Collaborative Learning/Team Formation

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Collaborative learning requires team formation. There are several approaches to this:

  • Instructor forms teams randomly
  • Instructor forms teams purposefully
  • Students select their own teammates

Instructor forming teams randomly results in the luck of the draw for both students and instructor.

Instructor forming teams purposefully requires some background knowledge and reasons for the given organization. These may include grouping students with similar interests so they may focus on a specific topic, or grouping students with diverse abilities or backgrounds to enhance shared understanding. But care must be taken to avoid isolating at-risk students.

Students selecting their own teammates allows students to take ownership of and responsibility for their situation, and determine their own affinity for other team members, typically determined by work style. Proactive students will tend to group together, as will procrastinators. This can eliminate much of the friction teams typically experience.

However, research has shown that allowing students to form their own teams also influences outcomes. In many ways the overall quality of a project can be predicted based on when a team forms compared to other teams. But this approach does provide leadership opportunities for procrastinators who truly want to succeed, and prevents students unwilling to pull their own weight from getting a free ride.

With any team formation approach, the instructor must be prepared to make adjustments if they find a team that is unable to function productively. Some instructors allow teams to vote off unproductive members, with those removed from a team left to find a new team or complete the project on their own.

When considering team size, it is important to recognize the number of communication channels between team members increases exponentially based on team size. A team of three has 3 potential communication channels, while a team of four has 6, and a team of five has 10. Larger teams must spend more time communicating, resulting in lower productivity.

For projects lasting more than a couple of weeks, the use of some type of team charter to share contact information, member strengths, meeting plans, expectations, and communication / conflict resolution is recommended.

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