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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Principles and guidelines in managing student teams

Donella Caspersz, Judy Skene and Madeline Wu
Business School
The University of Western Australia

Teamwork is a vital skill for students to acquire. However, research undertaken with student teams in a Business School confirms the influence of an array of individual-level and team-level factors on the performance of student teams. Yet staff and students alike often misunderstand and undervalue these aspects when managing student teamwork. The aim of this paper is to present a set of principles which may assist in the management of these factors when working with student teams. The paper is grounded both in the research program mentioned, which has been presented in previous papers, and reflection on the feedback obtained from student and staff focus groups and workshops.


Teamwork is a vital skill for students to acquire. However, research undertaken with student teams in a Business School confirms the influence of an array of individual-level and team-level factors on the performance of student teams. Yet staff and students alike often misunderstand and undervalue these aspects when managing student teamwork. The aim of this paper is to present a set of principles which may assist in the management of these factors when working with student teams. The paper is grounded both in a research program the findings of which have been presented in previous papers, and reflection on the feedback obtained from student and staff focus groups and workshops. The paper begins by briefly addressing the question of why we should use student teams in our teaching, before presenting a discussion about the principles which we believe influence the effective management of student teams.

The paper is a part of a manuscript that will be published by HERDSA and is presented to the Teaching and Learning Forum as part of a feedback process. Thus, the paper does not represent a definitive position on our work in this area, as we are continuously reviewing and revising our work. We nonetheless believe that the principles and guidelines discussed here represent the current stage of our work in this domain.

Why use student teams?

The use of formal work teams has become prevalent in managing work organisations both within Australia and elsewhere (Morehead et al., 1997). For instance, 47 per cent of workplaces surveyed for the 1995 Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (Morehead et al., 1997) used teams in managing workplaces. The popularity of teams as a management tool is linked to the empirical relationship established in the literature between improving the organisational capability of employees, and improving a firm's competitive advantage (Cascio, 1992; Delaney & Huselid, 1996; Valle, Martin, Romero & Dolan, 2000). Human resource management approaches such as the high performance work systems model argue that by using teamwork along with other strategies (for example extensive training), a firm can significantly improve its competitive advantage, performance and hence profitability (Huselid, 1995; Ichinowski et al., 1996; Pfeffer, 1998).

It is therefore not surprising that employers are urging universities to train graduates more effectively in generic skills such as teamwork. For instance, Eunson (The Australian, 11 December 2002) reported that a clear message emanating from the Australian Federal government report Employability Skills for the Future and other reports (see National Survey of Graduate Employers, 1993; Employers Satisfaction with Graduate Skills, 2000; Employability Skills for the Future, 2002) was that while employers were reasonably happy with the technical skills of tertiary-level graduates, they were unhappy with graduates' general skills which included the ability to write, speak, solve problems, and work in groups or teams. The dominance of teamwork as a method of organising work processes in Australian workplaces is a major reason therefore to equip our students with valuable generic teamwork skills to prepare them for employment in their post-University life.

However, there are also pedagogical reasons for using team projects in our teaching programs. Co-operative learning or working in teams (also referred to as collaborative learning or group work) has a demonstrated potential in achieving positive results (Slavin, 1986) in development of both academic skills (Johnson et al., 1981) and non-academic skills such as promoting understanding of others and self-esteem (Slavin et al., 1985). In addition, other research confirms that workforce productivity can improve if diverse teams are effectively managed (Cox and Blake, 1991; Adler, 1997; Richard, 2000; Distefano and Maznevski, 2000). Diversity within teams whether defined by cultural and/or linguistic background, age, gender, life experience or any combination of these many factors, can lead to improved creativity in problem solving (Gardenswartz et al., 1998), development of critical thinking skills (Day and Glick, 2000; Hurtado, 2002), improved social interaction by increasing willingness to share and appreciate different perspectives (Terenzini et al., 2001; Hurtado, 2002) and enhanced problem solving skills (Business-Higher Education Forum's Diversity Task Force, 2002).

Challenges in managing student teams

Whilst promoting the pedagogical benefits of team-work, there are however a number of challenges in managing student teams to perform effectively that are worthy of consideration. These stem from operational aspects associated with student teams as well as from students themselves.

