop or withdraw from the course and you need to reassign them to new teams. Students will soon forget you are there and behave in a natural manner. You will have documentation (through course statistics) of how much time each student spent in each area of the course. This is true of the group rooms, too.
  • Throughout the course, reiterate the importance of team work in the real world, i.e., ask your students if they want to get and keep a job. Healthcare needs more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary team players to address “wicked problems” (Buchbinder, 2007; Conklin, 2008). People who can learn the needed interprofessional skills to work effectively in teams will always be in demand. Wicked problems cannot be solved by one person or one discipline. We need to remove our disciplinary hats and address these issues with interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teams. If your students are confused by the terminology, here’s a brief overview you can share:

If you want to be alone in your silo, working only with like people, you are a unidisciplinarian. If you like working with other disciplines to address an issue, but don’t feel the need to learn new constructs and theories, then you will probably be happy in a multidisciplinary team. If you are interested in learning more about other disciplines and are willing to take a risk and cross boundaries of potentially conflicting theories and constructs, you might enjoy working on an interdisciplinary team. If you want to build new theories, products, sciences and ways of knowing the world and the problems to be solved, then you may also enjoy working on a transdisciplinary team. (Buchbinder, 2009, p. 5).

  • Show your students what a successful interdisciplinary team can accomplish. Perhaps the most readily accessible and highly engaging exemplar of success is the Disease Risk Index @ Harvard School of Public Health (Emmons, Viswanath, Colditz, 2008). This project “brought together clinicians, epidemiologists, behavioral scientists, and decision scientists.” The plan was to help individuals to calculate their disease risk–but they quickly discovered computer-based calculations and technology would enable everyone access to risk estimations, not just those who were good at math. The key to the success of this effort was the inclusion of the community as equal partners. As a result, the project addressed community concerns in a timely manner.
  • Provide frequent and meaningful feedback. Students are often confused by course expectations despite what we believe are crystal clear instructions. One of my colleagues meets with teams face to face three times over the course of the semester to see how things are going. You can apply this online through the use of a chat room, a conference call or SKYPE. You may have to juggle schedules a bit if your students are not all in the same time zone, but this offers a way to provide non-judgmental feedback and guidance before things go awry. If you find you have students with specific skill gaps, this is a good time to contact them privately and recommend support services. I have referred students to counseling services on occasion for debilitating shyness or anger management.  This is part of their professional development.

While students may complain they hate teamwork, after two decades of teaching in higher education, I have found they will come back to you and thank you. Like farmers, we plant seeds of professional development and wait for them to grow. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive this positive feedback early on when students are completing their internships. Often it may take a year or two of working in the real world of healthcare for students to realize what a gift you have given them. Be patient and you will be rewarded with their gratitude.

Here are some references if you are interested in this topic.

Buchbinder, Sharon B. (2009, September 17). Can we tame the wicked problems in health  care? Available at

Buchbinder, Sharon B. (2009, October). AJPM special supplement explores: Interdisciplinarity and the science of team science. Association of Integrative Studies Newsletter. 31:(3) 5-8.

Buchbinder, Sharon B., Cox, Donna M & Casciani, S.J. (2012). Healthcare management case study guidelines. In Buchbinder, Sharon B. & Shanks, N. (Eds). Introduction to health care management, 2nd Ed. Boston , MA: Jones & Bartlett, 2012, pp. 367-374.

Conklin, J. (2008). Wicked problems and social complexity. Retrieved from

Drake, R., Goldsmith, G., & Strachan, R. (2006). A novel approach to teaching teamwork.  Teaching In Higher Education, 11(1), 33-46.

Emmons, K.M., Viswanath, K., Colditz, G.A. (2008). The role of transdisciplinary collaboration in translating and disseminating health research: Lessons learned and exemplars of success. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2S), S204-S210.

Freshman, B., Rubino, L., & Chassiakos, Y.R. (2009). Collaboration across the disciplines in healthcare. Sudbury (MA): Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Lerner, S., Magrane, D., & Friedman, E. (2009). Teaching Teamwork in Medical Education. Mount Sinai Journal Of Medicine, 76(4), 318-329.

Nash, J.M. (2008). Transdisciplinary training: Key components and prerequisites for success. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2S), S133-S140.

Newell, W. (1990). Interdisciplinary curriculum development. Issues in Integrative Studies 8, 69-86. In W. Newell (ed)Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature (pp. 51-65), New York (NY): College Entrance Examination Board, 1998.

Sehgal, N. L., Fox, M., Vidyarthi, A. R., Sharpe, B. A., Gearhart, S., Bookwalter, T., Baker, J. Aldredge, B.K.,  Blegen, M.A. & Wachter, R. M. (2008). A Multidisciplinary Teamwork Training Program: The Triad for Optimal Patient Safety (TOPS) Experience. JGIM: Journal Of General Internal Medicine, 23(12), 2053-2057.

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