Team-based projects are widely used in introductory engineering courses to support the development of collaboration and communication skills and to engage novice engineers in higher levels of thinking. While the details of team-based design projects may vary across institutes, they generally involve small teams of students tasked with solving a substantive, open-ended design challenge that requires the application of engineering principles to create physical prototypes or computational models. Team-based design projects are employed at all levels of engineering training culminating in senior capstone experiences. A typical engineering student will engage in at least one semester-long, team-based project per academic year. Team-based projects in introductory engineering courses play an important role in inculcating good collaborative practices among students.
Conflicts within student teams are common, especially in the first year, when students may have had limited experience working on substantial projects that require contribution from all team members. Consistent with our experience, social loafing has been identified as the most prevalent problem within student teams, particularly in early undergraduate years. Social loafing is defined as reduced motivation, effort, or performance from individual team member(s). The incidence of social loafing can be reduced by assigning compelling, complex projects to smaller teams of students and routinely using peer evaluations. Ohland et al. have developed a robust peer evaluation system (CATME by Purdue University) that is widely used in engineering programs—including our institution—to collect quantitative and qualitative information that can be used to individuate student performance within teams. To effectively address interpersonal issues in teams, it is important to detect the incidence and root cause of team conflicts.
This paper presents an investigation into the prevalence of team conflicts in a large-enrollment introductory engineering course (ca. 650 students) in a mid-sized, research-intensive state university in the US. We have identified three potential root causes that may explain perceived social loafing by team members: 1) logistical barriers, 2) marginalization, and 3) genuine disinterest. An example of the first type, logistical barriers, is when a student has difficulty contributing to a team based on the location and timing of team meetings. The second root cause is when a student feels marginalized by the group, thus contributing to reduced participation. The third, genuine disinterest, includes instances in which a student has decided to change majors and is not interested in performing well in the course. Using weekly CATME peer evaluation data and an end-of-semester student survey, this study categorizes the incidence of social loafing based on its root cause. Other potential causes of team conflicts are also identified. Results from this study will be used to guide instructors on how to coach individuals and teams towards more effective team behaviors and address social loafing when it occurs.
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