How Instructors Can Design Better Teams In The Classroom

by Matthew Russell

A recent IBM developerWorks article looks at taking CS as a major and ultimately as a career. It's pretty insightful and worth reading, but I would draw your attention to one passage in particular:

The way computer science was traditionally taught, you were assigned individual projects, you worked on them alone, and that became your view of the working world. I believe if the education better matched the real, team-based experience, where skills are applied to solving real-world problems, it would have more appeal. As an industry, we need to do more to get that message out. (Emphasis mine.)


The boy ken
2006-04-08 19:15:30
I'm all in favour of not dumbing down education, and am also of the opinion that not everyone who starts a degree should finish it (/ come out with a piece of paper). However, I'm not sure your 'rich get richer, poor get poorer' scheme of education would be that great an opportunity for all.

For instance, suppose the teams are always 5 people in size (for the sake of illustration). And suppose there are 10 people in the class. And suppose you're the 6th brainiest (assuming that's it's easy to measure 'brainy' of course). You don't stand a chance of succeeding, simply because you can't possibly do the work of the other 4 people in your team (which, by your measure, would be the only chance of your team getting a good mark as they're too stupid / lazy to do it right themselves). Especially as you'd be competing against 5 elite team members, not even a team of similar standing as the one you're in.

Also, you seem to be assuming that people are equally brainy in all aspects of life / the degree they're studying, and that this is easy to measure (erm, before they've done any assignments by the sounds of it as you need to know this ranking in order to set the teams for the assignments). This is a flawed assumption. Somebody who might be good at programming might be bloody awful at communicating, or someone who is good at designing code might be terrible at implementing it (they wouldn't even need to know a specific programming language in order to be a good code designer, although it would probably help). So by your technique of polarising the brain power into 'good' and 'bad' teams, you need to (a) assume that there is a universal 'brainy' measurement so that you can (permanently for the duration of the course) rank people. And you need to know this score before they've handed anything in, in order to set the teams.

Even if there were a way of universally scoring someone's intelligence, and even if you could measure this at the start of the degree, I think your technique is still fundamentally flawed... following it through to its logical conclusion, why bother getting them to do assignments if you already know who the brainy / thick ones are. Why not just give them their 1sts / 2.1s / 2.2s / passes / fails etc. in the first week, along with a pile of books to read through if/when they feel like it, and save yourself a load of work :-s

I _do_ believe in distributing brain power, simply because I believe there is no universal 'brainy' scale that works across all subject domains (I consider myself a good AI programmer, but I'd be a terrible audio programmer, to use the example of programming). Furthermore someone might turn out to be good at something that they weren't good at when they began the degree (you are there to learn, after all). So if you're measured during a task that you're not that good at (at that point in the degree), then your whole degree would be scuppered. In my case I probably wouldn't have gone on to do a masters or PhD because of it. I also believe that there is a difference between 'potential' and 'ability'... you can have the potential to do something even if you're not yet able to do it (because for instance you haven't yet been taught it). People who apply themselves can learn a great deal by being in a team, not just about the subject, but about teamwork. Therefore to be the smart bloke in the same 'thickos' team each time, you'd never learn anything. Besides possibly how to do 5 peoples' work on your own (to use the numbers from above).

Even in the 'smart' team, they would become rather dependent upon all team members being smart in order to succeed at the task. Oh that this were the case when they leave education and enter the real world...

I think you make a key point though. Ignoring intelligence, and focussing solely on laziness for the moment: in order for people to work hard, in the real world they have incentives (eg. salary / promotion / 'employee of the month' badges etc., whatever it is). They may have a target set (in the example of the sales world), which is easily measured. If they've done the work they get the perk. In the case of a group target this may be a little more like the university 'team' scenario you're describing, where it doesn't discourage laziness (a lazy person will let the rest of the team do the work to reach the group target, and show up when it's time to share the reward for the team's hard work). Personal targets are more difficult to dodge, so my suggestion is to make team based education projects have individual 'targets' (the target being 'participation'), otherwise you don't get the same score as your more harder working teammates.

One possible solution (I'm not saying it's perfect, but I believe it's less flawed than the one you offer) if to get team members to vote on how much of an effect the other team members had on the specific project being handed in. So say I'm 1 of 5 team members, I would have 100% to divvy up to the other team members (you can't vote for yourself otherwise it encourages everyone to give themselves 100%, which defeats the point of the exercise!). So if I was happy with all of the team members' input, I'd give them 4x25%. If I thought one was a freeloader, I'd give 3x33.3% and 1x0%. When all team members have done this, the marker totals up each team members' percentages (as given by the other members), and applies this to the team's score for the assignment. This then gives you a personalised score for each team member, according to how much effort they put into it.

