Students Assigned to More Diverse Science Teams Perform No Better than Others

David Gross
David Gross

Results of new study in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning by first author and postdoctoral researcher Sarah Pociask and Mei-Yau Shih of the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development, with David Gross, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, suggest that students can be successful in a team-based course even when the instructor does not design the team, a surprising finding that “runs counter to some leading perspectives” in the current literature on collaborative learning, the authors say.

They report that when they compared student achievement across three different sections of the same course, they found no statistically significant differences in individual performance, effort or team performance related to whether teams were formed by the instructor, by students or randomly by a learning management system.

“Data from this course suggest that the instructor-designed method of team formation, which is also more complicated for the instructor to implement, is not favored by students nor does it confer a measurable advantage,” Pociask and colleagues point out.

For this study, the researchers looked at course achievement of 185 undergraduates from three separate sections of a general education science course. They used composite SAT scores as a proxy for “academic achievement readiness” and found no differences between sections, though there were differences in gender and ethnicity distributions.

In teams designed by the instructor, he or she maximized team diversity based on a personality survey, year in college, gender and major. The learning management system was used to form the “random” team situation, and student-formed teams were allowed to assemble themselves. The researchers evaluated student performance using several measures at the individual and team level, and by student effort/persistence in the course.

Results did support the idea that team-forming method affects team diversity, the authors say, as they report instructor-designed teams were more diverse than student-formed and randomly formed teams, and student-formed teams were more diverse than randomly formed ones.

Posiask, Gross and Shih found no difference in student satisfaction related to team-forming method, but students did have differing opinions on how teams should be formed. In the instructor-designed group, 48 percent felt that teams should be formed randomly, while in the student-formed group, 66 percent felt that students should form teams. Students in the randomly assigned team had a “slight preference” for the random selection method.

Because allowing students to form their own teams is less time-consuming for the instructor, the researchers suggest that student-formed teams are “a viable option” for instructors.