Students working and learning in teams is a common feature of many SEKE modules (and indeed non-SEKE modules). The way students are allocated to teams requires careful consideration, especially to those additional aspects that arise when students are working with an external collaborator.
A team allows more complex problems to be resolved than if an individual was assigned to the project, and team working helps develop important skills for students’ employment.
Allocation of students to teams presents additional challenges such as:
- The impact of any team dynamics problem can affect progress towards delivering an outcome for an external client;
- Clients may expect a higher standard than students are used to at University within a classroom environment;
- The nature of external projects often brings unforeseen challenges, changes of scope, and direction that require teams to be flexible and creative.
- The project may extend for several weeks, so an effective allocation, and a way of changing this, is vital.
What is a team?
Understanding the difference between a team and a group is important. Although the terms sometimes get mixed up, we should keep the focus on “team”.
A group is a collection of individuals working on the same task – they have no particular accountability to each other, even if they form good relationships, and are not held to account as a cohesive unit to produce something.
A team is generally a group of individuals working towards a common goal, using approaches and methods for which they are mutually accountable. “Mutually accountable” is important, as it means all the team members must share responsibility for the overall approach and aims of the project.
Methods for allocating students
There are a number of methods to consider below. We offer pros and cons of each and then a list of questions to help you decide which is the most appropriate method for your situation. Often students ask how teams will be created, tutors need to be comfortable with the reasoning.
- self-selection. You ask students to self-select, but this can exclude quieter students, and mean that dominant students, sometimes from the same ethnic group, can band together. Groups of friends may gather together and inadvertently exclude others who join the team later. However, Osmuns and Roed (2014) indicate that Higher Education students prefer this mode choosing students from the same ethnic background because they find this more comfortable and assisted communication. A significant problem with a seminar group of say 20 students is that self-selection may lead to some students feeling left out, or not chosen first.
- Random selection. The tutor facilitates the random selection of team participants e.g. through selecting from a hat; computer randomised selection; alphabetically mixing up by first name. Consider semi-random, as a totally random method may work against inclusion of students. A semi-random approach might use a random approach as a start point, and then apply some kind of diversity element – e.g. to avoid a team of all of one gender.
- Competency based. There can be different ways of doing this.
Students carry out a skills audit and you put students in a team so that there is a mix of skills. For example, mix up students to have a range of skills in a team whose project is to create a computer game. This assumes the audit is adequately representative of the tasks to be done – in some projects, the exact nature of the task and client might not be known.
The tutor does this competency-based selection by, for example, looking at past grades – but this has certain challenges: does one mix up teams of varying grades, or stream them into high, medium and low historical grades? And are past grades good indicators of how students will learn on a SEKE project?
The tutor may make some assessment of competence based on early weeks in class, when the tutor can see who appears to be reliable and engaged and who is not.
- Personal style preferences. e.g. The Big 5 dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (in effect this means social and emotional resilience). Students can do this in class, without the University subscribing to an official paid-for inventory assessment online. The Big 5 is one of the most commonly used inventories to assess style. It can lead to a rich debate in class, as there is no leaning towards one end of a dimension being better than another. However, the Big 5 does not assess one’s technical competence to do a task.
- Diverse team selection. Select the team based on a variety of characteristics e.g. gender, geography, ethnicity. This can be quite tricky, as we are all made up of multiple dimensions, with some dimensions more visible than others. Your University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies may shape the way this might be done. We have found that before doing a SEKE module, some students from certain countries or regions, may have preferred to be with their own ethnic group a fair bit, and so a diverse group can open up new possibilities for learning.
Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. They depend on the time available to make the selection, the length of the task, students’ prior learning, the duration of the task and development opportunities. Download the Advantages and Disadvantages of Team Selection Methods here.
Questions to consider in choosing a team allocation method
- Does the method need to be consistent across the whole cohort? e.g. might tutor A using one method, and tutor B using another lead to complaints?
- How confident and skilled are tutors in using the different methods?
- Does the nature of the project and the client have an effect? A more demanding client may have higher expectations of teams developing faster than students would like.
- What about co-creating the method with the students, so they have some say in the matter?
- How will the teams be supported to develop and get to know unfamiliar team members?
- Does the team need to have the same members throughout the project?
- How easily can a tutor change a team composition? e.g. if there is a conflict, can the tutor swap members across teams?
A note on inventories
There are many inventories, such as Belbin, DISC, MBTI, Truity and the Big 5. They have advantages and drawbacks, but there is a risk that students self-label, when in fact we can perform different roles in different styles in different situations – especially in a small team. Like all models, these inventories might not have universal application. However, the Big 5 still appears to be widely used despite its age.
This tool has discussed the different methods for allocating students to groups or teams, and will enable tutors to confidently decide which is the most appropriate method to use.