Can Student Teams Be Cross-Functional?

My professional writing students often get annoyed with me when they ask questions about an assignment because my answer is usually “it depends.” The same is true if you are wondering if you can put together cross-functional students teams for a group project in one of your courses. A colleague in computing sciences who tries to do Scrum in his programming courses says cross-functional teams are rarely possible because students are all learning the same platforms and roles; expecting to create a Scrum team with developers, UX/UI people, and QA testers is unrealistic in this context. But

I think you can create teams with mixed skills, even if they are not truly cross-functional.

An ideal cross-functional team has people with useful skills who contribute to the completion of work every sprint. In my upper-level project-based professional writing courses, I will often get students from my program, creative writing, communication design, strategic communication, and multimedia authoring. When that happens, I can mix up teams with writers, designers, and students comfortable with design technologies.

Sometimes you might get a class with a good cross-section of majors and student abilities, but it is probably uncommon. So what do you do? I give students an “inventory” to fill out before the group project. It asks them

  • what words they would use to describe their strengths and weakness in a team setting
  • what they value most in a team member
  • how comfortable they are with a variety of “hard” skills, such as working with specific software that might be useful in the course, writing in certain genres, analyzing survey data
  • which”soft” skills are their strengths, such as setting a meeting agenda, dealing with conflict, building relationships with team members and community partners/clients, being a motivational leader, etc.

I’m sure to tell my students that the inventory list of hard and soft skills is exhaustive, so no one expects them to be skilled at everything. Areas they rank themselves lower on are opportunities for growth in the team experience.

I then take those inventories, combine it with my knowledge of each students strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and learning goals to create teams with a good mix of skills. The groups I create mix their hard and soft skills as best as possible. I want them to be able to strengthen themselves by leading at some point but also by being humble enough to learn from each other. Sometimes the groups fall out easily and sometimes it’s harder, but I have found this method to be far better than other ways of putting groups together because there is more intentionality.

The most important part of this method for putting teams together is actually telling them WHY I put them into a team. Once I assign the groups, I go around to each one and explain why I think they will make a good team. I point out skills and strengths for each of the them and ways they can learn from each other. I then ask them to create a competency matrix of their skills so they can see it for themselves.

This method has worked really well for me. Sure, you get teams that implode sometimes, but that’s the nature of collaborative work. Happens in industry too. Overall, students appreciate knowing why I put them together in a team because we often don’t explain that to them and they see it as random. And it gives them a place to start when building the team relationship, especially when we do 10- or 12-week group projects.

How do you put student groups together? Might this method work for you?

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