Looking for an intervention that improves team functioning on group projects? Consider team charters.
“A team charter is introduced to team members upon formation and provides the team the opportunity to discuss and, ultimately, agree on members' expectations related to behavior, meeting management and the allocation of work.” (p. 91) These authors explain that “team charters are rooted in the assumption that events early in the life of a team tend to have long-lasting effects.” (p. 91)
Typically, student teams are given an outline that identifies those areas where groups need to make decisions about how they will operate. For example, the charter outline used in this study lists, among other items, team norms, including meeting management (i.e., starting and ending on time); having an agenda; letting the group know if you can't attend and then finding out what you missed. Team norms in this charter also include meeting behavior norms, decision-making criteria, a communication plan, and guidelines for handling conflict.
Team charters are most needed in high-stakes, complex group projects—most often the kind of projects used in upper-division, major courses. In this case, the project required development of a full business plan by student groups. It required lots of student interaction and coordination. Based on previous experience using the assignment, the instructors knew that team functioning issues regularly emerged in these groups.
Their study of team charters involved three sections of the same course. In the first section, student groups did not use team charters. In the second section, students were given an example of a team charter but no instruction on how to use it. In the third section, they got the same example but with training and follow-up on how the team charter could help them work together more effectively. Students in each section answered survey questions designed to assess their team communication, team effort, team cohesion, mutual support (for each other), and satisfaction with the experience.
Results “indicate that there is a statistically significant difference between treatment group one (no team charter) and treatment group two (team charter example and assignment) across all hypothesized variables.” (p. 94) There was no statistically significant difference between groups that got the sample charter and those that got it with training and follow-up. It may be that having to work through the charter on their own provides groups with an active learning experience that is more potent than being trained in its use.
Despite the lack of significant difference between the second and third treatments, these authors do recommend active involvement for instructors. They see instructors as needing to underscore the value of charters, explaining how they can help groups avoid and work through problems that frequently compromise group work. “We believe ... that the instructor plays a critical role in shaping the effectiveness of team charters.” (p. 92) Later on they elaborate, “The instructor has the capacity to set the tone and expectations regarding the team charter.” (p. 9)
Developing charters, providing feedback on them, and overseeing their use takes teacher time, and charters do little to help group functioning if students don't devote time to developing and using them. This reinforces the recommendation that they be used with larger projects that students work on for longer periods of time. The time they require is offset by the benefits they accrue, and this study is part of a growing collection of evidence that establishes those benefits.
Aaron, J. R., McDowell, W. C., and Herdman, A. O. (2014). The effects of a team charter on student team behaviors. Journal of Education for Business 89(2), 90–97.