Supporting Student Teams in Managing Conflicts

6 Oct

To prevent team problems you can ask your students to assign roles, create a team process statement (see “Helping Student Teams Perform Well” and provide them with instruction based on a framework for developing agile teamwork skills (see “Revisiting Team-Based Learning Frameworks”

Whatever the preparatory work, well-prepared teams can – and generally do – run into interpersonal problems. Here I’ll focus on a selection of problems that tend to arise within student teams and outline five different actions you might take as part of helping student teams facilitate their own success.

Engage students in gathering observational data

A good place to start is to ask students to gather information on how their team is functioning. They can do this by performing a quick team assessment. For the assessment, ask each team member to rate the team on different desirable team behaviors using a template. (See the “Quick Team Assessment” template below, for example). You might also create your own assessment questions, or supplement this one, based on the important requirements of your specific team project.

Once individuals in a team have completed their assessments, move them into comparing answers and discussing areas of disagreement, as well as low ratings, and high ratings. The act of having a shared conversation about team functioning may surface what some team members may have been hesitant to bring up.

Drawing on a template, one possible structure for the team discussion would be having each team member propose one thing the team should continue doing, one thing the team should start doing and one thing the team should stop doing. To demonstrate that you take this process seriously, set aside class time to have teams work on it.  

Model approaches to teamwork challenges

Often in teaching a course by ourselves, we don’t model our appreciation of teamwork. One way to make your value of teamwork explicit is to share a story of a teamwork project challenge you have encountered as part of your professional work. Describe the conflict, including any negative emotions you might have felt and addressed, to create a shared experience with the students. Most important will be taking time to describe how your team successfully solved the problem, and the impacts of that intervention. Many people describe conflict and resolution as pivotal for success. Communicating that you have experienced similar moments of tension and resolution may help students view conflict as a step towards success rather than an indication of dysfunction.

Provide examples of past teams resolving conflict

Teams face a number of common problems when working on a high-stakes project. For example, one person may not be completing agreed upon work, one person may be dominating the process rather than taking part in a collaborative leadership plan, some team members may be nursing interpersonal hurts or judgments, or one team member may have withdrawn from participation. Describe these problems to your students and provide examples of how other students have solved similar problems successfully in the past. Resources you might use are the conflict solving videos at

Facilitate conflict resolving processes

Tell students you will meet with their team if they have problems, but indicate that you want them to try to solve the problem as a team first before meeting with you. In addition to written course policies about teamwork, speaking aloud about your openness to, and responsibility for, helping solve problems reinforces that you care about their team success. If you do meet with students, act as a facilitator rather than a problem-solver, focusing on strategies that engage them in coming up with solutions to the problem. To help students develop important teamwork problem-solving strategies they can use in the future, act as an advisor to a team that experiencing problems – whether these are situations that you observe, or that one team member or another team reports.

Provide time & practice for solving problems

Present a “case study” of a team problem to the whole class and have them brainstorm ways to solve the problem. The case study could be an actual problem student teams are experiencing or one from a previous semester or experience. Have students identify and clarify critical elements of the case, review contributing behaviors and situations, then identify one or two possible solutions to the problem. Finally, collect responses from a few teams to evaluate in a whole class discussion. (See “Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Behavior” below.”)

Setting aside valuable class time to do this communicates that you want teams to succeed and that you believe they are capable of solving these problems together.

Closing – and Referenced Resources

You may want to try one or more of these activities to help your student teams get back on track. You may also want to remind students that teamwork can be messy, but confronting problems directly together, is a step towards creating a high functioning team.


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