Students Identify Factors Adding Value to Team Work

3 Apr

The March Pedagogical Innovations Journal Club discussed the article “Collaborative Learning in Higher Education: Evoking Positive Interdependence” by Karin Scager and colleagues, published recently in CBE-Life Sciences Education.

The research question that was the focus of the study was “What factors increase collaboration in courses” according to students. To accomplish this the authors identified five upper-division science courses that implemented group work very effectively according to faculty reviews and student evaluations. From each of these courses the authors conducted focus groups that asked students the following two questions.

  1. What factors made group work effective in this course (as opposed to other experiences you have had)?
  2. What was the added value in this course of working in a group (as opposed to working individually)?

The feedback from all of the focus groups were pooled and analyzed. The authors synthesized all of this information into two main categories – design factors and process factors, reported below – and also offered an overall group projects recommendation for instructors designing and using group projects:

Factors evoking effective collaboration were student autonomy and self-regulatory behavior, combined with a challenging, open, and complex group task that required the students to create something new and original.

The Factors

Design factors refer to those aspects of the project that the instructor planned prior to the start of the class. Process factors relate to what the student groups do, and how they interact while working on the project. The eight subcategories authors identified are listed and briefly described below.

Design factors

  1. Autonomy. This was one of the most frequently mentioned factors by students. Examples of this included allowing student teams to choose their own research or project topics and giving them independence to organize how they were going to complete the project.
  2. Task. This refers to the task that the group was required to complete. Responses about task fell into two categories.
    • Density and complexity – The task had to be difficult enough so that the group members really needed each other’s contributions, and complex enough that the group had to discuss and make decisions together (versus dividing up tasks and coming together at the end).
    • Relevance – Students appreciated if the task was something that might be done in the “real world” by professionals.
  3. Rewards. Interestingly, students identified the inherent value of the end product itself more than the project grade. They also valued creating something, such as a book, that would stand after the class was over.
  4. Group size. Students felt that groups of three or four were optimal.

Process factors

  1. Team and task regulation. This factor was frequently mentioned by students, who described it as collaborating effectively. This included meeting for discussions face to face rather than through email or chat.
  2. Positive interdependence. This factor was also mentioned frequently by students as an important aspect of their success. It involved needing each other to succeed and achieve their goals, taking responsibility for their role in the project, and complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Promotive interaction. Students emphasized the need for team members to discuss content in order to meet their project and learning goals. The discussion attributes they highlighted included building on other’s ideas, explaining to each other, and providing and processing peer feedback.
  4. Mutual support and motivation. Students described this as explicit help, pep talks, and mutual inspiration provided by their peers.

The authors were careful to point out that the interview data doesn’t demonstrate that these 8 factors are cause of the project outcomes. However, they do believe it is reasonable to assume that the factors contributed in some way to team positive interdependence.


In their discussion, the authors specifically draw attention to the difference between accountability and responsibility. Accountability focuses on the end result, being answerable for your actions to relevant others, and is subject to external oversight. Responsibility focuses on the task, having a higher level of autonomy, and involves the ability to self-regulate actions free of external motivational pressure. The authors interpreted this to mean that students working on effective projects were intrinsically motivated as opposed to extrinsically motivated solely by the grade for the assignment. They suggest that instructors evoke, rather than enforce, “positive interdependence by increasing autonomy and the challenge level of the task.”

The author’s interpretation of their data suggests that including these factors in planning and conducting our next team assignments could well improve the likelihood of student success.


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