Ideas on a napkin – Veronica Brown

Notes on three napkins sitting on a tableI teach a course on teamwork. It’s an elective in the WatPD program, which is a suite of courses completed by UW’s undergraduate co-op students. When I tell people I teach a course on teamwork, their reaction usually involves something cringe-like followed by a story about a horrid group work experience they had when they were in school. To say people loathe group work might be an understatement. We usually commiserate briefly on the experience and then I start telling them a bit more about my course. Unlike other courses, which include group or team work as part of their assessment, my entire course is about teamwork, with the focus on teamwork in the workplace.

Students in the course develop their knowledge and skills related to teamwork in three ways: completing independent assignments related to the course content; participating in a team task; and reflecting on their own experiences with teamwork during their work terms, the course, and at school. I should mention, too, that this is an online course and so they must work as a virtual team to complete the task.

Something, however, has been nagging me about my course. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the course and the opportunities it gives students to study teamwork and develop the relevant knowledge and skills. But I wonder if the course goes deep enough. My course focuses on what is needed for team success, such as building on individuals’ strengths, team processes, collaboration, etc. The course, currently, focuses on knowledge and skills. The missing piece is valuing teamwork. Does the course effectively convey the true value of working in a team? Will they recognize the subtleties surrounding personalities and politics that will impact team success just as much as lack of resources or time pressures? Will they understand that just as each individual brings their own strengths to the team, they might also bring their own agenda? How will they lead a team when given the chance? Will they be motivated to work collaboratively the next time the opportunity presents itself or will they, like others before them, cringe at the thought of teamwork?

So I sat down at lunch recently with a friend of mine who works in the private sector and asked him why, in his experience, teams failed. He had a long list, many of which focused on the people on the team, their personalities, leadership, differences in vision, politics, etc. He also spoke about challenges between teams, where one team will develop a new process without even realising how it will infringe on the processes of others. It’s not just the communication within the team, but among teams, that can be problematic.

Eventually, our conversation returned to my course and what might be missing. We talked about adding a simulation where teams would be formed and each student would be given a role to play, such as the leader, the loafer, the team player, etc. Each team would be given a scenario (we talked about using UW clubs as a potential option). Then, we talked about how to throw them a curve ball part way through the process, such as suddenly slashing their budget, having a team member simply disappear, having a couple of them try to take over control of the team, etc. I actually love the idea but, realistically, I’m unsure this would fly in the mediated environment of an online course.  I’m also unsure I’m ready to throw that curve ball.

For now, our conversation, recorded on the napkins shown in the above photo, has given me direction for change in my course. Teamwork is not just about knowledge and skills. For success, there must be an underlying trust, among team members, between the team and the workplace that surrounds it, and, most importantly, that teamwork really can lead to success. It has led me in many directions – problem-based learning, experiential learning, exploring the affective domain. I have enjoyed this journey, motivation to dig deeper into these areas. Now, it is time to put this theory into practice. As I move forward with this change, my next step is to figure out how to take all this theory and make it useful and practical as a teacher. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


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Veronica Brown

As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum & Quality Enhancement, Veronica Brown provides oversight and facilitative support for departmental and Faculty-wide curriculum planning initiatives. She also leads the development and implementation of the Centre’s assessment plan for understanding the impact and quality of our work.

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