Forming Teams

Why is team formation so important?

The composition of teams can affect project outcomes. A successful team will be cohesive and produce results; an unsuccessful one may struggle to accomplish the most basic tasks. Aim to create diverse teams with respect to student strengths and background (Oakley, 2004). Diversity can refer to culture, race, and gender and it also can refer to disciplinary backgrounds, individual academic strengths and skills.

How can you form effective teams?

Diversity of membership - cognitive and cultural - is a key characteristic of effective teams. Diverse teams have been shown to outperform groups of like-minded and/or similarly skilled individuals (Hong, 2004, Smith 2014). In this context, diversity can refer to such things as students’ knowledge, backgrounds, identities, and skills. Having diverse teams also levels the playing field so that one team does not have more abilities and experience than the others.

The chart below provides you with the advantages and disadvantages of different methods for forming teams. These may help you in your decision as to how to form effective teams for your teamwork projects.

Method Advantages Disadvantages
  • Random teams are likely to be more diverse.
  • Less work for you.
  • Students may have less investment in the project than they would if allowed to choose the topic or teammates.
Based on project interest
  • Students may have more buy-in or investment in the project.
  • More time needed to survey students on project interests.
  • Teams may not be balanced in terms of student strengths and experiences needed for the project.
Based on relevant strengths, experience, and background
  • Teams will be balanced with respect to student strengths, experience, and background. 
  • More time needed to survey students on their strengths, experience, and background before assigning teams.

Students form their own teams

  • Students have control of the process.
  • Less work for you.
  • Some students may be excluded, for example, native speakers of other languages, social groups, etc.
  • Teams may not be balanced in terms of student strengths and experiences needed for the project.

Should the team members take on assigned roles?

Teams with assigned roles interacted more frequently than groups without roles (Brewer, 2006). Assigning roles, e.g. facilitator, time keeper, recorder, or participation monitor, to team members is a good way to keep individual students accountable for team progress. Assigned team roles are also a way to moderate team member behavior. For instance, a student who tends to dominate the conversation could be assigned a role as a recorder allowing quieter students more chances for participation. However, many teams do well without assigned roles.

How big should the team be?

There is no set answer from the literature to determine the optimal group size. Groups of two to four students are recommended in order to obtain meaningful interaction among members (Johnson, 2007). Larger teams of up to nine students, however, can be productive.  On the flip side, the smaller a team is, the less likely the team will have students with strengths in all areas needed for the project. Larger teams may find it more difficult for students to meet outside class, and it is also easier for a team member to slack off and not do their share of the work. Most instructors who work with teams try to avoid teams bigger than nine. Teams of three to five students are often used by instructors (Oakley, 2004), but that doesn’t mean that number will work for all cases.

How long should the teams stay together?

If you want teams to work on a substantial project, keeping the teams together for longer times is generally desirable. Research on team dynamics suggests that it can take several weeks for a team to begin to work well together (Smith, 2004). For this reason, it may be a good idea to keep a team together for an entire semester or a significant portion of the semester.

Should I put international students together on teams?  What about at-risk students?

International students can feel marginalized if they are the only non-native speaker in a group; therefore it may be a better idea to put two international students on the same team, when possible.

It is also recommended to avoid isolating at-risk students (students who may be at a greater risk of dropping out) as some studies have shown that these students may take on more passive roles within the team (Oakley, 2004). At-risk students can be students from underrepresented groups, which varies across courses, colleges, and disciplines.  Pairing at-risk students together on a team with majority students has been shown to lessen some of the negative effects (Dasgupta, 2015). This seems to be most important in their first one to two years of a program and not so important after that (Oakley, 2004; Dasgupta, 2015).



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Dasgupta, N, Scircle, M. M. & Hunsinger, M. Female peers in small work groups enhance women’s motivation, verbal participation, and career aspirations in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 112(16), 4988-4993 (2015).

Hong, L. & Page, S.E. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 101(46), 16385-16389 (2004).

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T & Smith, K. The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 15 – 29 (2007).

Oakely, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R. & Elihajj, I. Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 9 - 34 (2004).

Pentland, A. The new science of building great teams. Harvard Business Review, April, 61 – 70 (2012).

Potosky, D. & Duck, J. Forming teams for classwork projects. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, 34, 144 – 148 (2007).

Saleh, M., Lazonder, A. W. & De Jong, T. Effects of within-class ability grouping on social interaction, achievement, and motivation, Instructional Science, 33, 105 – 119 (2005).

Smith, K. & Imbrie, P. K. . Teamwork and Project Management. McGraw-Hill, World Fairfield, PA (2004).