Tapping the power of teamwork to enhance student performance and satisfaction

"Applying group dynamics to learning can help us develop skills that translate into more success in school, work, community, and family."

Summary. Adapted from Assessing the viability of team learning with remedial students in a lecture-based Japanese higher education culture (Duncan, 2013) this is a workshop script from the Team Hachi Project, a series of workshops developed to introduce group dynamics concepts to enhance student performance and satisfaction in college classrooms. 

(C) 2019 by Brent Duncan, Ph.D. All rights reserved. 


Have you ever been on a winning team? How did it make you feel to be a participating member of that team? Did you have more fun playing the game with others than when you played the game alone? Did you become a better player by practicing with the other team members? Did the team become more successful when it helped individuals develop better skills? Have you ever noticed effective groups that achieve high levels of performance, like a championship baseball team, a rock band, a debate team, a school orchestra, or a product development team? What makes those groups successful?

Questions like these are important to consider when we try to understand the potential of teamwork in the classroom. Building an effective team requires that we not only understand group dynamics, but we also achieve individual and group goals, are satisfied with the process, and are willing to collaborate in future activities (Hackman, 1992). Therefore, key questions for us to consider as we explore group dynamics include the following:

  • Can we apply teamwork in the classroom to increase our learning and satisfaction at school?
  • How can the teamwork skills we develop contribute to success outside of college?

What we may find is, shifting from the contemporary lecture-based classroom to a team-based learning strategy presents new opportunities and challenges for students and teachers. At the same time, applying group dynamics to learning can help us develop skills translate into more success in school, work, community, and family (University of Phoenix, 2004; Fink, 2004; Imafuku, Kurata, Kataoka, & Mayahara, 2010). In addition, we may find what students around the world already know: learning in teams can be much more fun than listening to lectures and preparing for tests.

In this discussion, we will explore the fundamentals of group dynamics related to team learning strategy. Our objectives will be as follows:

  • To understand how collaborative learning processes can enhance student performance and satisfaction.
  • To differentiate between groups and teams.
  • To understand the potential advantages and disadvantages of learning in a team.
  • To understand the role that group structure plays in building a successful learning team.

Transforming learning with groups

Media savvy students are increasingly impatient with lectures; they find lectures boring and irrelevant when compared to their activities outside the classroom (Bruffee, 1999). Employers need workers who can interact with others; they want universities to help students develop collaborative skills necessary to succeed in a dynamic and competitive economy (Fink, 2004; Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005). By applying group dynamics in the classroom, teachers hope to increase the quality of student learning by applying important lessons from cognitive science and social psychology.

In short, actively learning with others helps students to develop skills that will enhance academic and professional success (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005). However, transforming a lecture-based classroom into an environment in which students collaborate with one another to learn requires a new set of skills that are necessary to engage with others for mutual success.

Advantages of working in groups

Management, social psychology, and education literature contain volumes of writings and research on the possible advantages of working in groups. Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1969) proposed that individuals interacting within a group have the potential to reach synergy, meaning that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Applied to group dynamics, this means that a group of interdependent individuals has the potential to accomplish more than they could accomplish on their own. Other advantages to working in groups include the following:

  • Individuals can become more productive during group activities than they are in activities that they do on their own;
  • Working in a group can enhance individual development and satisfaction over working alone, and;
  • Groups can consider problems from more perspectives, which allows them to make more creative decisions than individuals can.
  • Group-learning in college classrooms around the world

Specifically related to the benefits of group learning in classroom settings, Jane Abercrombie (1959) observed that medical students learned more quickly and accurately when they collaborated with small groups of students than when they worked alone. This suggests that learning is an interdependent process, not an individual process.

Similarly, observing groups of remedial students at the University of California Berkeley, Uri Treisman (1985; 1992) hypothesized that students who interacted with other students performed better academically. In his research, Treisman found that collaboration is so important to learning that many individuals cannot succeed without it. In addition, he found that remedial students can significantly increase performance and satisfaction through collaboration with others. Treisman (1992) concluded that individual students can enhance success by joining learning groups based on shared interests and common goals (p. 368).

Today, universities around the world are using small-group learning methods to enhance student performance and satisfaction. For example, at the University of Phoenix, students join learning teams in which the individuals work to develop their teams, the teams work to develop each team member, and each team helps to teach the other teams in the class (University of Phoenix, 2004).

Group-learning in Japan

Although group-learning methods are rare in contemporary Japanese college classrooms, Shuji Sugie (1999) pointed out that group-learning methods once served as a foundation of teaching practice in Japanese education. Sugie argued that Japan educators should return to group learning methods because collaboration is “essential in the process of learning by human beings” and can create “an environment where [students] can develop their individuality” (p. 46). Researchers at Showa University provided support for Sugie’s vision when they found that collaborative techniques proved “very effective” for improving scores, skills, and satisfaction” among graduate pharmacology students (Saito, Kogo, Sasaki, Sato, Kiuchi, & Yamamoto, 2007, p. 103).

