Teamwork in Engineering Undergraduate Classes: What Problems

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Paper ID #16447
Teamwork in Engineering Undergraduate Classes: What Problems Do Students experience?
Dr. Joanna Wolfe, Carnegie Mellon University Dr. Wolfe is Teaching Professor of Rhetoric and Director of the Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Beth A Powell, Tennessee Technological University Dr. Beth Powell has a doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville. Her research is in engineering communication, and she works as a Coordinator for the College of Engineering Student Success Center at Tennessee Tech University.
Mr. Seth Schlisserman Ms. Alexandra Kirshon
Alexandra Kirshon is a Decision Science major at Carnegie Mellon University with an additional major in Professional Writing and a minor in Public Policy and Management.
c American Society for Engineering Education, 2016

Teamwork in Engineering Undergraduate Classes: What problems do students experience?
Abstract While teamwork is commonly integrated into engineering programs, it often discourages women and minorities. The purpose of the current research is to better understand what teamwork problems women and minorities most frequently encounter and the resources they currently have for solving these problems. The researchers report findings from a two-part study. In Part I, 677 engineering undergraduates at three different universities responded to a survey asking to what extent they had experienced different types of team problems in their STEM classes in the past year. 85% of participants reported they had at least one problem, the most common being a “slacker teammate.” Additionally, women were significantly more likely than men to report problems with feeling like they experienced limited learning because of their role on the team, and both women and under-represented minorities were significantly more likely than other groups to report being excluded from the main work of the team and having a domineering teammate.
To complement and further illuminate the survey results, Part II describes interviews with 63 undergraduates from seven different universities, where the researchers asked participants about problems they encountered during their engineering curriculum and to comment on problem scenarios. Findings suggest that students often lack resources for effectively solving team problems, though “high achieving” students, defined as having a self-reported GPA of 3.5 or above, are often more proactive when dealing with slacker teammates, using strategies such as setting early deadlines or selecting teammates known also to be high achievers. However, across the board, students preferred to “do nothing” when dealing with domineering or exclusionary teammates.
These findings shed light on the disproportionate burden women and under-represented minorities face in team projects and the lack of resources students have, pointing to a need for interventions to teach problem-solving skills.
Introduction In 1996, ABET mandated the development of professional skills such as effective communication and working in teams through the EC2000 criteria. At the time, many educators welcomed this increasing emphasis on teamwork not only as preparation for workplace but also as a way to increase the participation of women and minorities in engineering (Brown, 2001; Ettenheim et al., 2000; Rosser, 1995; Teague, 1995). Team projects were thought to be particularly congenial to women because they promote learning through social interaction with others and can provide a cooperative balance to the often competitive atmosphere that dominates many science and engineering departments.
Unfortunately, however, the reality of such group experiences often proved demoralizing for women. Woodfield (2000), for instance, found that female professionals entering a computing company looked forward to working in teams, but found the practical experience of teamwork lacking, largely due to conflicts in collaborative styles that led to an under-recognition of women's contributions to the project. Many researchers have reported cases where racism and