Of course the scheme isn't perfect. 2 lazy team members could mutiny by agreeing to give each other 100%, to the exclusion of the other team members. Sometimes it would take more than 2 members to ally themselves, but you get the point. Equally not everyone is happy about snitching on lazy members, so some people always give equal scores to the other members. Finally, what do you define as 'contribution' when assigning your team mates percentages? I might assign it based on hours worked / attendance, whereas you (or other team members) might assign it based on intelligence (eg. they only showed up for 5 mins of the 2 weeks, but they knew exactly what to do whereas the rest of us were fumbling around).

As I say, not perfect but it at least attempts to filter out the lazy ones from the hard workers. As long as students know this scoring system before the assignment commences, they know that they stand to get 0% of the team score if the other team members think they haven't been pulling their weight, therefore there is an incentive to work hard (or at least ally with other lazy members to grab all of the percent!).

Failing that, chain them to the lab desks so they're forced to attend, and force them to read the books using the eyelid technique first shown in A Clockwork Orange... at my Uni we find it to be very effective, although student admission numbers suffer when word catches on :)

2006-04-08 23:38:42
I find the boy ken's rebuttal exceptionally well reasoned. Hear, hear!
2006-04-09 10:07:42
Just a couple of comments, although not from a CS p.o.v. (majors in geology and physics...)

If you are thinking of a group project as a way to get "real world" experience, then I think you need to go about it differently. Assign random groups -- as with a real project, some team members know each other, some do not.

As for grades, the team gets a team grade. Fair? Perhaps, perhaps not. Realistic? Sure. There's always going to be somebody on a team with the most experience, the strongest work ethic, the highest "intelligence" -- and someone who is the opposite. If a team member is not pulling his/her own weight, it is up to the team to either motivate that person, or pick up the slack -- or find some way to let the person in charge know that one team member is slacking off.

Another alternative to the "everyone gets the same grade" theory is to require each group to draw up a work plan, where each team member is assigned a specific task (having everyone sign that they've committed to that task is another 'real world' sort of idea). The person grading can then check out the work, and if it is fairly clear that one particular task is incomplete, then the person responsible can be given a lower grade.

I did have a lab class that did essentially this -- the prof. assigned us to groups alphabetically, and we were given a series of two week labs to complete, with full blown lab reports. My group divvied up each lab report into sections, and assigned each person a section (rotating each week, so the work evened out). While our prof. graded on a group basis only, it would have been easy for him to find out who was responsible for a given section each week, and potentially assign a different grade to that person.

I admit, I'm not a big fan of having students assign each other grades, just because of all the extraneous stuff that can go into it (everyone gives everyone else an 'A' so you don't have to think about it, the social clique deliberately gives low grades to the people they don't like, the lazy collaborators give each other good grades, people have different ideas about what a 'C' effort vs. a 'B' effort is, etc.), but the right person could make it work, I think. Perhaps requiring some kind of justification paragraph for each grade would help -- but in this case, I would never use these grades directly as part of the final grade -- more of a guideline?

(That's just me :) -- I can see others making this work well).

But, realistically speaking again, there will always be an unequal division of work in a team situation -- lazy team members, people overcommitted to other projects, the person with the least experience, a team member who suffers a sudden medical/family emergency, etc. There's not a lot of "fair" about the real world...if you want to learn to work with a team, you need to learn how to work with the people that can't/won't do everything you expect of them.

2006-04-09 16:57:39
Anonymous, if by "exceptionally well reasoned" you mean pertaining not at all to the original post, then I agree.

In response to the boy ken, the main point you're missing is why the coasters coast. To be fair, Matthew Russell may have missed this too, and he does introduce the terminology of "smartest" as opposed to "not-so-smartest". Nevertheless, the real problem is why the coasters coast.

You're right that intelligence itself is terribly hard to measure in any useful way. However, the "smartest" in an academic context is the person with the highest grades. That's the only measure that the profs have.

Have you ever thought about what grades actually represent? Basically, they measure whether someone completes the work in a way that satisfies the professor's expectations. There are several components required for this:

1. you're not a moron
2. you work sufficiently hard to actually complete the work
3. you care about your grades enough that you work a little bit harder

To sum up: Mozart could coast through music school, right? But if he wanted better than a B average, he'd have to work almost as hard as everyone else.

So, what separates the coasters from the "smartest" is primarily that the "smartest" care about their final grade enough more than the coasters that they are willing to do 80-90% of the work—and sometimes even more than that—so as to ensurethat they get a grade they are satisfied with. This entirely cuts through the difference in ability: people who care about their grades tend to be shooting for an overall gpa, rather than merely getting good grades in certain classes.

If you take away the skids for the coasters to coast on, then they have to actually do the work to get the B-average that they want.

What about the hangers-on, then? If you put all the clueless people together, how would they cope? Well, if they still want good grades they'll have to get help from the TAs. Nevertheless, this may not be enough.

