[EAS]Managing Student Teams

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Nov 21 16:46:26 EST 2002

Mail*Link¨ SMTP               Managing Student Teams

Dear Colleagues -

With not only ABET, but other good resons of pedagogy, moving us
closer to student team work, the issues of how to make such teams work
are getting more insistent. This issue of TOMORROW'S PROFESSOR deals
with the slackers, potential or actual, that are part of almost any
team, and how to manage them.

All best,  --PJK

	       "desk-top faculty development, one hundred times a year"


The posting below looks at some very practical ways of dealing with 
unproductive or disruptive members of learning teams.  It is by 
Barbara Oakley, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Oakland 
University, Rochester MI, <oakley at oakland.edu>.  A longer version of 
this article, titled "It Takes Two to Tango," will appear in  the 
Journal of Student Centered Learning, Volume 1, Issues 1, 2003, pg 
19-28. New Forum Press http://www.newforums.com/news_jccpage.htm


Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
UP NEXT: Designing and Assessing Course Curricula

			Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

------------------------- 1,603 words ----------------------------



You will usually find your university teammates as interested in 
learning as you are.  Occasionally, however, you may encounter a 
person who creates difficulties.  This handout is meant to give you 
practical advice for this type of situation.

To begin with, let's imagine you have been assigned to a combined 
homework and lab group this semester with three others: Mary, Henry, 
and Jack.  Mary is okay-she's not good at solving problems, but she 
tries hard, and she willingly does things like get extra help from 
the professor.  Henry is irritating.  He's a nice guy, but he just 
doesn't put in the effort to do a good job.  He'll sheepishly hand 
over partially worked homework problems and confess to spending the 
weekend watching TV.  Jack, on the other hand, has been nothing but a 
problem.  Here are a few of the things Jack has done:

* When you tried to set up meetings at the beginning of the semester, 
Jack just couldn't meet, because he was too busy.

* Jack infrequently turns in his part of the homework.  When he does, 
it's almost always wrong-he obviously spent just enough time to 
scribble something down that looks like work.

* Jack has never answered phone messages.  When you confront him, he 
denies getting any messages.  You e-mail him, but he's "too busy to 

* Jack misses every meeting-he always promises he'll be there, but 
never shows up.

* His writing skills are okay, but he can't seem to do anything right 
for lab reports.  He loses the drafts, doesn't reread his work, 
leaves out tables, or does something sloppy like write equations by 
hand. You've stopped assigning him work because you don't want to 
miss your professor's strict deadlines.

* Jack constantly complains about his fifty-hour work weeks, heavy 
school load, bad textbooks, and terrible teachers.  At first you felt 
sorry for him-but recently you've begun to wonder if Jack is using 

* Jack speaks loudly and self-confidently when you try to discuss his 
problems-he thinks the problems are everyone else's fault.  He is so 
self-assured that you can't help wondering sometimes if he's right.

* Your group finally was so upset they went to discuss the situation 
with Professor Distracted.  He in turn talked, along with the group, 
to Jack, who in sincere and convincing fashion said he hadn't really 
understood what everyone wanted him to do.  Dr. Distracted said the 
problem must be the group was not communicating effectively. He 
noticed you, Mary, and Henry looked angry and agitated, while Jack 
simply looked bewildered, a little hurt, and not at all guilty.  It 
was easy for Dr. Distracted to conclude this was a dysfunctional 
group, and everyone was at fault-probably Jack least of all.

The bottom line:  You and your teammates are left holding the bag. 
Jack is getting the same good grades as everyone else without doing 
any work. Oh yes-he managed to make you all look bad while he was at 

		What this group did wrong: Absorbing

This was an 'absorber' group.  From the very beginning they absorbed 
the problem when Jack did something wrong, and took pride in getting 
the job done whatever the cost.  Hitchhikers count on you to act in a 
self-sacrificing manner.  However, the nicer you are (or the nicer 
you think you are being), the more the hitchhiker will be able to 
hitchhike their way through the university-and through life.

		What this group should have done: Mirroring

It's important to reflect back the dysfunctional behavior of the 
hitchhiker, so the hitchhiker pays the price-not you.  Never accept 
accusations, blame, or criticism from a hitchhiker.  Maintain your 
own sense of reality despite what the hitchhiker says, (easier said 
than done).  Show you have a bottom line: there are limits to the 
behavior you will accept.  Clearly communicate these limits and act 
consistently on them.  For example, here is what the group could have 

* When Jack couldn't find time to meet in his busy schedule, even 
when alternatives were suggested, you needed to decide whether Jack 
was a hitchhiker.  Was Jack brusque, self-important, and in a hurry 
to get away?  Those are suspicious signs.  Someone needed to tell 
Jack up front to either find time to meet, or talk to the professor.