sexism emerged in team contexts (Hewlett et al., 2008; Ingram and Parker, 2002; Neilsen et al, 1998; Tonso, 2007). Perhaps as a consequence, Neilsen and colleagues (1998) found many women shunning groups, stating that they preferred to work alone. Female engineering students in Natishan, Schmidt and Mead (2000) reported that gender was a “big deal” and that women often have to prove themselves before they were accepted as equals in the group.
One particularly troublesome consequence of these peer interactions is that teamwork often leads to unequal distribution of learning opportunities for men and women. For instance, Amelick and Creamer (2010), in a survey of engineering undergraduates, found that women and minorities complained about being delegated to non-technical work, such as preparing presentations and handouts. Perhaps more compellingly, in a study of over 500 engineering student team presentations, Meadows and Sekaquaptewa (2013) found that male students presented 20% more technical slides than would be expected if slide contents were equally distributed. Male students also spoke more during presentations and answered more questions than female group members. This unequal distribution of labor was correlated with self-perceptions of learning: students who presented technical slides and students who answered more questions perceived themselves as learning more during the presentation. These findings mirror those of other, smaller-scale studies that likewise found male students disproportionately assumed technical roles in projects while female students were more likely to complete writing and organizational work (Natashan, Schmidt & Mead, 2000; Wolfe & Alexander, 2005).
Yet, not only is teamwork a necessary part of students’ professional preparation, but team projects do have the potential to improve learning outcomes. A large body of research on collaborative learning points to the benefits of students’ learning from one another (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Mentkowski & Associates, 2000; Seymour and Hewitt, 1997; Prince and Felder, 2006). Prince (2004), in his review of literature on active learning, found that team-based approaches to learning can increase students’ skills, positive attitudes, and retention.
How, then, can we make student teams more equitable, over-coming well-documented trends where women have fewer opportunities than men to gain and demonstrate technical competence? How can we persuade women to persist on teams—and in their engineering career paths more broadly—despite interpersonal interactions that may make them question their belonging?
Before we can discover the answers to these pressing questions, we need a better understanding of the status quo: what problems do women and minorities most frequently encounter and what resources do they currently have for solving these problems? Understanding this status quo can not only help us develop interventions, but it can provide compelling data that we can use to persuade faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders that we need to invest time and effort into solving these problems.
Part I below reports a survey of students at three very different universities asking the extent to which they experienced various team problems. Part II provides an in-depth look at the experiences of 63 students who completed interviews describing their team experiences and the approaches they used in response to various difficulties encountered. Identifying students’ current problem-solving strategies is instrumental in developing effective interventions. By better understanding how students currently address problems, we can determine to what extent

we should support what students are currently doing, work to change students’ mindsets, or focus on redesigning our curriculum and culture.
Part I: Survey of student team problems Surveys were completed by 697 engineering undergraduates at three different universities: a private, high research university; a public, high research university; and a public, low research university. Of these 697 students, 20 opted not to record their gender or ethnicity, and were thus excluded from our analyses, leaving a total sample of 677 participants.
Slightly over one-third of the participants were female (n=228), and the remaining 66% were male (n=449). 15% were under-represented minorities (Hispanic = 62; African-American = 40) with the rest split between White (n=296) and Asian (n=279). The most common majors in the sample were Electrical Engineering (36%), Mechanical Engineering (26%), Civil Engineering (11%), and Chemical Engineering (11%).
Students were asked to identify how many teams they had participated on in their science, engineering, or technology classes in the past year. Students were then asked about the following four situations:
 How often have you been on a team in the past year in which one of the team members missed meetings, turned in poor quality work, or in other ways was less than a full contributor to the project?
 How often have you been on a team in the past year in which one of the members shut down others’ ideas and generally insisted on his or her own way?
 How often have you been on a team in the past year in which you felt excluded or cut off from the main work of the team? This may be because teammates turned in work without your knowledge, met without you present, or assigned you to minor parts of the project.
 How often have you been on a team in the past year in which you felt you would have had a better learning experience if you had been assigned to or worked on a different part of the project?
The first three situations were selected because—consistent with prior research (Natishan, Schmit & Mead, 2000; Oakley et al., 2007)—students in their interviews frequently mentioned problems with non-participating or domineering team members, or with teammates who were excluding. Such problems often had concrete implications for students’ grades as well as less directly observable consequences for their learning, self-efficacy and sense of belonging. The final situation above was chosen because prior research indicates that women often end up assigned to less core technical content on engineering teams, which affects the amount that they perceive themselves learning (Meadows & Sekaquaptewa, 2013). We do note, however, that this situation did not emerge as a theme in our interviews, probably because—as Meadows and Sekaquaptewa argue—students saw their assignment to non-technical work as self-determined, and therefore not an issue they thought to complain about.
Part I Results Students routinely encounter problems in their teams Consistent with the EC2000 criteria, 98% of students (n=664) reported participating on at least one team, with the average student participating in three teams in the most recent year.

Table 1 shows that team problems are very common: 85% of engineering students reported at least one team problem in their STEM classes in the most recent year. Moreover, many of these issues appear to have limited students’ opportunities to reap the full benefits of the team experience. Nearly half of the students surveyed stated that they had experienced a project in which they would have had a better learning experienced if they had been assigned to a different part of the project and almost one-third indicated they had been excluded from the main work of the team.

