Personalized coaching and real-time feedback drives student teamwork

Michigan News

Laura Alford, Robin Fowler, and Stephanie Sheffield, the faculty innovators behind Tandem, talk about why teamwork in courses is a challenge, and how they built Tandem with the Center for Academic Innovation to help make teamwork easier for students and instructors. 

Academic Innovation Software Tools Engagement Series

Student group projects can sometimes conjure memories of unequal work distribution, domineering group leaders and times where one student is left frantically overhauling another member’s careless work, moments before a deadline. 

Often in these cases, students feel it’s easier to put their heads down and get the work done rather than make a fuss. In these cases, if an instructor had known, he or she would immediately have intervened.

For Cathy Shakespeare, associate dean for teaching and learning at the Ross School of Business, building productive and positive teamwork is at the heart of the course she coordinates, BA 200, Businesses and Leaders: The Positive Differences. Therefore, when she heard about Tandem—software tailored to bridge successful teamwork for instructors and students — she immediately wanted to implement it into her course.

Tandem empowers students to become their own and other members’ advocates in the group through reflections personalized to individual communication styles. It includes lessons for students to garner shared language for productive conversations when conflicts arise. Through the check-in feature, instructors can take the temperature of each group in real-time and support and advise groups when things go off-track.

“What I liked about Tandem is that it allows me to intervene in a team that is going to struggle before it struggles,” Shakespeare said. “I want to support teams and see evidence they are beginning to drift so I can step in to redirect before it becomes a problem for that team. I want to give students the experience where they are expanding their teamwork ability, understanding the value of the other members of their team, and learning to lead teams, to be followers in teams, to listen. Tandem allows me to do that.”

With BA 200 typically serving more than 600 students, the group of instructors usually manage 120 groups. Tandem, therefore, has become an integral part of making academic group work in the class into exercises for developing soft skills students need to succeed in academic and professional careers.

“Tandem is a very powerful way for us to be able to message all of the students about the importance of everyone in a group and the role everyone can play,” Shakespeare said. “I know some of my students, especially my female students, found it particularly helpful to have those lessons at various periods in time. It gets tailored to the students particularly; so then we learn a lot about the students as individuals through Tandem and we can in turn provide personalized insights for them.”

Tandem was a consistent, weekly experience in BA 200, which allowed for detailed monitoring of individual and team-based learning throughout the semester. The individualized aspect is what drives Tandem’s value, said Drew Arnson, junior at the Ross School of Business.

“General lessons serve as a good baseline, but the individualization leads to actionable plans and makes students think very specifically about how they interact in a team setting,” Arnson said.

Tandem allows members of the team to provide weekly constructive feedback in a productive way, which in turn allows students to work on making themselves better team players, said Ayan Bhattacharya, Business junior.

“By using Tandem, I learned about the importance of constructive feedback in a teamwork environment,” said Bhattacharya. “Through Tandem, students were offered a platform to voice whatever they had in mind without feeling like it would affect their relationship with the team, and overall, Tandem was a great method of increasing team bonding, improving on individual and team skills, and learning valuable lessons.”

Students like Elizabeth Randall, Business junior, also appreciated having moments to reflect on her experience in the course and in her group.

“Tandem made my experience in BA 200 more thoughtful and intentional,” Randall said. “Tandem provided me with the confidence to not only give feedback anomalously, but to also have an open and honest conversation in person about our team dynamic and development.”

Tandem was designed in collaboration with the Center for Academic Innovation by Michigan Engineering faculty Laura Alford, lecturer in naval architecture and marine engineering, and Robin Fowler and Stephanie Sheffield, lecturers in technical communication. The tool was alpha tested in winter 2019 and was piloted by Engineering 100, Architecture 672 and Business Administration 200 in fall 2019. This upcoming semester will be BA 200’s second semester with the tool.

Coming into the fall 2020 with COVID restrictions, Shakespeare is thankful to have Tandem as a part of her instructional team.

“I mean, Zoom is fantastic,” Shakespeare said with a laugh, “But we will lose a lot of the casual observations in class that help the instructional team guide groups. There will be more of a challenge managing teams and working in teams in that environment. I could not imagine doing it without Tandem in the fall.”

Tandem Today

Tandem is currently one of Academic Innovation’s most sought-after tools. There currently is a waitlist of more than 20 courses and two programs at U-M that are interested in using the tool, including some potential use cases like project-based teams. Tandem has also garnered interest at 10 institutions outside of U-M.

Collaborate with the Center of Academic Innovation

The Center for Academic Innovation works with faculty to create innovative software solutions for in and out of the classroom, and the technology has reached more than 85% of current students across all schools and colleges. Faculty can personalize existing software for their classrooms or propose a new tool to be incubated and designed with the center. Learn more.

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