How teaching focused on Teamwork empowers student Social Skills: Simplifying Approaches to Teaching & Learning Series (Part 4)

This post is part of a 6-part series highlighting how we, as IB teachers, can bring Approaches to Teaching to our classroom and challenge students to engage in Approaches to Learning.

In the first three parts of the series, we discussed several issues related to inquiry-based teaching, teaching focused on conceptual understanding, and teaching developed on local and global contexts as different, yet interwoven, Approaches to Teaching. Within these instructional strategies, we have integrated tools for the advancement of students’ research, thinking and communication skills respectively, as suitable Approaches to Learning.

Connecting Approaches to Teaching with Approaches to Learning

The fourth part of our series covers how to empower students’ social skills through teaching focused on teamwork and collaboration. Instruction based on teamwork and collaboration is a strongly recommended strategy for a variety of educational settings and it actively employs students’ social skills. How can we maximize the efficiency of these Approaches? Here there are 3 tips for making teamwork compelling for all:

Provide opportunities for students to assume shared responsibility for collaborative work

Including group activities in your classroom or in homework assignments to students is part of most educators’ lesson plans. Students get their space to socialize while they learn, we teach while coaching the teams, and everybody has a pleasant time in comparison to the usual teacher-centered or individual-based approaches. But you can definitely obtain much more from collaborative work.

No matter what student skill we try to advance, they all lead to the basic goal of learning. And in the case of teamwork, we try to use cooperative learning as an opportunity to challenge students’ social skills. “Cooperative learning represents situations in which teachers structure group work with the aim to maximize both social and cognitive outcomes” (Buchs & Butera, 2015). And as lovely as that sounds, it is not so easy to actually accomplish it.

The problem is that not all groups and, by extension, not all group activities, are truly cooperative, just because they are social. There is a useful classification for the groups’ (more or less) effective learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1999):

  • Pseudo learning group: students have no interest in working together; they hide information or mislead their teammates; they would achieve more working individually
  • Traditional classroom learning group: students accept working together; they will be evaluated individually; they seek each other’s information, but they have no motivation to teach each other; some may want a free ride; the more hard-working students would perform better working alone
  • Cooperative learning group: students work together to accomplish common goals; they will be evaluated as a team; they exchange information and explain the material to each other; they  encourage their teammates and regulate the team’s performance; all students perform higher
  • High-performance cooperative learning group: students meet all of the criteria mentioned above for the cooperative learning group; they outperform all reasonable expectations given the group’s membership

I hate to admit that I usually fall into the second category. I plan a variety of group activities and yet I don’t promote cooperative learning, because when the time for grading comes, I fear that I will be unjust in individual assessment. I have trouble facing the teams as groups of students that will share the responsibility for the outcome, aka… “The Grade”. So this is the “encrypted” message that I convey to my students: no matter if you are working within a team; in the end, you earn your own grade.

One may wonder: is this so bad? After all, it is “every student for themselves” during the final examination. Consider this: is it possible that cooperative learning would have helped them perform better in their exams (and personal projects)? And, in a more broad context, is it possible that working effectively in a team will prove extremely beneficial in their future educational and working environment?

Plan group activities such as debates, role-plays or group projects

At this point, a rhetorical question arises. What comes first: the teamwork or the social skills? Like the chicken and the egg, there is no right answer to this. Social skills are a prerequisite for collaboration and collaboration nurtures social skills.

An all-encompassing definition of social skills describes them as a reflection of “the interpersonal perceptiveness and the capacity to adjust one’s behavior to different situational demands and to effectively influence and control the responses of others” (Ferris, Witt, & Hochwarter, 2001). There is no general consensus on a list of social skills, but we may agree on leadership, decision-making, trust-building, communication and conflict-management (Johnson & Johnson, 1999) as desired skills for our educational purposes and beyond.

Many of our students have already mastered some or all of the above skills and some may never get a grasp on them. Our goal is to cultivate them and empower them, so the main focus is on teamwork instruction. How do we handle it?

💡 Before announcing a collaborative activity to students, we should work in advance on a strategy that will ensure meaningful teamwork at all levels, including assessment.

Planning ahead your students’ collaborative tasks is a good start towards quality teamwork instruction. Regardless of the form of these tasks (projects, debates, performances, etc), here are some steps we can take (Johnson & Johnson, 1999), with the proper adjustments according to the type of the task:

Each step includes elements that are more or less familiar to you, and you probably have many ideas for putting them into practice. However, maybe there are some aspects that you haven’t yet considered in detail. For example, how do you make decisions on the members of each group and role assignments? What can you do to upgrade positive interdependence and individual accountability within the group? What are the guidelines you provide on peer-assessment and reflection?

