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Why user manuals should be your foundational collaborative document

This article is a part of our series on how to help students create their own collaborative superpower. Check out our collaboration roadmap to learn more.

One common reason why teams fail is that team members do not fully understand each other and don’t communicate what they want from the team and each other as teammates. We all are wired differently and have different personalities, communication styles, expectations, and needs. We’ve been shaped by different experiences and histories. That creates challenging dynamics when you bring people together and expect them to accomplish difficult goals.

Conflict will inevitably arise unless a shared understanding exists of each team member’s differences and the way that each teammate prefers to work with and interact with each other. Getting to this point is hard unless team members have a way of sharing with each other their strengths, weaknesses, and what they want from a team. This is where the idea of a user manual comes in.

What is a user manual?

As the name suggests, a student’s user manual explains to others how to work with them. Just like a user manual for a product might explain how it works and how to operate it to get the most out of it, a student’s user manual sets out what they like and don’t like in teammates, what they look for in a team to feel included and a sense of belonging, and the way they like to work with others. It is a detailed road map on each student’s individual preferences for how they would like to interact with team members and how they want their teammates to interact with them.

Having team members create their own user manual and share it with their teammates has a number of significant benefits, each of which greatly enhances a team’s ability to work together:

  • It sets clear expectations for team members for how to interact with each other, without them trying to guess or infer what the other person is thinking or how they might react. Instead of students trying to figure out what each other like and don’t like as they go, they are working with more information upfront

  • It enables team members to pre-empt possible areas of conflict up front and identify strategies to ensure each team member can work productively together. If one student prefers saying what they think and another student dislikes being given negative feedback in front of a group, these two students would likely come into conflict unless they knew this about each other. Now that they share this knowledge, they can create strategies to ensure that the more forthright student can give constructive feedback in a way that doesn’t embarrass or humiliate the other

  • It increases trust and team chemistry. By understanding each other more deeply, it allows teams to utilise each other’s strengths and create strategies to mitigate their weaknesses

What does a student need to know about themselves to create one?

It follows that, for a student to create their own user manual, they need a relatively high degree of introspection and self-awareness. They need to understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. They need to be able to identify what frustrates them and energises them when working with others.

If students haven’t had time to think about this or haven’t been given the tools to aid their introspection and self-reflection, it is likely that the user manual they produce will either not be accurate or will only be superficial. It therefore won’t be a powerful tool in helping their teammates truly understand them and won’t enable strategies to enhance team cohesion.

To ensure students have sufficient depth in their self-awareness to create a meaningful and accurate user manual, we recommend the following steps:

Complete a personality test

It is recommended that students complete a personality test based on either the Myers-Briggs testing methodology, or one based on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits. Though inexact, these can be used as a guide in helping students understand how they are wired and how that influences how they might think in or respond to different situations

We have included links below to free (but reputable) tests for each of these methodologies.

  • Myers-Briggs methodology (16 Personalities). This test contains 100 questions and will take around 15 minutes

  • Big Five personality trait methodology (FiveThirtyEight). This is a shorter quiz, containing only 30 questions. It should take around five minutes to complete

An important caveat for personality tests which students need to understand is that they should be used as a guide, not a rule. Students may see themselves in some elements of their results but disagree with others. That is completely fine – it is impossible to completely define all the nuances of each individual person with a simple multiple-choice test. Students should therefore be encouraged to reflect on both what they agree and disagree with in their results, explaining with examples where possible.

If students complete the 16 Personalities test, they should take special note of the ‘Strengths & Weaknesses’, ‘Friendships’, and ‘Workplace Habits’ sections. The results in these sections will be most relevant to students in a classroom context and might help them gain an insight – or trigger recognition – of their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences when working in a team.

If students complete the FiveThirtyEight test, students will receive a score for each trait and a ranking for various sub-traits. Students should take careful note of where they are high or low on any particular sub-trait and consider how that might impact the way they work as part of a team.

Create a learner profile

Based on their results, students should create a ‘learner profile’ which is about setting actionable strategies. Students can use the data from their personality test – as well as their own perspective and feedback from their teacher – to identify their strengths and weaknesses and how these could be both a positive and a negative in a team environment. Students should be encouraged to create a plan for how they can mitigate or manage their weaknesses and how to leverage their strengths in a team environment.