The most common problem was a “slacker” teammate who missed meetings, turned in poor quality work, or in other ways was less than a full contributor to the project. These results are consistent with Oakley et al. (2007) and Mead et al. (2005) who found that slacker teammates are among the most commonly reported team problems. After slacker teammates, limited learning opportunities and then domineering teammates were the most common problems encountered.

No differences were found for institution: students at all three schools reported problems to approximately the same extent.

Table 1. Percentages of Males and Females Reporting Teamwork Problems in the most

recent year


Slacker Domineering Limited Excluded from Any

Teammate Teammate Learning main work


Females (n=228) 78%





Males (n=449)






* p < .01

Female students report significantly more team problems than their male peers Particularly concerning is the gender divide shown in Table 1. Chi-square tests show that women were significantly more likely than men to report problems with domineering teammates (χ2 = 9.85 (1), p < 0.01), feeling as though they could have had a better learning experience working on another part of the project (χ2 = 13.61, p < 0.01) and being excluded from the main work of the project (χ2 = 20.6 (1), p < 0.01). While it is unclear whether women in fact encountered more negative experiences—or simply perceived their experiences more acutely than men—this survey strongly suggests that gender affects students’ team experiences. Moreover, the finding that women felt they had encountered limited learning opportunities because of their roles on the team, or had been excluded from the main work of the project, is consistent with observational studies that have found that women do less technical work on mixed-gendered technical teams (Meadows & Sekaquaptewa, 2013; Wolfe & Alexander, 2005).

Underrepresented minorities report significantly more team problems than others Approximately 15% of our survey sample identified themselves as either African American or Hispanic, both groups that are under-represented in engineering. Table 2 shows that these underrepresented minorities reported significantly more problems with domineering teammates (χ2 = 7.36 (1), p < 0.01) and more situations in which they were excluded from the main work of the team (χ2 = 15.56 (1), p < 0.01).

Table 2: Percentages of Students Reporting Teamwork Problems in the most recent year

by Ethnicity



Domineering Limited


Teammate Teammate Learning

from main


Under-represented minority

African American (n=40)





Hispanic (n=62)





All Under-represented (n=102) 82%




Over-represented groups

Asian (n=279)





White (n=296)





All Over-represented (n=575) 72%




* p < .01

When ethnicity was examined in conjunction with gender, the results become even more pronounced. Table 3 reveals that under-represented minority females reported more of every type of problem than White or Asian females: underrepresented women reported more slacker situations (χ2 = 7.68 (1), p < 0.01), domineering teammates (χ2 = 4.55 (1), p < 0.05), situations where they felt that their learning was limited (χ2 = 4.35 (1), p < 0.05), and situations where they felt excluded from the main work of the project (χ2 = 5.83 (1), p < 0.01). Likewise, underrepresented minority males reported more issues with domineering teammates (χ2 = 5.05 (1), p < 0.05), and more situations in which they were excluded from the main work of the team compared to White and Asian males (χ2 = 9.15 (1), p < 0.01).

Table 3: Percentages of Students Reporting Teamwork Problems in the most recent year

by Ethnicity and Gender



Domineering Limited


Teammate Teammate Learning from main


Female students

Under-represented minority (n=38) 95%*




Whites and Asians (n=190)





Male students

Under-represented minority (n=64) 73%




Whites and Asians (n=385)





† = p < .05; * p < .01

Part I Discussion The results of this survey highlight the prevalence of team problems in the engineering curriculum: over three-fourths of students indicated an issue with a teammate or their role on a team. The mere presence of team problems is not necessarily a cause for concern, since a major rationale for assigning team projects is to have students learn how to work out such conflict. However, these findings do emphasize the need for instruction that will help students productively respond to team problems.

