Subtitle: Empowering Students to Deal with Troublesome Teammates

Recently, three of my children sat commiserating about the miserable team experiences they were having in a middle school history project, a high school science project, and a university senior political science course.  (Fortunately, the fourth child was playing hooky for the evening at the movies.)  I’m an engineering professor, but I couldn’t help wondering if a simple trick I’ve found to be effective in my courses might be just as effective for any course that asks students to work in teams.

The trick starts like this.   Usually, by about three weeks into the semester, I’ve heard a brooding comment or two about a teammate who isn’t showing up for team sessions or who hasn’t done their fair share of the work.  (If you haven’t heard a brooding comment or two, trust me, they’re out there.)  So at the beginning of a class period around that time frame, I explain that I want the class to team up with their neighbors to form groups of three or four.  Often, for fun and to promote a sense of instant camaraderie, I’ll say “Once you’ve got your temporary teammates, take the next few moments to find out who on your team woke up earliest this morning.”

The class starts laughing, and I smile.  After a few moments, when the teams have figured out who rose earliest, I signal a halt to the discussion and mention that the early riser is probably still tired, so we’ll have the one clockwise next to him or her be the recorder who’ll jot down all the team’s ideas.  This usually draws both laughs and groans.  By the way, if you haven’t teamed your class in this fashion before, it’s not a bad idea to make the focus question one that will enable them to find out something about one another, like “Who was born at a location closest to this room,” or “Multiply the number of languages you speak by the number of siblings you have and see who has the biggest number.”     

Then I explain:  “A little bird has told me that there are a few people in this room who are not showing up for team sessions.  We’re going to play a game now, and the rules of this game are: I want your team to come up with as many suggestions as possible for the group in question to effectively deal with the problem of people not showing up for team meetings.”

By this time the class is looking a bit quizzically at me—this is not the usual problem solving assignment they are used to. 

“The suggestions may be legal,” here I pause dramatically, “or illegal.”  I then add an instant disclaimer—“Not, of course, that I’m suggesting anyone really DO anything illegal.”

Suddenly, the looks on my students’ faces change.  This isn’t just a challenge.  This is a chance for virtual reality revenge.  Every student remembers the team where they got left holding the bag.

“You’ve got two minutes to come up with as many ideas as you can,” I say excitedly.  “Quality doesn’t matter.  Only quantity.  On your mark, get set, GO!”

I instantly begin making a pass through the classroom.  “What, you don’t have five items yet?”  They laugh, but buckle down intently.  Some group will say something mildly funny and I echo it loudly:  “Did you hear that, they’ll tape a “kick me” sign on their back.”  Another group will say something illegal or painful and I’ll echo that, also “Wow, pepper spray.  Ouch.”  Meanwhile, I keep the pressure up. “Hey, come on, that group already has more items than you!”  I theatrically check my watch “Only one minute left!, Go! Go! Go!”

By the end of the two minutes, many groups have a surprisingly large list of activities, some of which are eye-poppingly retaliatory.  I ask “How many groups had more than five items?”  Everybody raises their hands.  “More than ten items?”  When I’ve winnowed down to the top two or three groups, I task the top groups, and then other groups, to name some of their most intriguing ideas. 

I grab my chalk and start listing:

A student says: “Tell the no-show how he made me miss my girlfriend’s birthday because he didn’t do his part of the work.”  My chalk scrawls: MISSED FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY.

“Tell the student he’s a jerk.”  YOU’RE A JERK.

“Tell her you’ll talk to the professor about getting her fired from the team.”  FIRE HER.

“Use thumbscrews.”  THUMBSCREWS.

“Take their name off the list of contributors to the homework,” TAKE NAME OFF.  Actually, I’ve found allowing students to remove the name of a non-performing student to be the most effective way of producing a satisfying teamwork experience for students.

By the end of my list, I usually notice several stricken looks, slouching bodies, and studiously turned heads among the guiltier students of the class.  Most “users” in a team environment have no idea of how their teammates feel about being taken advantage of.  Problem mini-clinics like these give teammates an opportunity to give full vent to their feelings in a fashion that is not targeted towards any one individual.  Oftentimes, it seems, clearing the air in such a public fashion is the easiest way to nip problem behavior in the bud.  It also makes clear that I, the instructor, strongly back productive students, and I don’t encourage a “try to ignore it and it will go away” approach to handling team problems.  Problem mini-clinics also appear to open the door for later productive private discussions within teams.

Other problems occasionally arise as the semester progresses.  For example, there may be a domineering student who won’t let others participate, or a student who brings problems solved by others instead of work she’s done herself.  Each of these is efficiently addressed by a problem mini-clinic that takes only five or, at most, ten minutes of class time.


If you’re interested in more information, including an A to Z run-down on how to conduct teams in your classroom, I’d like to refer you to our paper on the topic: B. Oakley, R.M. Felder, R. Brent, and I. Elhajj, “Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams.” J. Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 8–33 (2004).

Problem Mini-Clinics was originally suggested to me by preeminent engineering educator Rich Felder—a wealth of his many research studies and teaching tricks can be found at his website:

–Barbara Oakley, Faculty, Department of Electrical & Syst Engineering, Oakland University, MI 

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