💡When deciding on the composition of each team, begin with the intention to provide all students equal opportunities for cooperative learning.

You need to consider two things: students’ abilities and personality traits (Rhee, Parent, & Basu, 2013). Regarding ability: keep in mind that team performance is the sum of individual performance and proportional to the average of individual contribution (additive and compensatory tasks). Also, successful team performance can be achieved if all members contribute, even if at some minimal level (conjunctive tasks). The final outcome is affected by the best achievements of any of the team members (disjunctive tasks).

In social sciences, the Five-Factor-Model (FFM or “Big Five”) is commonly used as a taxonomy of personality traits and aligns with the research on collaborative work. The proposed traits are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness (Srivastava, 2019). Each of these traits is correlated with students’ performance within a group, as individuals and as teammates.

💡 A promising team requires the synthesis of students’ abilities and personality traits. Letting the students choose their teammates reduces diversity, and we sometimes overdo it with it. The keyword for effective team formation? Balance.

Try to be more of a “meddler in the middle” than a “sage on the stage”

Once you have the groups set up, one crucial step is for all members to pursue both positive interdependence and individual accountability; you can’t have one without the other anyway. “Positive interdependence” refers to the perception that a student’s success is directly linked to each teammate’s success and the group’s success. “Individual accountability” is each student’s responsibility towards their personal goals and the team’s goals (Johnson & Johnson, 1999).

Having these two concepts in mind, we not only teach our students how to collaborate effectively but also pave the road for a guilt-free individual and group assessment.

💡 A straightforward way to achieve this is to give each student an individual test or task and then award (or not) bonus marks according to their team’s overall performance.

You can use this individual-group assessment pattern in different ways: assign complementary roles to all members for the execution of a task, or have each student present their own work in the context of the team’s work.

One further step you can take to upgrade students’ collaboration is the introduction of peer-assessment and teamwork reflection. Both individual accountability and positive interdependence are in line with these activities. Each student should get feedback on their performance as a team player, and the team should openly discuss their high points and low points.

There is strong evidence that “the application of peer feedback may be one useful tool to support the development of student teamwork skills” (Donia, O’Neill, & Brutus, 2018), especially if students are repeatedly exposed to this practice. In addition to this, reflection as teamwork standard procedure “serves as a starting point for teams to engage in discussions about best practices and alert faculty to potential problems” (Mckenna & Hirsch, 2008). How can you coach related activities on a practical basis?

💡 Prepare a closed-type questionnaire on cooperation, conceptual contribution, practical contribution, and work ethic that all students can fill for their teammates. Then provoke an open discussion between the members of each group for their team’s overall performance. 

This is a full teamwork instruction, beginning with the planning of group activities and ending with the assessment of students’ collaborative efforts. How can you utilize educational technology (edtech) throughout this process for the maximum empowering of your students’ social skills? You can give all teams a head start by setting the topic they work within, suggesting valid sources to explore, and leaving plenty of room for their questions. Here’s how to organize your teamwork instruction with 100mentors:

Teamwork instruction and cooperative learning is an excellent implementation of Approaches to Teaching and Learning in your classroom. An educational environment that nurtures collaboration is, without a doubt, more appealing for students and particularly valuable for teachers.

Ready to get started wit ha tool that brings Approaches to Teaching & Learning to your classroom?


Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2015). COOPERATIVE LEARNING AND SOCIAL SKILLS DEVELOPMENT. In R. Gillies (Ed.), Collaborative learning: Developments in research and practice (pp. 201–217). New York: Nova Science.

Donia, M. B. L., O’Neill, T. A., & Brutus, S. (2018). The longitudinal effects of peer feedback in the development and transfer of student teamwork skills. Learning and Individual Differences, 61, 87–98.

Ferris, G. R., Witt, L. A., & Hochwarter, W. A. (2001). Interaction of social skill and general mental ability on job performance and salary. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(6), 1075–1082.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1999). Making cooperative learning work. Theory Into Practice, 38(2), 67–73.

Mckenna, A. F., & Hirsch, P. L. (2008). Using Reflection to Promote Teamwork Understanding in Engineering Design Education*. Retrieved from

Rhee, J., Parent, D., & Basu, A. (2013). The influence of personality and ability on undergraduate teamwork and team performance. SpringerPlus, 2(1), 1–14.

Srivastava, S. (2019). Measuring the Big Five Personality Factors. Retrieved October 7, 2019, from

Pepy is an IB Diploma Programme Physics and Mathematics teacher, with an MA and PhD in Education. She is currently a Post Doctoral Researcher in teachers' education and also teaches at the University of Patras. As the Educational Consultant at 100mentors she empowers educators to turn theory into practice with educational technology solutions.

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