Moreover, the survey sheds light on the disproportionate burden women and under-represented minorities face in team projects. Of particular concern is that women and minorities were significantly more likely than others to report being on a project where they felt excluded from the main work of the team. This finding echoes that of Meadows and Sekaquaptewa (2013) observations of over 500 student team presentations, where women were marginalized from the core technical components of the team projects. Although some of this exclusion is selfselected—women often volunteer for less technical portions of the project—this pattern should concern educators since it indicates that women and minorities may be exposed to fewer learning opportunities and fewer opportunities for visibility on highly valued work.
Part II: Interviews We complement these survey findings with interviews of 63 engineering undergraduates from seven different universities. Of these, roughly half (n=30) were from public, high research universities; 19 were from private, high research universities; and 14 were from public, low research universities. These universities were spread across the United States.
Nearly two-thirds (n=41/63) of the interview participants were female and nearly half were under-represented minorities: there were 18 Hispanic, 11 African American, 2 Native American, 6 Asian, and 24 White students. Nine students were sophomores, 23 juniors, and 31 seniors. The most common engineering disciplines represented were mechanical (n=13), chemical (n=12), biomechanical (n=11), electrical and computing (n=11), and civil (n=9).
We attempted to recruit students from a range of academic levels. We classified 17 students as high achievers, meaning they had a self-reported GPA of 3.5 or above; 24 as average, with a GPA between 3.4 and 2.9, and 22 as lower achiever, with a GPA below 2.9.
For approximately two weeks prior to the interview, participants were asked to keep a diary logging every time they felt like complaining or asking for help. Interviews began by asking students to elaborate on their diary entries. The interviews were semi-structured with some questions asked of every participant, but plenty of space to follow up on particular topics of interest. Most interviews lasted 60-75 minutes.
All participants were asked what they liked best and least about engineering; the most difficult team interaction they had had; the most difficult situation with a professor they had experienced; and the most difficult communication challenge they had faced in their engineering work. Students were also shown some common scenarios that other engineering students had encountered and asked to comment on them.
We coded the interviews for the types of team problems students encountered (i.e., slackers, domineering teammates, exclusion) and the types of solutions they said they would utilize to respond to these situations (i.e., do nothing, confront behavior, speak to the professor). For the purpose of this paper, we focus on the areas where there were significant gender differences.
Part II: Results Interview participants resembled survey participants

The students we interviewed resembled those who took the survey: 71% (45/63) reported problems with slacker teammates; 48% (30/63) reported domineering teammates and 22% (14/63) reported being excluded from the main work of the project. As with our survey results, women were more likely than men to encounter problems with domineering teammates and exclusion (63% for women versus 41% of men), a difference that was marginally significant, χ2(1)=2.937, p< .10. Under-represented minority women experienced more problems with domineering and exclusion than other groups, with 70% (16/23) reporting such problems, although the difference is not statistically significant.
Domineering and exclusion had emotional costs and were often linked to sexism or racism While not as common as slacking, domineering and exclusion often had higher emotional costs for students who felt that their teammates were questioning their competence. Many students felt they were being singled out because the domineering individual did not respect their intelligence or experience.
I got angry just because I kept saying something, and nobody would listen, and I kept feeling, "I'm dumb," or something. (Hispanic female, private high research university, lower achiever)
There’s specifically this one kid who just—I feel like he just shuts me down whenever— he attempts to. He attempts to shut me down whenever I talk. I feel like he doesn’t acknowledge my statements. I just feel like, whenever I speak, he weighs it less than when everybody else speaks. I don’t really speak to him. The problem is, he comes off as nice. He’s this super know-it-all that a lotta people within the department like, but I just don’t feel respected by him. You take it in stride. (African American female, public high research university, average)
Well, sometimes it’s between me and the team leader. He likes to—I think sometimes he doesn’t really consider my ideas as much as he should…. He has a double major and he’s pretty arrogant. (White male, public low research university, lower achiever)
Many students made a direct link between this disrespect and their gender or race, stating that their ideas were given less weight because they are not male:
It’s tough, cuz the boys, they don’t listen to you. They’re just like—I’ve had some guys say, “You’re a woman. You can’t know better.” It’s like, “What?” (African-American female, private high research university, average)
I have friends in my classes. Let’s say we’ll be hanging out with a group of them and I’ll be the only girl. They always find some reason why I’m not right. Even though it can be joking, it’s still annoying sometimes because I can’t even get a word in… You have some that are just arrogant and think they’re geniuses. They’re gonna talk over me because they don’t think I’m as smart as them. (White female, public high research university, average)