Professor Yoichiro Miki says that team-based learning helps Kochi University students to become more interested in physics through teamwork. “Students can develop factual knowledge through lectures; but, working with teams helps them know how to treat phenomena using the scientific and collaborative methods they would use in practice” (personal email, October 29, 2011). Saga University and Tokyo Women’s Medical University are also implementing team-based learning to help students develop collaborative skills that translate into professional success. In other words, even though the contemporary Japanese education culture is almost entirely lecture-based, some universities around Japan are finding that Japanese students can improve individual performance and satisfaction by collaborating to learn with other students.

Disadvantages of working in groups

Despite the potential benefits of learning in groups, group-learning models are rare in contemporary universities. Key reasons for this are that (1) complex group dynamics can introduce disadvantages that outweigh the advantages, and (2) teachers and students lack the skills necessary to collaborate in learning. Acknowledging the potential problems with groups can help a learning team to identify strategies for reducing negative influences. Common problems with groups include the following:

  • Poorly formed and poorly managed groups can be less productive and more difficult than individuals can.
  • Coordinating groups can take more time, energy, and resources than coordinating individuals can.
  • Groups tend to reach decisions more slowly than individuals do.
  • Groups can diminish the ability of individuals to make ethical decisions. This means that that a group can pressure individuals to do unethical or illegal activities that an individual may not do alone.
  • People problems can threaten performance and satisfaction. For example, individual group members can be stubborn, lazy, unprepared, non-participative, or domineering. Likewise, negative conflict among members can threaten group viability.
  • Group members and group leaders may lack the knowledge and skills necessary to collaborate successfully with others for mutual success.

A team is a group but a group is not a team

Although many people use the words “team” and “group” interchangeably, a team is different from a group in many ways. Understanding the difference between teams and groups can help influence how we build and work with a learning team.

Behavioral scientists generally define a group as two or more people who interact with and influence one another (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005; Jex, 2002; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008). Social psychologists see humans as social beings (Fiske, 2010) or social animals (Aronson, 2008) who join groups to satisfy shared needs for survival (Kenrick, Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2007), relatedness (Calvin, 1996), and growth (Maslow, 1987). From a managerial perspective, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (1993) described the difference between groups and teams by performance, saying, “A group’s performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. A team’s performance includes both individual results and… collective work-products” (p. 111). From a team-based learning perspective, L. Dee Fink (2004) defined a team as “intense use of small groups”. A team’s members share goals, commitment, and skills to complete complex tasks. Together, team members perform beyond the capacity of individuals working alone.

Understanding the differences between a baseball team and baseball fans can help to clarify the differences between groups and teams. Baseball fans are members of a group of people who gather to cheer for the team. The baseball fans are people from different lifestyles who share an interest in the team, and who may influence each another as they cheer for the team in the baseball stadium. However, the fans are not the team. In comparison, a baseball team is a group of interdependent members with complementary skills who work together to accomplish individual and group goals. The coach of the team works to define the goals, develop the skills of individuals, and coordinate individual activities to win games.

This highlights an important difference between teams and groups. A group is a collective in which individuals have less importance. In comparison, a team is a group that succeeds by developing the ability and coordinating the skills of individuals to accomplish shared goals. In other words, a successful team focuses on individual development as well as team development.

In short, a team is a group of individuals, but a group of individuals is not necessarily a team. Members of a group may share common interests and influence one another. Members of a team also share common interests and influence. In addition, members of a team share commitments and goals, have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, complementary skills, mutual accountability, and a shared identity. By working together to develop and coordinate the skills and activities of individuals, a team has the potential to accomplish more together than they can as individuals.

Building the foundation for learning team success

A key to helping a team overcome the challenges of group dynamics is to define a group structure that governs individual and group activities (Jex, 2002). For example, the first step for the University of Phoenix Learning Teams is to create a charter, which serves as a contract that does the following (University of Phoenix, 2004):

  • Lists their shared values and goals
  • Defines rules to govern individual and team behaviors
  • Establishes a process for successful collaboration
  • Assigns roles and tasks to individual members.

The charter serves as a contract to establish the structure and guide the team toward success. To help assure individual accountability in the team and to keep the team dedicated to developing individual members, the team regularly tracks individual and team performance using evaluation forms (University of Phoenix, 2004). The charter process helps to overcome barriers to team success by helping the team to do the following:

  • Clarify the team’s purpose,
  • Establish processes for assuring equal contributions from all members, and
  • Establish fairness by recognizing and rewarding individuals according to their contributions to the team.


As teams develop, the quality of their work improves and the efficiency of their production increases. Learning Teams that understand the essentials of team development and appreciate the contribution of each team member will realize greater success in their academic and professional pursuits.


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