By Doug Ward

Matthew Ohland talks confidently about the best ways to form student teams.

In a gregarious baritone punctuated by frequent, genuine laughs, he freely shares the wisdom he has gained from leading development of a team creation tool called CATME and from studying the dynamics of teams for more than two decades.

Ohland, a professor of engineering education at Purdue, visited KU recently and spoke with faculty members about the challenges of creating student teams and about the benefits of CATME, which has many devotees at KU. The tool, which launched in 2005, is used at more than 1,300 schools worldwide and has led to a long string of research papers for Ohland and others who have worked on the CATME project.

Matt Ohland, in a blue shirt, kneels at a table as he explains his work
Matt Ohland explains some of the thinking behind the team creation tool CATME

I asked Ohland the question that faculty members often ask me: What are the most important characteristics of a good team? Without hesitation, he offered something that surprised me but that made perfect sense:

“Of all the things you can choose about team formation, schedule is by far the most important,” he said.

That is, if you want students to work together outside class, their schedules must be similar enough that they can find time to meet. If they do all the work in class, the schedule component loses its importance, though.

Before he delves deeper into group characteristics, he offers another nugget of wisdom:

“What you start with in terms of formation is much less important than how you manage the teams once they are formed.”

That is, instructors must monitor a team’s interpersonal dynamics as well as the quality of its work. Is someone feeling excluded or undervalued? Is one person trying to dominate? Are personalities clashing? Are a couple of people doing the bulk of the work? Is a lazy team member irritating others or creating barriers to getting work done?

Whatever the problem, Ohland said, an instructor must act quickly. Sometimes that means pulling a problem team member aside and providing a blunt assessment. Sometimes it means having a conversation with the full team about the best ways to work together.

“Anything – anything – that is going wrong with a team dynamically, the only way to really fix it is face-to-face interaction,” he said.

Delving into team characteristics

In faculty workshops, Ohland delved deeper into the nuances of team formation, asking participants to provide characteristics to consider when creating teams. Among them were these:

  • Demographics
  • Traditional vs. nontraditional student
  • Academic level
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • High performer vs. low performer
  • Interest in the class or the subject
  • Confidence
  • Work styles (work ahead vs. work at last minute)

All of those things can influence team dynamics, he said, and the most consequential are those that lead to a feeling of “otherness.” For instance, putting one woman on a team of men generally makes it difficult for the woman to have her voice heard. Putting a black student on a team in which everyone else is white can have the same effect, as can putting an international student on a team of American students.

“If students have a way of knowing that someone is different, it allows them a way to push them away,” Ohland said. “It’s their otherness that excludes them from certain kinds of team interaction. It’s their otherness that lets people interrupt them.”

Ohland also shared an illustration of an iceberg to represent visible and invisible characteristics of identity. It’s an illustration he uses to help students understand the diverse characteristics of team membership. Gender, race, age, physical attributes and language are among those most noticeable to others. Below the surface are things like thought processes, sexual orientation, life experience, beliefs and perspectives. Awareness of those characteristics helps team members recognize the many facets of diversity and the complexity of individual and team interaction.

Pushback from students

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of geology, uses CATME to form teams in her classes. She said that some students had begun to push back against providing race and gender in the CATME surveys they complete for team formation.

“They went so far as to say that this disenfranchises me because I don’t fit in these categories,” Roberts said.

Ohland said that he understood but that “ignoring race and gender in groups has real consequences.” He suggested explaining the approach to female students this way:

“What I tell my students is that I’m not putting you on a team with another woman so that you will be more successful,” he said. “I am putting on a team with another woman because it changes the way that men behave.”

He cited research that shows that putting more than one woman or more than one person of color on a team improves the performance of everyone by cutting down on feelings of isolation and allowing more views to be heard.

“Men stop interrupting them,” he said. “They start paying attention to their ideas.”

At Purdue, Ohland said, he goes as far as keeping freshmen together on teams in first-year engineering classes, separating them from transfer students who are sophomores or juniors.

“We’ve got to get them by themselves,” Ohland said. “They are at a different phase in life. They’re at a different place academically.”

Preparing students for teams

Ohland said it was important to help prepare students to work effectively in teams. His students go through several steps to do that, including watching a series of videos, engaging in class discussions about how good teams work, reviewing guidelines that team members need to follow, and learning about ways to overcome problems. They also agree to follow a Code of Cooperation, which stresses communication, cooperation, responsibility, efficiency and creativity.

He also explains to students how a student-centered class works, how that approach helps them learn, and what they need to do to make it successful. In a student-centered class, an instructor guides rather than leads the learning process, and students help guide learning, apply concepts rather than just hear about them, reflect on their work and provide feedback to peers.

Students must also understand the system they will use to rate peers, Ohland says, and he spends time going over that system in class. It includes measures on how students are contributing to a team, how they are interacting with teammates, how each member works to keep the team on track, how to evaluate the work quality of teammates, and how to evaluate teammates’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

The ins and outs of teams

It would be impossible to detail all of the advice Ohland offered. I would suggest visiting the CATME informational page, where you will find additional information and research about forming and evaluating groups, and keeping them on track. A few other things from Ohland are worth mentioning, though, largely because they come up in many discussions about using teams in classes.