Operational aspects of student teams

While work teams have time limits for completion of their project, they do not often have to manage a number of similar size projects with the same time deadline. In contrast, students quite often are managing a number of team projects that have the same completion deadline at any one time, thus highlighting a major time management challenge. Furthermore, a student team comes together for only a few weeks at a time, usually meeting in class time to plan their project. In other words, student teams do not 'live and breathe' a project in the same way that work teams may. They also do not have the opportunity for informal discussion about their team project in the way that members of work teams working alongside each other on a day-to-day basis do. In addition, work teams often have members who have specific roles, with specialised skills and designated positions within the hierarchy of the particular organisation, that are already established before the team is formed.

Members of work teams may have prior knowledge of their fellow team members. Student teams on the other hand are generally much more democratic groups. Many will function with a shared concept of leadership and will chose not to nominate one person as leader. Student teams will often have quite a similar skills set, so it is not immediately apparent who should take on which task. The team therefore needs to negotiate the process of working out their strengths and weaknesses as they may come together not having ever met before, or only some members of the group may have met in previous units of study or even in previous team projects. The significance of noting these operational differences between work and student teams is that the time span to manage issues emanating from student teams may be relatively short. Thus, acquiring 'tools' and resources to effectively manage student teams becomes even more of an imperative for both staff and students involved.

Student issues in working in teams

In addition to these operational aspects, challenges in managing student teams also come from students themselves. Their list of grievances about working in teams is lengthy (see Caspersz, Wu & Skene, 2002a; Buckenmeyer, 2000) and includes mismatched team member expectations about the grade team members aim for, the 'free rider' or 'social loafer' problem, inadequate definition of roles and responsibilities for successful completion of the team project, lack of leadership and inability to manage conflict, and different team member learning styles. Our experience has also highlighted that students experience time management problems in completing team projects. These are related to common 'team time' and juggling social, work and other study demands to complete their team projects.

Additional challenges emerge when attempting to manage diverse teams, particularly teams that are culturally diverse. For instance, research confirms that culturally diverse teams suffer from a number of issues including 'process loss' arising from inability to communicate clearly, frequent disagreements on expectations, and attitudinal problems such as dislike, mistrust and lack of cohesion (Adler, 1997; Watson & Kumar, 1992). Hinds, Carley, Krackhardt and Wholey (2000) suggest that individuals subsequently veer towards choosing other team members that resemble themselves. Also described as 'homophily' by Smith, Fisher and Sale (2001), the overall impact on individuals can be detrimental, as it restricts access to communication and information. However, it is imperative that we address the challenge of creating and managing diverse teams given that in 2003, international students accounted for 13 per cent of the student population in Australian universities, an increase of 16 per cent over the previous year. In business, economics and information technology courses international students usually outnumber domestic students by two to one (Hewett, 2003: 8). The research program that we have been conducting over the last three years has had to address the challenge of managing diversity in student teams effectively.

The initial focus of our research program was to assess the antecedents of student willingness to become involved in team projects. Three surveys were administered to students during a semester: pre, mid and at the end of the teamwork project. The surveys were implemented over three years with students undertaking a variety of undergraduate courses such as International Management, Industrial Relations, Managing Diversity and Asian Business. The surveys were constructed using already tested survey items and apart from generating descriptive statistics, ANOVA tests were run with the data.

The results of this first phase highlighted that a strong individualistic culture, coupled with a preference to retain control over tasks affected student willingness to be involved in teamwork. Social loafing defined as when one or more group members are perceived as contributing less than they could, was found to be significant in affecting student willingness to engage in teamwork, The desire for social approval by females and international students was also highlighted as affecting their willingness to engage in teamwork (see Caspersz , Skene and Wu, 2002 a & b). Interestingly however and using a 3 item construct, student self-efficacy or belief in their ability to do teamwork rated highly. Findings from this research subsequently stimulated development of print and training resources. Comparable to work by others (see Michaelsen, Fink, & Knight, 1997, Gibbs, 1994, a, b & c) these resources have been directed at students themselves, as well as those managing student teams, for instance, tutors and lecturing staff.

