Tools for improving communication, co-action and feedback skills in a master-level project course
Conference contribution, 2017
To increase master students’ knowledge about and skills in communication, co-action and feedback in project teams, I
have developed a fishbowl communication exercise and a related team feedback form with rubrics. In this workshop I
discuss these tools with Lars Marmgren, and you get to experience the fishbowl exercise yourselves.
The Chalmers master’s students whom I encounter, in the Embedded Electronic System Design program, are often
aware when things don’t work well in a project group, but many of them do not know how they individually should
aim to communicate to foster co-action in their group. To introduce four co-action rules useful in team work, I have
developed a fish-bowl exercise, a format introduced in the literature by Kane (1995), designed to be used at the
beginning of a master-level project course. The four rules for co-action were formulated by Christensen and
Marmgren (2005) and were first published in a MiL article at the MiL knowledge days in 2005. They have also later
been published in in English by Marmgren (2014). They are (in my formulation):
The rule of contributing: Team members have a responsibility to contribute to the issues in focus. Opinions, hopes,
feelings are valid contributions too, not just facts, work hours, and results!
The rule of inclusion: Team members have a responsibility to include the other team members in the process; to inquire
and be curious about what the others can contribute.
The rule of connecting: Team members have a responsibility to react and connect to the contributions of others; to offer
associations, support, or constructive critique.
The rule of integrating: Team members have a responsibility to make conclusions and integrate what has been said by
The fishbowl dialog stems from the reflecting-team model, developed for use in family therapy by Tom Andersen in
the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Brownlee et al (2009) gives a historical overview and review of the reflecting-team
model. One of its cornerstones is undisturbed listening. In the fishbowl dialog, one team is working while the other
one is observing it – then the observing team reflects on what it has heard. The distinctive trait is that the active team
is in a so called “fishbowl” and thus does not interact with its surroundings.
In my exercise two student teams take turns being the working and observing team, to make the exercise symmetrical.
The observed team forms an inner circle working on a real problem, usually their team agreement; the observing team
forms an outer circle and each student is assigned to particularly observe one member of the working team and his or
her use of the four communication rules. After a given time the two teams swap place and the observing team
discusses among themselves what they observed while the working team listens. Only after that can the two teams
address each other directly. Then the team roles are reversed. The whole exercise takes around one hour. My
experience is that the exercise works well even though the students are unused to the situation of observing and giving
feedback. I have noticed that the team that takes the working role last usually does better in using the four rules, which
hints on that they have learnt by observing intently. The exercise gives the student teams a good starting point for their
team work and some students get useful individual feedback to take with them.
For the academic year 2015/16 I thoroughly revised our ancient form for individual feedback among team members;
negative feedback from the 2014/15 student cohort helped me to get going. The revised form uses a 0-5 grading scale
and has rubrics. It has nine categories, three of which are related to the four rules. The additional categories are based
on Wheelan’s (2013) research on creating effective teams and on other team assessment forms I investigated. My
main objections to these other existing forms were their preconceived notions of how successful teams work. Recent
research at Google, reported by Duhigg (2016), shows that there are only two characteristics that all successful Google
teams share: team members have equal speaking time, over time, and team members feel safe in their team. Therefore,
at half time in the course I also asked the teams to assess to what extent they felt that this was true in their teams.
The course in which these tools are currently used is a 15-credit master-level project course where the assessment is
similar to that of the Chalmers bachelor thesis courses; that is the process is assessed explicitly. We have recently
adopted an agile project model in the course, which means that repeated reflection on the team’s work is built into the
project model. The ability for reflection is also one of learning outcomes of the course.
In conclusion, I feel that I now have tools that can be used throughout our course to initially raise the awareness of the
students and further on to assess the team as a whole and the individual team members. By giving the students the
rules from the start, we avoid assessing skills for which they do not have any knowledge.
In this workshop I will cooperate with Lars Marmgren. We will lead a version of the course fishbowl exercise, where
the topic of the group work will be a current topic in education at Chalmers.
Kane, C. M. (1995). Fishbowl training in group process. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 20(3), 183-188
Christensen S. and Marmgren L. (2005). Vägen mot samhandling. Några tankar om hur man stödjer innovativa
grupper, konstellationer eller system. MiLs kunskapsdagar, 19-20 Oktober 2005.
Marmgren, L. (2014). People at work: gestalt methodology and management. (1. uppl.) Stockholm: Books on Demand
Brownlee, K., Vis, J. A., & McKenna, A. (2009). Review of the reflecting team process: Strengths, challenges, and
clinical implications. The Family Journal, 17(2), 139-145.
Wheelan, S.A. (2013). Creating effective teams: a guide for members and leaders. (4th ed.) Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
Duhigg, C. (2016). Smarter, faster, better : [the secrets of being productive]. London: William Heinemann
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Information and Communication Technology
Learning and teaching