This suggests a different approach to assigning projects. First, if the hardest workers are going to excel, they have to have something to excel at. Second, if the clueless are going to survive, the expectations they have to meet can't be quite the same as the ones who are trying to excel. Suppose that, instead of getting a qualitative grade on the result of the project, you get a pass/fail result on a list of criteria. For a C it may be criteria 1 through 5. For a B, those plus 6-8. For an A, add 9-12. A 100% is a pass on all 12 criteria. Only 1-10 would be a 95%.

Also, the boy ken, your spurious example of a class of ten with groups of five is over the top. In a class of only ten, the groups should be of around two.

One last thing: squawky, the real purpose of a classroom situation should be to teach people the most possible about the subject. School is a pretty horrible environment to try to replicate any facet of the "real world" working environment. This approach of homogenous teams and projects with stepwise criteria for grading would create a situation where teams would have much more evenly distributed workloads and everyone would be challenged. In the long run, although they may not be prepared for workaday teamwork, they'd have learned the subjects much better, and done a lot more, on average, to earn their degree.

The fact of the matter is, even in grad school at a university with a highly reputable CS program, one of my friends is struggling with this problem. She's probably the hardest worker I know and so has to carefully pick who she works with. Even so, she still gets saddled with more than her share of the work a lot of the time. She's perpetually debugging her partner's code, and in one case her partner left town for thanksgiving without giving her his part of the work due after the break.

The boy Ken
2006-04-10 06:33:45
ThoperSought, in response to:

Anonymous, if by "exceptionally well reasoned" you mean pertaining not at all to the original post, then I agree.

In response to the boy ken, the main point you're missing is why the coasters coast. To be fair, Matthew Russell may have missed this too

So my reply to the article missed the point which wasn't being made in the article?! Isn't your point somewhat contradictory?

However, the "smartest" in an academic context is the person with the highest grades

True. If you read my post carefully, you'll see that I make the point not everyone is smart in every aspect of an academic context though, making it difficult to see who the 'generically' smart ones are, which the blogger would have needed to know in order to implement their solution.

the "smartest" care about their final grade enough more than the coasters that they are willing to do 80-90% of the work... so as to ensurethat they get a grade they are satisfied with. This entirely cuts through the difference in ability

I believe I too had differentiated between smartness and laziness. Good to see both you and I are missing the 'main' point of the article now, ThoperSought :)

First, if the hardest workers are going to excel, they have to have something to excel at.


Second, if the clueless are going to survive, the expectations they have to meet can't be quite the same as the ones who are trying to excel.

Erm, so if you just act clueless you'll be given special dispensation and only have to work half as hard to get good marks?! I'm not sure I buy this one. Either everyone in the class is studying for a degree/qualification in X, or they're not. Whether they're aiming for a 1st or a pass (3rd class), is another matter. If that's what you mean, then OK I agree but you don't make your point terribly clearly on this issue.

Suppose that, instead of getting a qualitative grade on the result of the project, you get a pass/fail result on a list of criteria. For a C it may be criteria 1 through 5. For a B, those plus 6-8. For an A, add 9-12. A 100% is a pass on all 12 criteria. Only 1-10 would be a 95%.

This point I also find a bit confusing. You start by saying get rid of grades and replace with 'pass/fail'. You then go on to rank 'passes' by percentage and/or letters. But if you're saying there should be hard and fast criteria for getting certain marks, then this is what happens already in every University I've worked with in England (maybe it's different in the states / elsewhere, I can't comment on their education system). Granted I only deal with computer science programs, although I've seen it used in Psychology and Nursing courses too, so it can't be all that uncommon.

Also, the boy ken, your spurious example of a class of ten with groups of five is over the top.

Well now that would be why I put "for the sake of illustration" wouldn't it :) By taking the numbers to the extreme, you most easily highlight the problems.

In a class of only ten, the groups should be of around two.

I disagree with you that the groups should be of around two... it entirely depends on the assignment how big the teams should be! For some assignments 5 people in a team is way too big, and for some tasks, 2 people in a team is way too small. So you can't just decide team size based solely on class size.

Moving on, further to my original comment, if you keep all the smart people in one team and all the not-so-smart people in another team (and this is an _extreme example_ to prove the point, ThoperSought...) then you run the risk that the smart people will lose motivation / rest on their laurels, as they always win, and the not-so-smart people give up because they don't stand a chance of winning. So in this scenario, everyone loses out. Personally I believe that by mixing up the teams each time, it encourages competition. Competition can be an incredible stimulant in an educational setting, if used correctly (where promotion / salary don't exist as perks, one of the only perks available is who came top).

