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by Debbie Chachra

The Perils of Teamwork

Social factors affect who gets the best chance to learn.

We might be setting up vulnerable students for a vicious cycle. - by Debbie ChachraEngineering is not a solo activity. Most work is done in teams of people, bringing together their various technical skills in productive ways to create something. That means we should get our students working in teams as early and as often as possible, right? Maybe not.

When we put our first-year students into teams and ask them to build something, what happens? Well, pretty much what would happen if they were professionals: Based on their skill sets, they divide up the tasks so that everyone works on something he or she is most qualified to do, thereby maximizing what the team can accomplish. The outcome, they know, is almost certainly what they’ll be graded on. But here’s the problem: From a learning standpoint, this approach misses the mark. Our engineering students aren’t the A-Team. They’re assigned the project as a learning exercise. If all the students do what they are best at, there’s a good chance they’ll end up minimizing what the team learns.

It’s actually even worse than that because, most likely, they aren’t assigning tasks based on who has the skills. They are almost certainly dividing them up based on who thinks they have the skills – what psychologists call self-efficacy. And while their self-efficacy for a given task depends in part on whether they’ve done it before, it also depends on whether they’ve had role models or received social affirmation of their abilities. That means women, underrepresented minorities, or students who are the first in their family to go to college are more likely to have lower self-efficacy than their majority-group peers. And if these students don’t get the same opportunity to do the engineering work – and have what’s called a mastery experience – they are likely to fall even further behind in self-efficacy compared with their classmates. Thus, if we just ask students to form teams and divide up tasks, we might be setting up our most vulnerable students to be the victims of a vicious cycle.

This isn’t just hypothetical. Here at Olin College, when students were asked to report what they worked on for their first-year project course, men were more likely to have done technical tasks, like creating CAD models or working on a prototype. Women were more likely to report doing tasks like project management or preparing for presentations. Research at MIT by Barbara Masi, now director of assessment at the University of Rochester’s College of Arts, Science and Engineering, found that male students showed a higher increase in self-efficacy than women after taking first-year project courses.

How do we address this? One approach is to focus on individual work early in the curriculum, ensuring that students develop their own skills and self-efficacy before they start interacting in teams. Another approach is to structure team activities differently. My colleagues took the gender breakdown of activities data and showed it to students. That prompted one woman to respond, “I didn’t come to Olin to make the coffee!” Every year since then, they’ve asked students to think about what they want to learn in the course, to share these learning objectives with their teammates, and then come up with a project plan that reflects each member’s goals. Part of their grade is based on how well these goals are met. A third approach, for courses with multiple smaller projects, is to require students to rotate as “project manager.”

Most engineering schools have a senior design project that requires students to work in teams. We can’t just assume that they’ll have picked up the communication skills, teaming ability, and self-efficacy that they need to do this on their own. If we want our students to be effective in teams, we need to provide them the same opportunities to learn and practice those skills that they get for technical content.


Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.




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