How Do Teaming Structures Maximize Student Learning?

by | May 30, 2019

Group Work vs. Team Tasks

The key to maximizing student learning is not through group work but through team tasks. There is an enormous difference between student grouping and academic teaming.

Most of us have experienced group projects in school, and often those experiences were negative: a few kids did all the work while others coasted, and everyone got equal credit. Some common issues with traditional student groups include unclear goals, no established norms, a lack of roles or roles which are poorly defined and not practiced, and not enough time to form team bonds.

The Benefits of Academic Teaming

Student-led academic teams lift all students to a level of rigorous learning rarely seen in most classrooms. Immense benefits come with academic teaming, including how teams transform ELL learning, how teams embed daily peer coaching, and how teams build resilience in students.

These academic, social, and emotional learning benefits cannot be fully realized unless core instruction moves from teacher-centered (according to our national data most classrooms are, in some form, teacher-centered) to team-centered instruction.

The Enabling Conditions for Successful Teams

Teachers should focus on creating the enabling conditions for high-functioning student teams and then release the learning to students while continuing to monitor the teams’ progress toward specific learning goals, as detailed in The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming (Toth & Sousa, 2019). While the necessary enabling conditions are too intricate to adequately explore in a few paragraphs, some examples are:

  1. Intentionally forming small student teams for diversity.
  2. Giving students specific roles and establishing clear norms and expectations.
  3. Designing team tasks with interdependence and accountability as priorities.
  4. Knowing when and how to step in to coach teams.
The Neuroscience Behind Student Learning in Teams

The teaming structure maximizes student learning because in team tasks, students are not simply learning at the retrieval and comprehension level of the cognitive taxonomy, as they would in the traditional classroom where lecture and memorization are common; in a team-centered classroom, students instead push their learning to the analysis- and knowledge-utilization levels.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that in the teaching-learning process, the brain doing the work is the brain that learns. PET scans confirm the difference in brain activity between a person who is listening to an explanation and the person who is doing the explaining—the explainer has increased brain activity.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher is the explainer; he or she talks through ideas, thinks critically about how to clarify concepts, and answers student questions. But when the classroom culture is team-centered, the student has the opportunity to become the explainer, discussing his or her learning and strengthening understanding.

Cooperative Learning or Collaborative Learning?

While cooperative learning in student groups can offer students more opportunities to build their social skills, in our experience student groups fail to reach the level of cognitive complexity that student teams achieve. Putting teaming structures in place with clear enabling conditions elevates core instruction above traditional group work and truly maximizes student learning.

This article was originally published in Education Week.