Recognise their emotions and their triggers

Students should reflect to identify the circumstances under which they might experience certain emotions and how they know that they are experiencing that emotion. This helps them identify their specific triggers and how they react when that emotion first presents itself. In particular, this should be done when thinking about working as part of a team. Reflection questions could be:

  • When I work with others, I get frustrated or irritated when:

  • When I work with others, I get anxious or stressed when:

  • When I work with others, I get angry or mad when:

  • When I work with others, I get sad or disappointed when:

Ideally, students should share the results of this step with their team in their user manual. If teammates know what makes each other respond emotionally, it better helps them identify the emotions in others and to create a team dynamic where those stressors are mitigated and managed.

Putting it all together in a user manual

Step 1: Each student creates their own user manual

Using data and learnings from the above steps, students can now create a user manual which comprises deep and accurate reflections of how they like and do not like to work with others.

We recommend that a user manual contain questions that each student completes to create a standardised format across the class. We’ve included some suggested questions below:

  • When I work with others, my strengths are:

  • When I work with others, I can improve on these areas:

  • I feel like a valued part of a team when:

  • I like communicating with others when:

  • I am comfortable giving and receiving feedback when:

  • I learn and work well when:

  • I am more likely to stay focused and motivated when:

  • What some people misunderstand about me is:

As a good way of building trust with students, it is recommended that teachers also create a user manual for themselves and share it with their class.

Step 2: Teacher ‘sign-off’ and individual discussion

It is recommended that, before students share their user manuals with their teammates, the teacher sights each students’ user manual and briefly comments on it. The aim of this is mainly to ensure that students have taken it seriously and have completed it. Teachers shouldn’t provide substantive feedback on the contents of the user manual as this is a personal document.

Step 3: Share user manual with team members

Once students are grouped into teams, they should share their user manuals with each other. This step is the most important as it is vital to building a sense of shared trust and psychological safety. Students are being asked to show some vulnerability in explaining their work preferences to each other, so it is imperative that their team members show them respect and listen carefully.

Set the ground rules for this interaction carefully and explicitly:

  • Each student shares a copy of their user manual with their teammates (if printed) and then explains or reads it to their teammates

  • Other team members listen while others are reading and explaining their user manual. They are not allowed to interrupt or ask questions until the student has finished, so they should take note of any questions they might want to ask at the end

  • Once a student finishes, their teammates can ask clarifying questions or share what they found interesting or surprising. Under no circumstances should any student express criticism or ridicule for what another person has shared

Step 4: Reflection and strategy creation

Once each team member has shared the contents of their user manual, teams should use what they have learned to create proactive strategies to enhance their ability to work together. To do so, teams should highlight and discuss where team members have different preferences in how they communicate or how they work. Again, there should be no judgement or criticism of any one person’s differences. The sole purpose is simply to identify that there is a difference or a mismatch which, if left unremedied, might eventually cause conflict. A good way to explain this to students is that they aren’t ‘wrong spotting’, they are 'difference spotting'.

Once these differences are identified, students should think about strategies for how to ensure these differences can be managed. Common differences might include:

  • Some students are happy to receive direct, constructive criticism, whilst others don’t like it or don’t like receiving criticism in public

  • Some students like volunteering suggestions and ideas whilst other students may be less reluctant to speak up. This might mean their ideas are not heard

  • Some students might prefer working with very clear goals and task parameters, whilst others are happy to figure it out as they go

  • Some students might prefer to constantly discuss ideas and check with their teammates whether what they are working on is correct, whilst others might prefer to work alone and uninterrupted and only share their work once completed

Once strategies have been put in place, students should confirm that they agree with them and ‘sign off’ on them as a team. This can be built into their team contract. These strategies can then be presented to a teacher so that the teacher can verify the extent to which students have shared and understood each other’s user manuals and the likely effectiveness of their proposed strategies. Feedback can be given to teams if their proposed strategies need to be tweaked.

For each subsequent project, students can share their user manual with their new teammates. They will get better at recognising the differences in work and collaboration preferences and improve their ability to create and implement strategies to manage these differences. We think this is a collaborative superpower that too few people have.

Do you know an educator who would be interested in learning more about how to build collaborative skills in students? If so, please share this article with them!

If you are passionate about teaching collaboration and want to learn more, get in touch with us at We’re always happy to exchange ideas with our PBL community!

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