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Team Formation for TBL

Larry Michaelsen on Team Formation

Three principles should guide team formation:

(1) never use student-selected teams

(2) create diverse teams

(3) make the selection process transparent.

As soon as newly assigned teams come together, members share names and explore what each may bring to the course experience. When students learn that their assignment to a team is based upon a principle of ‘resource wealth distribution,’ they value their team members from two perspectives: “we are all pretty equal and we each may have some particular strength to bring to the discussions.”

Team formation can sometimes be a contentious issue for students and instructors. Students will often suggest using student-selected teams, but Brickell et al (1994), suggest that student-selected teams are often just “social entities” and goes on to show that student-selected teams under-perform when compared to instructor-selected teams.

Questions on Team Formation

q1How should I form the teams?

In forming groups, we recommend trying to do three things. One is spreading assets and liabilities (i.e., background factors that are likely to make a difference in students’ performance in this course) across the teams. Assets are often such things as attitudes toward and/or performance in previous course work, course-related life experience; liabilities often include such factors as no (or poor) preparation in related courses, language barriers, etc. Thus, the team formation process should be criterion-based. A second objective of the team formation process is to avoid pre-existing, cohesive sub-groups (e.g., a group of three students from the same fraternity and three students who did not previously know each other would probably struggle). For these two reasons, teams should not be self-selected. Third, the process you use for team formation should foster the perception that none of the teams was given a special advantage. Thus, we recommend using a very public team formation process.

q2How big should the teams be?

The size of the teams always represents a compromise between being large enough to have sufficient intellectual resources to complete the assignments and small enough to develop into true teams. Historically, we have found that if teams have at least five members, they usually have the intellectual resources to complete the team assignments. On the other end of the spectrum, we have found that groups larger than 7 tend to have difficulty in the team development process. Hence the optimum size for team-based learning is 5 to 7 students.

This originally appeared as Appendix A to Chapter 1 of Team-Based Learning for Health Professions Education: A Guide to Using Small Groups for Improving Learning. Eds. Larry K. Michaelsen , Dean X. Parmelee , Kathryn K. McMahon , Ruth E. Levine, (2007)

Forming Fair Groups Quickly

By Michael Sweet

The following 9 steps constitute a simple yet effective way to form heterogeneous, but equally talented groups that students see as being fair and that works for classes as small as 10 and as large as 200 or more. The illustration on page 3 provides a visual depiction of how the process unfolds. The 9 steps are:

1) Decide Your Sorting Criteria

Ahead of time, decide what characteristics would make the course easier or more difficult for a student. For example, professional experience or previous coursework in the field might make the course easier for a student, but having grown up in a different culture and/or having a different native language might make the course experience more difficult.

2) Prioritize Your Sorting Criteria

List these characteristics in order of importance, mixing the “benefit” and “detriment” characteristics together into one list, with the most important characteristic at the top. You must prioritize because many students will have more than one characteristic on your list (e.g., a professional in the field who grew up speaking a different language). Phrase these characteristics carefully, to avoid embarrassing any one group of students. For example, one anthropology teacher uses “did not grow up in Oregon or any of the immediately surrounding states” instead of “speaks English as a second language.”

3) Prepare Your Students

Explain to the students that you are going to assemble them into groups and that the process can be a little chaotic, but is also kind of fun. Tell them you are going to ask them to form one long lineundefinedaround the classroom if necessaryundefinedand ask them to carry their belongings with them through the exercise.

4) Call The First Characteristic

Now comes the sorting. Pick your first characteristic, and ask everyone who self-identifies with that characteristic to stand up and begin the line. If it is a characteristic that can be broken down further (e.g., number of years professional experience, number of previous courses in the discipline, distance from Oregon), then ask them to sort themselves as a continuum (most to least, furthest to nearest, etc.). This can provide some nice ice-breaking on-the-fly.

5) Call The Other Characteristics

Now call out your second characteristic, and ask the students to add themselves on to the end of the line begun by the first group. Keep doing this until all students are standing in the line. If necessary, your last characteristics can be major and non-major, men and women, or some other “catch all” categories to make sure everyone winds up in the line.

6) Count Your Students

Once everyone is standing in line, count the number of students in the line. As we all know, the number of students who actually show up is frequently not the number of students our roster says we should expect. Soundefinedif class size permitsundefinedgo down the line and count for yourself so that you will know how many students you really have.

7) Calculate How Many Groups You Want

Your students are about to “count off” to determine which group they will belong to, but you need to determine how high they should countundefinedi.e., how many groups there will be in the class. Let’s say you have a class of 33 students, and you want groups of 6 or 7. That will give you 3 groups of 7 and 2 groups of 6.

8) Have The Groups “Count Off” By The Total Number of GROUPS You Want

This is very important and can be confusing: you want to count by the number of groups you want, NOT the number of students you want per group. So with 33 students and a goal of 6 or 7 per group, the students would count off by 5 (not 6 or 7).

9) Have Group Members Assemble And Introduce Themselves

It is easiest if you designate a specific location the room for the each of the groups. Give them a few minutes to introduce themselves, and then get on with class.

A note about the following illustration:

Life rarely provides us with perfect circumstances. You will notice that in the illustrated group formation process, each group ends up with one more of a certain characteristic than any other group. This is bound to happen, as are different group sizes, as students add and drop the course. The best we can do is aim for groups that are as equitable as possible undefined perfect equality is not realistic.

Team Formation in Large Classes using Excel

In very large classes it is necessary to create the teams in an alternative way. Starting with data extracts from the Student Information System, or from quiz results from your Course Management System, you can build the diverse teams that TBL requires in a way that is very similar to the in-class method – the SORT function in Excel is the key. You can set up a quiz in your LMS to ask the same kind of questions you might use to order the line in class, before creating teams. For example, what is you major? Do you have work experience? Have you worked overseas?

Images Missing - Sorry - will fix soon

Step One: Deciding on priority for fields to sort

Step Two: Sort on first criteria (Gender in this example)
Step Three: Sort subsets by second criteria. In this example sorting, female Gender subset by Program, then male Gender subset by program.

Step Four: Count off teams. In this example, adding 1-2-3-4-4-3-2-1….etc. to team column

Step Five: Sort entire data set on team column

Teams created and your work is done!

Application activities need to be carefully crafted to use the diverse strengths within the teams. Later in the TBL process, during the application phase the teams come to rely on their diversity of knowledge, skills and attitudes and the richness it brings to the problem-solving process.

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