However, while identifying influences impacting on their willingness to undertake team projects, at the same time this early research confirmed that students firmly believed that they could work effectively in teams, co-ordinate team tasks and activities and most importantly, resolve conflict in teams (Caspersz, Wu & Skene, 2002). It was therefore hypothesised that students' experience of teamwork and willingness to engage in teamwork was influenced by intra-team process factors such as intra group trust, team member satisfaction, workload sharing, communication and cooperation, sub-group formation, shared leadership, leadership emergence and interpersonal work group processes. The second phase of the research project subsequently evolved to assess these factors. However, this focus was also partly developed in response to the increasing cultural diversity of our university student populations. Watson, Johnson and Merritt (1998) and Earley and Gibson (2002) confirm the need to address both individual-level and group level or team-oriented behaviours when attempting to manage cultural diversity in teams. While cautioning against setting up a team versus self focus in research, Watson et al (1998: 163-4) confirm the case for adopting this multi-level analysis: 'Because organisations today are relying more on the effectiveness of work teams as complicated by diversity issues, it is imperative that we better understand team issues versus self-issues affecting member interdependence.'

Survey methodology was again used in this second research phase using already tested survey items. In addition, tutor perceptions of team effective performance using a 9-item measure on a pre and post basis was also used (Caspersz, Skene & Wu, 2003). Data analysis of this research found that all constructs except for sub-group formation were significant in influencing team-level processes (Caspersz, Skene & Wu, 2003). Alpha coefficients were particularly high for intra group trust and interpersonal work group processes. Once again, this new research stimulated the development of additional print and training resources again aimed at both students and staff managing student teams.

The principles and guidelines that have been developed on managing student teams originate from this research program but also reflect lessons learnt from many workshops and focus groups held for both staff and students using both the research material and the resources developed. However, while presenting these principles and guidelines, we acknowledge that the context for each student team project is different and each teacher/facilitator/team manager may encounter challenges not referred to here. Thus, we do not consider our principles to be exhaustive nor restrictive.

Principles in managing student teams

Although there is a separate discussion about each principle below, we would urge you to consider all six as part of a whole. We maintain that a holistic approach incorporating all six principles interacting together will result in more effective management of student teams. Figure 1 depicts this relationship.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The six principles for managing student team based projects

Principle 1: Integrate the team project into unit curricula

In our experience team projects will not be an effective teaching and learning activity unless integrated into all aspects of the unit curricula. That is, and like any other aspect of your unit curriculum, you must highlight how the team project can assist students satisfactorily complete the unit. In our experience, this involves a range of activities including answering questions such as why you are using teams, how the team project will contribute to course outcomes, the skills students may gain from the team project and how the team project will assist student preparation for post-University work. However, integrating the team project also encompasses demonstrating your own commitment using strategies such as guaranteeing 'team time', facilitating planning for the team project, structuring your assessment process to balance team and individual work, ensuring teams have the skill and knowledge capabilities to complete the task and seeking student feedback on your management of the team project.

Principle 2: Preparing for teamwork

Whether students know each other or not prior to entering your unit, or whether you do or do not know your student body, we strongly recommend that you have a 'pre-teamwork phase' prior to determining the team membership. In our view this phase has a number of aims:
  1. To assist students' (and staff) get to know everyone's capabilities
  2. To assist students' understanding of foundational course concepts necessary to complete the team project task before embarking upon the team project.
  3. To assist in generating student commitment to effective team work.
This 'preparing for teamwork' or 'pre-teamwork' phase is based on the work of Michaelsen and Razook (2000) who refer to this as a Readiness Assurance Process for teamwork. In concurrence with these authors, we believe that a pre-teamwork phase is essential in laying the foundation for student commitment to the team project. That is, by actively helping students get to know their colleagues and ensuring that students have a common body of knowledge through a foundational assignment, we believe that the possibility to enhance student commitment to the team project may rise. However, a pre-teamwork phase on its own does not lead to effective team performance, while similarly a team project without a pre-teamwork phase may not stimulate effectiveness in team performance.

Finally, while identifying key objectives for this phase, at the same time we argue that you can creatively and effectively use a pre-teamwork phase to establish a culture of valuing diversity and encouraging diverse membership in team projects. This can be achieved by deliberately mixing group membership in pre-teamwork exercises as well as proactively intervening to enhance student understanding of how diversity influences skills and knowledge acquisition.

Principle 3: Generating team members' commitment

Our research confirms that our students possess an individualistic as opposed to a collectivist orientation with a strong preference to retain control over task completion. In addition, the research also highlighted that issues of intra-group trust and workload sharing were significant team-level processes affecting effective team performance. Given these findings, we believe that a major challenge in managing student teams is to get students to commit to each other and complete the team project to their satisfaction. However, we found a number of factors complicating our ability to generate team member commitment. One is the finite period of a student team life (typically between 10-12 weeks). An additional and equally complicating factor is the reality that many of our students these days are not only full time students, but also full time workers; thus the time they have to devote to team projects is also finite!