Don’t force differentiation in evaluations. I have been guilty of this, trying to push students to create more nuance in their evaluations of teammates. Ohland said this creates false differentiations that frustrate students and lead to less-useful evaluations.

Learn what ratings mean. For instance, if team members give one another perfect scores, it could mean they are working well together and want the instructor to leave them alone. It could mean that students didn’t take the time to fill out the evaluations properly or it could mean that students felt uncomfortable ranking their peers. In that last scenario, Ohland sits down with a team and explains why it is important to provide meaningful feedback. If they don’t, individuals and the team as a whole lack opportunities to improve.

“That seems to help get them think about the value of the exercise,” Ohland said. “It gets that discussion going about why are we doing this and why it’s important not to just say everybody’s perfect.”

Keep the same teams (usually). Changing teams during a semester can create problems, he said, because high-functioning teams don’t want to disband and teams that are making progress need more time to work through kinks. Only the dysfunctional teams want to change, he said. The best approach is to find those dysfunctional teams and help them get on track.

The one exception to that guideline, he said, is when learning to form teams effectively is part of a class’s goals. In that case, an instructor should form teams more than once so that students get practice.

Evaluate teams frequently. Ohland recommends having peer evaluations every two weeks. Research shows that evaluations should coincide with a “major deliverable,” he said. That makes students accountable and increases the stakes of evaluations so that students take them seriously.

Create the right team size. In some cases, that may mean three or four. In others, six, eight, 10 or even more.

“Team size depends on what you are asking students to do,” Ohland said. “The critical thing about team size is that you need enough people on a team to get the work done that you are asking them to do – the quantity of work. You also need enough people on a team to have all the skills necessary to do the work represented.”

It also depends on the layout of a room. For instance, a team of three in a lecture hall is ideal because students can have easy conversations. A group of four in the same setting will leave one member of the team excluded from conversations.

A final thought

Research by Ohland and others has helped us better understand many aspects of effective student teams. I asked Ohland whether those components mesh with what students look for in teammates.

Making that connection, he said, “is the holy grail of teamwork research.”

“It’s so difficult to get an absolute measure of performance,” he said. “If our goal is learning, that’s a different goal than a competitive, objectively measured outcome in a project.”

Some data point to a connection between learning and team performance, but proving that is a work in progress.

“We’re getting there,” Ohland said.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Here’s a secret about creating a top-notch assessment plan:

Make sure that it involves cooperation among faculty members, that it integrates assignments into a broader framework of learning, and that it creates avenues for evaluating results and using them to make changes to courses and curricula.

Lorie Vanchena, Nina Vyatkina and Ari Linden of the department of Germanic languages and literatures accepted the Degree-Level Assessment Award from Stuart Day, interim vice provost for academic affairs.

Actually, that’s not really a secret – really, it’s just good assessment practice – but it was the secret to winning a university assessment award this year. Judges for both the Degree-Level Assessment Award and the Christopher H. Haufler KU Core Innovation Award cited the winners’ ability to cooperate, integrate and follow up on their findings as elements that set them apart from other nominees.

The Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures won this year’s degree-level assessment award, and the Department of Curriculum and Teaching won this year’s Haufler award. The awards were announced at last week’s annual Student Learning Symposium. Each comes with $5,000.

The German department focused its plan on two 300-level courses that serve as a gateway to the major, and on its capstone course. Stuart Day, the acting vice provost for academic affairs, said the University Academic Assessment Committee, which oversees the award, found the plan thorough, manageable and meaningful. It is one of the strongest assessment plans in place at the university, he said. It emphasizes substantive learning outcomes, uses a variety of methods for assessment, and includes a plan for making ongoing improvements.

Reva Friedman accepted the Haufler KU Core Innovation Award from DeAngela Burns-Wallace, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

DeAngela Burns-Wallace, vice provost for undergraduate studies, said the plan created by curriculum and teaching had similar characteristics, using a rich approach that integrates active learning, problem solving and critical thinking. The department created a “strong and intentional feedback loop for course improvement,” she said, and created a clear means for sharing results throughout the department.

So there again is that secret that isn’t really a secret: A strong assessment plan needs to include cooperation among colleagues, integration of assignments and pedagogy, and follow-ups that lead to improvements in the curriculum.

That sounds simple, but it’s not. Reva Friedman, associate professor of curriculum and teaching, and Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of Germanic languages and literatures, both spoke about the deep intellectual work that went into crafting their plans. That work involved many discussions among colleagues and some failed attempts that eventually led to strong, substantive plans.

“Everything we’re doing informs everything else we’re doing,” Friedman said.

She also offered a piece of advice that we all need to hear.

“All of us have our little castles with moats around them, and we love what we do,” she said. “But we need to partner in a different way.”

