Notes on “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams”

September 25, 2008

Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams: Barbara Oakley, Richard M. Felder, Rebecca Brent and Imad Elhajj.

The gist: Team homework is better in every way than individual homework. Teachers should encourage teamwork, teach teamwork skills and use support techniques to encourage success. The paper includes many such techniques.

The good: This paper is pragmatic. It’s grounded in research as well as the anecdotal experiences of the authors. The advice is reasonable and clear. They provide reusable resources to help teachers adopt their processes.

The bad: I objected to a few points. The authors include extensive discussion of “hitchhikers,” (students who do no work) but seem overly optimistic about the effect of group work on these students.


Left to their own devices, the stronger students in the class will tend to seek one another out, leaving the weaker ones to shift for themselves, which works to no one’s benefit.

It seems to me that this works to the strong students’ benefit.


…the weak students get the benefit of seeing how good students approach assignments…

I’m not willing to accept this as a premise. I would want to see a citation or research to support the hypothesis that weak students learn good work habits from stronger students. 


…strong students who do the tutoring may benefit even more…

If the goal is to give strong students the benefit of teaching, there are more efficient means than forcing them to work with weaker students.


…when they join a company… they will not be presented with a list of employees and asked who they’d like to work with…

I hate this justification for artificial teamwork. First, not everyone is aiming to work for a company. Some people start their own companies, and others go into academia. Second, high performers self-select into companies that have other high performers. One of the reasons lots of smart people want to work for Google and Fog Creek is because they know they’re reducing their risk of working with low performers. Third, in industry there are real consequences for slackers. There are carefully designed processes to weed them out. In good organizations (where the high performers go), slackers don’t last long.


…the focus of the curriculum should change from reducing attrition to preparing students for the workplace…

I have deep issues with a curriculum focused on reducing the dropout rate. I have other deep issues with a curriculum designed to groom students for corporations. I accept neither the statement nor the implicit assumption.


All in all, this is an excellent paper.


One Response to “Notes on “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams””

  1. […] On Non-Truthful Peer Evaluation Mechanisms February 23, 2009 In September, I reviewed a paper called “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams.” […]

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