Cross-year student-led teams: Playful team formation

BITE Business Project March 2012-31
The business and management discipline tends to be more practice-based than other disciplines mainly because its subject matter (organisations) is embedded in the socio-economic fabric of the nation. Thus, more than most disciplines it tends to use the device of project teams to facilitate learning amongst the students.

Team-based projects have a long and difficult history in business education. In fact, the history is so chequered that many universities are removing summative team-based assessments from their curriculum despite the fact that team-work is one of the top items in any employer’s wish list of graduate skills and ability.

Issues cited by students and staff regarding team-work assessment include 1. freeloading (students cruising on the back of other students’ work) 2. Lazy grading process (where the grade is not differentiated by performance and thus is viewed as unfair) and 3. Quasi-team working (where individual contributions are assessed rather than the team’s output or performance allowing for individuals to wash their hands over the team’s output).

There are two methods of creating student teams: one is the self-select method where students select whom they partner up with and the tutor-led method where the instructors choose the composition of the teams. There are issues with both methods of composing teams:

  1. In tutor-select mode students are unhappy and the unhappiness is of two sorts: either the “I-don’t-like-to-work-with-this-person-because…” variety or the “team-does-not-appreciate-my-contributions…” variety with countless permutations.
  2. In self-select mode there are three major issues; a. when students cannot find people to form teams with b. when the teams they form with their mates experience a crisis (which leads to the collapse of the team) and c. the lack of innovation inherent in teams of like-minded individuals.

From an educator’s perspective (or at least from this educator’s perspective) the tutor-led mode offers more opportunities for learning when it is done thoughtfully. First of all it offers the opportunity for students to work with peers whom they may not understand and most likely would never choose to work with. That means it enables students to venture out of their comfort zones and expose themselves to the “other” thus enabling students to work with a variety of people and in a variety of contexts. In a globalised world that ability is well-prized and should be part and parcel of management education. The second reason is that diverse, multi-cultural teams may be inefficient at first but they do tend to be more creative and innovative; their diversity becomes the root of lateral thinking and creativity. The third reason is that if tutors select, there is a possibility of creating teams that are equal in academic strength to each other and thus ensure equity at the starting point.

One way to overcome the issues caused by either mode of team selection (and create an array of novel problems to deal with) is to hybridise the team formation process so that it is partially tutor-led and partially student-led. One way our team suggests this could be done is by using cross-year project teams. Effectively one synchronises the syllabus so that both Year 1 and Year 2 students (hereinafter Y1s and Y2s) have projects in their year’s content and at the same time. Then when it is project time, the tutor arranges the Y2s in teams of roughly equal strength (based on past performance, results and overall engagement) and then provides them a range of live projects to bid for. After they secure a project via a competitive process then via a simulated job fair they are tasked to recruit Y1s to join the Y2 group and support the successful completion of the project. The process can indeed simulate the graduate job fairs with the process of recruitment taking place in that space/time and the Y2s acting as the recruiters for Y1s. Y1s have to enter the fair and be ready to be interviewed, have their CVs ready and be able to contribute from day 1 to the project that Y2s have been asked to tackle.

The benefits here are that the Y2s teams may not have chosen their Y2 team-mates but have had the responsibility and choice of whom to recruit (thus student-led team formation) among the Y1 students. The added benefit of the whole process is that each student gets the experience of being the person who recruits and manages a project (in Y2) as well as preparing their skillset and their CV for getting recruited (in Y1).

And this experiential, vigorous, employability-related learning is driven by a live project and a real client.


Dr. Alexander K. Kofinas, Principal Lecturer in Business Systems and Strategy at University of Bedfordshire Business School, will be presenting a workshop on 'Managing cross-year project teams' at our Learning, Teaching & Student Experience conference (LTSE) on 25-26th April in Bristol.