Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]|
Donella Caspersz, Judy Skene and Madeline Wu
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Figure 1: The six principles for managing student team based projects
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.
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.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.