Teamwork Asian style

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I have never believed that the idea of "teamwork" can work in the Asian context. I can still vaguely remember the first time I did teamwork with 3 colleagues from Asia in the student common room of the School of Education at the University of Leeds. It was to prepare for a group presentation.

We appointed a group leader, who was elected based on how old we were. Widely accepted social norms told us that this was the only "fair way" to have a leader in a small community, or group. Of course, we then expected the leader to tell us what to do next. Thanks to the "group presentation" workshop at the university, we understood that each PowerPoint slide of a presentation should roughly take 2 minutes and we only got 15 minutes for our presentation in total. Therefore, we estimated that we could only have about 8 slides, excluding the title and "Q vs A" slides. "Let's divide the work", our leader said, "8 slides divided by 4 people; that is 2 slides per person. Since I am the leader, I will do the first and last slide". Teamwork was about reducing workload. This is the first lesson I learned about teamwork. The way I thought was that if my lecturer asked me to deliver a presentation alone, I would have to read 20 articles from the reading list (one A4 paper and single spaced!). However, if I had 4 colleagues or team members, I would only need to read one fifth of it and spend significantly less time on designing and writing the PowerPoint slides.

Learning Matters is a monthly column aiming to provide useful thoughts on learning and education in the hope of informing the broader discussion of educational development in Vietnam. The column is written by the Learning Skills Unit at RMIT International University Vietnam (

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In our group, none of us read all the journal articles in the reading list. Problems happened in the final stage of our presentation, when some Arab classmates raised their hands and asked some questions. To be honest, when we presented the "question and answer" slide, it was only a polite gesture rather than an invitation for challenging questions. Then we need to quickly decide whose responsibility it was to answer these "annoying questions", because frankly speaking, my attention to the presentation was gone immediately after I presented my part (2 PPT slides). I did not even understand what the questions were (or I chose not to listen to their questions). I did not expect someone to ask any questions. I guess my team members were facing the same problem at that moment, because we looked at each other with our mouths and eyes shockingly opened. Finally, under huge pressure, the group leader stood out and repeated the information in one of the slides (the slide he made). I did not think the audience was satisfied with his answer, because they asked us to give more examples with personal stories, not repeating the definitions of the theoretical concept again on the slide. None of us could help because none of us had read the articles about that theory.

So what lessons I have learned from my previous teamwork experiences?

1. Teamwork has not been invented to reduce workload. Obviously teamwork is required at a nice restaurant in order to finish a barbecue seafood buffet among friends (Trust me, I'm Chinese!). But it is very different from teamwork in conducting academic presentations. However, teamwork actually creates more jobs for team members because they need to spend more time on communicating with each other.

2. Good teamwork is not only a process of dividing a project into pieces with each member completing one piece of it. It is about building a collective understanding. Therefore, it's not appropriate to visualize teamwork in an academic setting like that of an assembly line in a car factory, where each worker is only in charge of making one small component of a vehicle.

My observations and teaching experiences at RMIT certainly indicate that some students may not get the point of completing a project in a collaborative way (e.g. a group presentation, a group assignment, a public event on campus). Here are some common complaints I and my colleagues often hear from students.

1. It's unfair. I did a lot of work, while some guys (mainly boys) did not do anything. We ended up with the same score.

2. I feel frustrated because I was the only one who actually wrote the report. It was too much for me. I need some help. If I had stopped working, all of us would have failed this module.

3. I failed my group assignment last semester, but I feel it was not my problem. My team members did not work at all.

As you may notice, fairness and scores are always at the centre of discussion about teamwork. Interestingly, teamwork, as a collaborative learning tool, was originally introduced as an alternative way to enhance the learning process (rather than learning outcome), to promote critical thinking skills (rather than low level learning such as memorization) and to provide a platform for members to learn by discussing and sharing. So what kind of conclusion can I draw here?

1. It is inappropriate to only assess teamwork based on the final outcomes (no matter whether it is a presentation or assignment) of a project. The process, such as the evidence of collaborating, agreeing/disagreeing with each other, arguing, convincing and persuading, needs to be collected and rewarded.

2. Feedback from lecturers needs to address the weaknesses and strengths in organizing teamwork.

3. The differences between "assessing for learning" (to promote learning) and "assessing of learning" (to assess the skills/abilities) need to be addressed. Teamwork alone is not a valid way to assess students' final achievement. It is problematic if a high-stakes assessment only uses teamwork to assess students' final academic performance.

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