I think Squawky makes good points, and I agree that the solution I offered isn't perfect (I even said so when offering it). The problem with my solution is that it's open to abuse... as Squawky points out you can easily bully people (by getting the rest of the team to assign person X 0%), or be lazy and still end up with points (via social engineering), or be someone smart and hard working and end up with no points (because you were on a team with 2 lazy people who voted for each other). Equally, if you can't vote for yourself, then what happens when you genuinely are the only hard working one on the team... you have to give 100% to some/all of the team so who will it be? Squawky's idea of giving everyone specific roles is a good one, although not all tasks will suit this (eg. what if there are 2 good programmers, and only space for 1 programmer... the other one will end up doing something they're not necessarily adept at, and may get less marks than they would if they'd been given something matching their skills).

I think the main problem with trying to teach students about how to survive in subject area X in the real world is that, as ThoperSought points out "School is a pretty horrible environment to try to replicate any facet of the 'real world' working environment".

Looking at team assignments, in a real world team, there is a team leader responsible for (amongst other things) kicking arse within the team - ultimately if the team fails at the task then (unless they have some killer excuse) it is because they failed as a team leader to get the team to do the task well. This leader often has the ability to sack people, or at least get them off the team if they're not pulling their weight. Therefore people on the team realise they're expected to work: if they do then X happens, if they don't then Y happens.

In an educational team, there is very rarely a team leader, instead everyone else is on an equal footing (usually). Even if there is a leader, that student (assuming they're one of the harder working students, which could be a flawed assumption) may not have the necessary skills to lead a team / kick arse etc. Consequently team members are less likely to see the consequences of what happens if they do/don't work hard, and as a result, some will choose to not work hard. That's where the laziness creeps in.

Ultimately how effective you can teach 'real world experience' comes down to how well you can simulate it in an educational setting. Short of mirroring management systems / responsibilities etc. within a team, it's not going to be an accurate intro to real world teams. Although it would probably be a great way of modelling committee working groups :) Not that I'm suggesting you introduce bureaucracy into educational assignments, I'm just suggesting that if you're trying to set out to prepare people for real world teams, then that's something that is a big factor in real world teams.

The boy Ken

2006-04-10 10:19:40
Mr. Russell, I don't accept your premise that the classroom becomes more effective if it resembles industry more closely. As was mentioned in other posts, the measure of success in most "industrial" settings is economic--products or services that are low cost, high value, first to market, etc.--while the measure of success in education is aquisition of knowledge (and yes, the standard is mostly the instructors' but they rarely operate without professional review.)

The most successful portions of mine and my childrens' educations were those that used a mixture of methodologies. When each student had individual assignments they developed personal learning skills (including, as mentioned, reaching out to TAs.) When working in teams, additional skills come into play. The key question is whether or not the course objectives include developing team skills or simply the acquisition of knowledge. In one effective instructional team I experienced, the faculty deliberately staged and graded a project with both objectives (this was a 300-level elective course.) Each team member received grades for the overall project (including both the work product _and_ the success of the intra-team work management process), for the quality and completeness of his/her personal contribution and, finally, for the effectiveness of the his/her contribution as valued by their teammates. The three component grades combined in a weighted average yielded the final grade.

Some people received A's even where the "overall deliverables" were mediocre; their personal work and perceived effectiveness being recognized. One complete team received a Bs despite a terrific final output because their process was poor and intra-team dynamic caused dissent. Two strong factors aided the success of this course. First, the school's culture fostered mutual success. There were no curved grades. Nearly every course had TAs available and study groups were encouraged. Students discouraged cheating among themselves. The second factor was the faculty's reputation for assigning interesting projects and the course's "rep" that despite the work, it had a lot to offer.

The amount of work this technique requires from both students and faculty clearly limits how often it can be employed and it certainly wouldn't be effective for all subjects. But as ONE possible technique in teaching, it had value. I could also discuss effective courses where there was no teamwork whatsoever but the value of the information content to my career was extraordinary.

So, in conclusion, I'm in favor of teaching using a variety of techniques that convey both knowledge and teamwork skills, as the material dictates, and as, clearly, the marketplace demands, but all the while remembering that school is about knowledge, not economics.

2006-04-10 18:04:14
Wow. You all have great insight into this issue, which is one of the reasons it's such a joy to blog for O'Reilly. Half of the fun is just hearing back about what you think. Clearly, there's a lot that could be said on this topic. Many a thesis could be written on it, and probably have been.

Thanks for all of the great comments and thought on this issue.

2007-04-14 23:18:28
Interesting comments.. :D
2007-11-14 12:50:52
Legit or non-legit this whole discussion makes me think they are a little shady. Insistent phone-calls, bragging, etc. I don't think a respectable university would make such an effort for any student. Surely there is not the case of fake college degree (my first thoughts about it).
2008-01-22 16:11:52
We had another option at Nouveau Riche University. Working in teams was a thing all professors agreed with. They thought that a student can learn better if motivated by another because of the competitive spirit we humans have.