Addressing this principle in a practical sense therefore lies in pursuing a combination of all the principles outlined here. In particular we suggest that pursuit of the pre-teamwork phase (principle 2) and managing fairness (principle 5) are highly influential in facilitating student commitment to effective team work.

Principle 4: Monitoring team progress (and managing conflict)

Monitoring team progress is an essential component of managing teams. It helps keep track of team progress in terms of task completion, but also in terms of team members' satisfaction. Thus, this is an important phase in managing team conflict. While there are student-based activities that help monitor team progress, we believe that this responsibility mainly lies with you, if you are going to be able to successfully facilitate team projects in your units.

Principle 5: Managing fairness (and ensuring individual responsibility) in teams

In our view managing fairness in teams has a number of different aspects. The most obvious is ensuring fairness in the assessment process. However, we believe that managing fairness in teams also includes the following aspects that are in turn related to the previous principles already discussed as well as principle 6 below of managing cultural and linguistic diversity.
  1. Students should feel re-assured that staff has a commitment to facilitating effective student team performance (Principles 1, 2 and 4).
  2. Staff should ensure that each team has the skill level required to complete the project (Principle 2).
  3. Team members should feel confident in other team members' commitment to completing the team project (Principle 3).
  4. Team members should feel supported in developing the skills to manage diversity amongst team members, especially cultural diversity (Principle 6).

Principle 6: Managing cultural and linguistic diversity

The increasing internationalisation of Australian university student populations juxtaposed against current research issues in handling multicultural teams, poses a challenge for managing diversity in student team projects. As has been noted this challenge is all the more prescient because of research highlighting various difficulties in dealing with multicultural work teams (Adler: 1997; Watson & Kumar: 1992: Hinds et al: 2000; Smith, Fischer and Sale: 2001; Richard: 2000; Distefano & Maznevski: 2000). Nonetheless, we believe that managing cultural and linguistic diversity may be addressed by paying attention to the following:
  1. Using the pre-team work phase to highlight the benefits of cultural and linguistic diversity amongst the student population (principle 2), and the contribution students from diverse backgrounds can make.
  2. Ensuring that the team project task is one that all students can contribute to equally and does not favour the cultural and life experiences of any one particular group.
  3. Considering whether to proactively compose team membership paying attention to cultural and linguistic diversity.

General guidelines for managing student teams

Stemming from the discussion above and using the research and feedback gained over the last few years, the following general guidelines for managing student teams are thus proposed:


Using student teams as part of a teaching strategy is not an easy option. The reluctance amongst students combined with the potential for disasters sometimes makes the choice of using student teams one that staff avoid. We firmly believe however that the changes that have happened in the world of work obligate us to provide our students not just with team-work experiences, but the opportunity for them to also learn how to manage teams. However, achieving these objectives requires more than an ad hoc approach to using student teams in teaching. We advocate instead that those using student teams should invest in managing these teams. It is our hope that the framework provided in this paper may go some way towards assisting those interested in improving the effectiveness of their own work efforts in this domain.


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Authors: Dr Donella Caspersz is a lecturer in Organisational and Labour Studies at the UWA Business School. Improving employment relations is the overall theme uniting Donella's research interests. More specific research interests include improving student team effectiveness, managing cultural diversity in student teams, employment relations in family business and industrial relations dynamics between employers, unions and workers. Donella's teaching interests mirror these research interests and range from industrial relations to international management and Asian business.

Dr Judy Skene taught in Organisational and Labour Studies at the UWA Business School from 2000-2002. Her research interests include the effect of gender and cultural diversity in the workplace. Specific research interests include managing teamwork in the tertiary environment, transition to tertiary education, improving student diversity, and employment issues for ageing workforce. She is currently Transition Support Programme Coordinator in Student Services at UWA.

Dr Madeline Wu completed her PhD on team leadership effectiveness at the UWA Business School in 2004. Research interests include improving student team effectiveness, cross cultural communication issues and aviation safety.

Donella Caspersz, Judy Skene and Madeline Wu
Organisational and Labour Studies, Business School
The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009
Tel; 6488 2927 Fax: 6488 1055 Email: dcasperz@biz.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Caspersz, D., Skene, J. and Wu, M. (2005). Principles and guidelines in managing student teams. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/caspersz.html

Copyright 2005 Donella Caspersz, Judy Skene and Madeline Wu. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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