Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering majors at the University of Virginia must take a core yearlong integrative laboratory sequence, typically during their third year in the program. Students are randomly assigned into teams of 3-4 students in the first semester of this sequence, whereas they are allowed to self-select teams in the second semester. At the end of both semesters, students complete mandatory peer evaluations that are used in calculating participation scores each term for every student in the course. Throughout more than a decade of teaching this sequence, the instructors anecdotally observed that many teams remained together in the spring after having been randomly sorted into teams in the fall semester. However, a rigorous quantitative analysis of the impact of team assignment method on team performance and participation assessments has not been conducted. In the present study, we have evaluated team composition over a six-year period, five of which included randomizing the teams in the first semester and then allowing students to self-select in the spring. In an intervention year, we allowed students to self-select both semesters, providing a comparative group with which to investigate the impact of team formation approach on dynamics and performance throughout each academic year.
We analyzed data from 139 student teams, consisting of 522 students total, calculating the percentage of each team remaining together from the first to the second semester of the sequence (excluding students who took the course out of sequence). We then examined correlations between the team retention and a variety of factors, including instructor-assigned team participation scores, student self-assessments of team performance, performance on team lab reports, and performance on weekly lab quizzes and final exams. In the five years of the study in which students were randomized into teams in the fall semester before choosing their own teammates in the spring, there were 122 teams with an average size of 3.66 students each. Over these five years, 28% of teams retained all of their original student members from the fall to the spring semester, and 45% of teams retained over half of their original members. In the intervention year in which students self-selected both semesters, 53% of teams retained all original members throughout the year, and 71% retained over half of their original members. Our analysis of team composition and performance over the five control years of this lab sequence revealed a weak but significant positive correlation between team retention and average team participation score and self-assessments (p < 0.005), but no correlation with the other performance metrics (e.g. report scores, exams, etc.). Team scores were not necessarily predictive of whether students chose to remain together the second semester. However, with only two exceptions, every team in which all of the students remained together both semesters exhibited very high average participation scores. In the five control years, the participation averages for each class increased in three out of five years and remained approximately the same in the other two years. In the intervention year in which students self-selected both semesters, the participation scores from peer evaluations actually decreased significantly from the fall to the spring semester, despite a significantly higher team retention rate.
The sequence of assigning randomized teams in the first semester prior to allowing self-selected teams in the spring semester appears to yield improved participation overall relative to allowing students to self-select both semesters. This work has implications for improved strategies for assigning of the teams in the fall semester to ensure success throughout the year.
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