A new resource for teaching media literacy

In a world of “alternative facts,” we all must work harder to help students learn to find reliable information, challenge questionable information, and move beyond their own biases. To help with that, KU Libraries recently added a media literacy resource page to its website. Instructors and students will find a wealth of useful materials, including definitions, evaluation tools, articles and websites.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Here’s a harsh question to ask about the classrooms on our campuses: What are they good for?

Yes, there’s more than a tinge of sarcasm in that question – answering “not much” comes immediately to mind – but it gets to the heart of a problem in learning and, more broadly, in the success of our students.

Oregon State drew from several models as it created new classrooms, including a learning studio, an emporium style (below) and the set of a television talk show (bottom).

Tim Reynolds of the architecture firm TreanorHL and PK Imbrie from the University of Cincinnati asked a variation on that question this week at the Next Generation Learning Spaces conference in San Diego. At table after table in a workshop, participants said that college classrooms were designed for sitting, listening and taking notes. That is, for skills that will do our students little good in a world that requires problem solving, teamwork, strong communication skills, technical know-how, analytical ability, leadership, initiative and a strong work ethic.

“Many buildings I walk into have been rendered obsolete by new teaching styles and learning styles,” Reynolds said. “We can’t afford to be obsolete.”

Buildings alone don’t make an education, and the growth of online courses has led to many questions about the future of a traditional on-campus education. University buildings are expensive to create. They sit mostly empty for four months a year. They rarely receive the routine maintenance they need to ensure the best use, and in many cases they go neglected until they simply fall into irrelevance.

New buildings also won’t change the outdated pedagogy of recalcitrant faculty members. Nor will they solve higher education’s biggest challenge: a promotion and tenure system that rewards research almost exclusively, leaving teaching as a pesky aside.

And yet buildings are crucial to the success of students in residential education. If we plan to continue on that path in the coming decades – and most universities certainly do – then we must continue to create and re-create effective learning spaces.

Over and over at this week’s conference, participants grappled with the idea of creating spaces that will meet the needs of students and faculty today but that will accommodate the inevitable changes that education will face in the coming decades. That is, how do we better design buildings and classrooms to keep them relevant longer?

There’s no easy answer to that question. My answer – and that of most of the conference participants – is to focus on flexibility. For instance, creating a lecture hall with tiered concrete will make it nearly impossible to use that room for any other purpose in the future. It will simply be too expensive to change, something that universities face in many, many buildings on their campuses today. Creating flatter rooms will allow for easier reconfiguration as needs and technology change. That approach is part of a broader shift in thinking that universities must make.

“This is not changing a classroom; this is changing a culture,” Reynolds said. “It is changing what we think about as education.”

Other themes from the conference:

  • Look beyond universities for ideas. In planning a new classroom building, Oregon State considered many non-traditional models for large classrooms, including parliament-style seating, club seating used at concerts, and in-the-round seating used in the Phil Donahue show, the iconic daytime talk show from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That in-the-round seating has proved especially popular among faculty, representatives from the university said, largely because even in a 600-person room, students are never more than eight rows away from the professor.
  • Different spaces can inspire new approaches to teaching and learning. A new building at Oregon State contains 13 different styles of classrooms, and Jon Dorbolo, associate director of Technology Across the Curriculum, said instructors were more willing to take more chances in the way they engage students in those classrooms. (Several others at the conference made similar observations.) The variety of room styles had also helped students become more adaptable, Dorbolo said, as they learn how to learn in different settings.
  • Maker spaces are hot. Universities around the country have been opening maker spaces where students have access to tools for creating with everything from robotics to sewing machines to 3D printers to engravers to digital media. Kyle Bowen of Penn State describes his university’s philosophy as “making as fluency.” Penn State has also been creating rooms where faculty and students can save whiteboards and other materials – “learning residue,” he called it – so they don’t have to start from scratch in the next class.
  • Immersive experiences are growing. Virtual and augmented reality drew a lot of attention at the conference, not only with live demonstrations but with discussions about how to set up rooms to allow students to immerse themselves in alternate realities that essentially leave them blind in their physical space. Colleges are using virtual and augmented reality for such things as offering campus tours, training students in anatomy and medicine, helping students understand chemical structures, and helping them understand ancient cultures.
  • Create more general purpose classroom buildings. For instance, if you label a room a genetics lab, it will go unused much of the time, Reynolds said. If you call it a classroom, many other disciplines will use it, as well. That approach also leads to a better focus on teaching and learning (rather than faculty office space) in creation of new buildings, Reynolds said.

One of my favorite descriptions from the conference came from Bowen, who spoke of two types of faculty members: FIVEs and FAVEs. FIVE, he said, stands for faculty into virtually everything. FAVE, on the other hand, refers to faculty against virtually everything. Most faculty members fall somewhere in between, but technologists and classroom schedulers must be able to accommodate the extremes, a process Bowen called the “Tetrus management” of matching classrooms to faculty needs.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.