* If Jack turns nothing in, his name does not go on the finished 
work.  (Note:  if you know your teammate is generally a contributor, 
it is appropriate to help if something unexpected arises.)  Many 
professors allow a team to fire a student, so the would-be freeloader 
has to work alone the rest of the semester.  Discuss this option with 
your instructor if the student has not contributed over the course of 
an assignment or two.

* If Jack turns in poorly prepared homework or lab reports, you must 
tell him he has not contributed meaningfully, so his name will not go 
on the submitted work.  No matter what Jack says, stick to your guns! 
If Jack gets abusive, show the professor his work.  Do this the first 
time the junk is submitted, before Jack has taken much advantage-not 
after a month, when you are really getting frustrated.

* Set your limits early and high, because hitchhikers have an uncanny 
ability to detect just how much they can get away with.

* If Jack doesn't respond to e-mails, answer phone messages, or show 
up for meetings, don't waste more time trying to contact him.

* Keep in mind the only one who can handle Jack's problems is Jack. 
You can't change him-you can only change your own attitude so he no 
longer takes advantage of you.  Only Jack can change Jack-and he will 
have no incentive to change if you do all his work for him.

People like Jack can be skilled manipulators.  By the time you find 
out his problems are never-ending, and he himself is their cause, the 
semester has ended and he is off to repeat his manipulations on a 
new, unsuspecting group.  Stop allowing these dysfunctional patterns 
early in the game-before the hitchhiker takes advantage of you and 
the rest of your team!

			Henry, the Couch Potato

But we haven't discussed Henry yet.  Although Henry stood up with the 
rest of the group to try to battle against Jack's irrational 
behavior, he hasn't really been pulling his weight.  You will find 
the best way to deal with a couch potato like Henry is the way you 
deal with a hitchhiker: set firm, explicit expectations-then stick to 
your guns.  Although couch potatoes are not as manipulative as 
hitchhikers, they will definitely test your limits.  If your limits 
are weak, you then share the blame if you have Henry's work to do as 
well as your own.
But I've Never Liked Telling People What to Do!

If you are a nice person who has always avoided confrontation, 
working with a couch potato or a hitchhiker can help you grow as a 
person and learn the important character trait of firmness.  Just be 
patient with yourself as you learn.  The first few times you try to 
be firm, you may find yourself thinking-'but now he/she won't like 
me-it's not worth the pain!'  But many people just like you have had 
exactly the same troubled reaction the first few (or even many) times 
they tried to be firm.  Just keep trying-and stick to your guns! 
Someday it will seem more natural and you won't feel so guilty about 
having reasonable expectations for others.  In the meantime, you will 
find you have more time to spend with your family, friends, or 
schoolwork, because you aren't doing someone else's job along with 
your own.

	Common Characteristics that Allow a Hitchhiker or Couch 
Potato to Take Advantage

* Unwillingness to allow a slacker to fail and subsequently learn 
from their own mistakes.

* Devotion to the ideal of 'the good of the team'-without 
common-sense realization of how this can allow others to take 
advantage of you.  Sometimes you show (and are secretly proud of) 
irrational loyalty to others.

* You like to make others happy even at your own expense.

* You always feel you have to do better-your best is never enough.

* Your willingness to interpret the slightest contribution by a 
slacker as 'progress.'

* You are willing to make personal sacrifices so as to not abandon a 
hitchhiker-without realizing you are devaluing yourself in this 

* Long-suffering martyrdom-nobody but you could stand this.

* The ability to cooperate but not delegate.

* Excessive conscientiousness.

* The tendency to feel responsible for others at the expense of being 
responsible for yourself.

		A related circumstance: you're doing all the work

As soon as you become aware everyone is leaving the work to you-or 
doing such poor work that you are left doing it all, you need to take 
action.  Many professors allow you the leeway to request a move to 
another team.  (You cannot move to another group on you own.) Your 
professor will probably ask some questions before taking the 
appropriate action.

		Later on-out on the job and in your personal life

You will meet couch potatoes and hitchhikers throughout the course of 
your professional career.  Couch potatoes are relatively benign, can 
often be firmly guided to do reasonably good work, and can even 
become your friends.  However, hitchhikers are completely different 
people-ones who can work their way into your confidence and then 
destroy it.  Occasionally, a colleague, subordinate, supervisor, 
friend, or acquaintance could be a hitchhiker.  If this is the case, 
and your personal or professional life is being affected, it will 
help if you keep in mind the

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