Because I'm black and a female, it's like I feel that the impression is I don't have much to offer so it's like we won't really listen or what can you really add to this. (AfricanAmerican female, public high research university, lower achiever)
Female students particularly worried that they received less challenging—or less technical— work on projects because of their gender or race. These women felt their male teammates did not trust them to handle the work:
The thing is, mostly in the engineering fields, boys, they don’t take girls seriously even though maybe the girls would do better jobs….so especially in group projects some guys with some attitude just try to take over. (White female, public low research university, high achiever)
I feel like being a girl in the engineering field,…I feel like sometimes people talk down to me just because I’m a girl, and they think, “Oh, well, she doesn't know anything. We’re just gonna do this ourselves.” (White female, public low research university, average)
Tellingly, some male students also commented that their female peers’ ideas and abilities were given less weight.
I feel like that would be annoying, as a girl. Your ideas are automatically thrown out just because you're a girl. (African-American male, private high research university, high achiever)
Especially in engineering, more so, I guess, just because of, you know, there’s, you’ve got a group of guys or whatever, and they look at the girl or whatever and say: “You’re not up to par with us.” Which is absolutely not true at all. (African-American male, public high research university, lower achiever)
Exclusion could have major, tangible consequences for students Exclusion often had consequences for students’ grades. In one extreme case, a student told us of a project where she was specifically given a lower grade because she had done less technical work on the project—despite her repeated attempts to try to take on a more technical role:
What he did was he took those important parts for himself and the rest, we were just like technicians or maybe—we were just in labor, carrying stuff or—and I was so upset with him. The thing was, most of the people in the group, they were friends, so we mostly had task division. What he did—he wasn’t calling me or they were just doing it and when I was asking he said, “Okay, don’t worry. We just done it. We went to the lab and we just finished it.” I got so mad and I went to the professor and said, “He doesn’t—just share those projects, because I have to get a grade, too.” He said, “You chose him as a leader, so you have to go take care of it.”
I sent him a few e-mails and asked him, “Okay, you should just give me more tasks, you have to just make—” I don’t know; he just never did. For the second semester of capstone I got B, because our professor said, “I didn’t see you doing those electrical

engineering things,” and I said, “Because he didn’t let me. He didn’t give me this chance.”….
Even for presentation, he gave me just the business part of the project, not the technical, and I was presenting it very well and some of our professors came to me and they said it was good, but my professor said, “I didn’t see you talking about those technical things.” I said, “That’s what he told me to present. I just did what I was told.” (White female, public low research university, high achiever)
This case is especially compelling given that the student was a high achiever: thus, the team had no reason to question her competence. Moreover, her attempts to enlist the professor’s help may have backfired by alerting the professor to the fact that she was not fully participating. This team project carried a high emotional cost for the student—who expressed feelings of frustration, anger, and rejection—as well as had a tangible effect on her GPA.
Other students told us about situations where their grade on a project did not suffer, but their performance in the course was weakened because they had not met the learning objectives of the assignment:
She’d fly through it …She didn’t really have time to teach me. That was one of those situations where I was just like, okay, I'm gonna stay back and let her do the work…. That class was not the class to do that for, so I ended up actually having to drop that class and retake it as a result. (African-American female, private high research university, average)
He would constantly be going to the lab and working on the lab without me, during times that I physically can’t be in the lab. He would do the majority of all these projects. I slowly learned less, and less, and less. It would be okay if it was just the class—the grade was just on the labs because we did awesome on all the labs just because he did so much of them. We also had tests in that class, where you had to test your knowledge of what you learned in the lab. He was, by then, hurting me because I wasn’t able to learn as much. (White female, public high research university, high achiever)
Some students told us of leaving volunteer organizations because of domineering or excluding teammates:
He’s like, “I’m a guy. I should be the top of the food chain and I’m the one doing construction. You could do your own paper” I stepped down from that position and went to a lower position than him but still I had more experience and I was more smarter than he was in the topic but he still treated me like I was below him. (Asian female, public low research university, lower achiever)
I joined last fall this group called Ecooperative…There was this one guy who, he seems like he knows everything. I thought he was a senior ready to graduate and he had been doing this for awhile. Turns out he was just a freshman who knew his stuff, but was really trying to take this team to the next level….Now because of all that he's become the president and it's like whatever he says goes, so I've kind of left that group because

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Teamwork in Engineering Undergraduate Classes: What Problems