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Blog by Renate Klaassen, 4TU.CEE programme coordinator at TU Delft

On 15 October 2020, we had a fascinating inspiration session with our special guest prof. Roland Tormey. He has a lot of lived experience researching education and teacher training activities. He now works at Ecole Polytechnique Lausanne (EPFL) for almost ten years. We are grateful for his sharing his experience and wisdom with 4TU teachers and educators. The topic of the inspiration session was on student learning in a team setting, in relation to engineering education specifically.

Student learning

Tormey: “Learning to work in a team on open-ended, complex projects is a key goal for engineering education. However, although engineering education programmes often include team projects, it is not always clear what these experiences teach students about teamwork and project management. Indeed, the micro-politics of student groups, the under-representation of women in engineering courses, and a lack of space for reflection mean that teams may even reinforce poor communication and planning practices as well as harmful gender stereotypes and biases. In EPFL we have tried to understand better what happens in student groups and to put in place strategies to aid student learning about (a) the management of interdisciplinary projects and (b) the interpersonal ethics of team membership and leadership.”

Roland shared with us the urgency and necessity to analyse the teamwork in (interdisciplinary) engineering education. In engineering, problems tend to be and become more complex, requiring more interdisciplinary collaboration and more team work to come up with viable solutions.

Learnings from high-performance teams

EPFL investigated “high-performance” teams in industry, i.e. groups of max. Fifteen persons bringing new products to market. It emerged that the more radical an innovation, the more gender/diverse the team composition was. Nancy Adler (2003), a well-known organisational specialist, indeed has found similar results and would extend this to include cultural diversity. The other factor was the level of expenditure on R&D inside but also outside the company. The higher the investment, the more radical the innovation.

The reason heterogeneity has such an impact is that groups: make more careful decisions (process), question assumptions and make more evidence-based decisions. Indeed Beers 2016, amongst others, also stipulates that constructive friction in the decision making process, does enhance social and radical innovation.

Obstacles of heterogeneous teams

Another significant reason to want to work in teams in Higher Education is that learning of the individual improves within a team setting of peer learning activities – as opposed to learning alone. It seems a very good reason to introduce interdisciplinary team-work as much as possible in higher education. Although it would make sense to choose for diverse teams in engineering education, to learn to solve engineering problems and to optimising learning and problem-solving skills, life is unfortunately not that simple. The reason is that there are several obstacles to be addressed in diverse teams from cultural and gender stereotyping, to language, discipline and even personality issues.

Social discomfort

The adverse effects of heterogeneous teamwork are social discomfort, and gender difference, high costs and socialisation in a discipline. Heterogeneous teams generate higher levels of discomfort as we tend to want to socialise with people who are like us. So unless we are stimulated to work in diverse groups, most of us will choose a comfortable team and working environment. Related to this social discomfort is the pressing issue in engineering education of the underrepresentation of women and the omnipotent male-dominant frame of reference. This has a profound impact on the well-being and performance of women in engineering (Aeby et al 2019, Cabo & Klaassen, 2019).


Moreover, it may be costly to work in diverse teams as it takes time to negotiate meaning explains Tormey in this talk (as does beers et. all 2016). If the problem is complex, the discussions are extensive, and the logistics equally increase with the team size. Therefore there is a trade-off between 1.) the level of diversity (gender, culture etc), 2.) the complexity of a problem, 3.) the number of team members involved and possibly even 4.) the physical distance of the team members.

This is confirmed for example by an EPFL study into 1st-year students working in diverse teams, who felt personality and communication style, culture and language (French Swiss students versus French French students) and disciplinary formation interfere with openness to other viewpoints and perspectives (Holzer et. al 2016).

What do students learn while working in teams?

The key question came however after 10 minutes: ‘Do students learn what they need to know in terms of skills from teamwork or do they learn something that is not intended?’ Would you like to know more about what the students did and did not learn and the implications of this fact, please view the recorded video of the inspiration session.

We want to thank Roland Tormey for this very interesting viewpoint on teamwork in engineering education, diversity and the ethics involved.


-Adler, N. (2003), International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, the International Executive 28(1), DOI: 10.1002/tie.5060280112, Edition: 4. ed., [Nachdr.], Publisher: South-Western, ISBN: 0-324-05786-5

-Aeby, P., Fong, R., Vukmirovic, M., Isaac, S. and Tormey, R. (2019), The impact of Gender on Engineering Students’ Group Work Experiences, International Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 35, No 3, 0949-149X/91 $3.00+0.00

-Beers, P.J., van Mierlo, B.C. & Hoes, A.C. (2016), Toward an Integrative Perspective on Social Learning in System Innovation Initiatives, in Ecology and Society 21(1):33,

-Cabo, A. & Klaassen, R.G. (2019), The influence of teacher cues on self-directed learning in Math Education, Proceedings of the 15th CDIO conference in Aarhus.

-Holzer, A. , Bendahan, S. ,Bragazza, L, Cardia, I.V., ….. Tormey, R. ( 2016), Increasing the perspectives of Engineering Undergraduates on Societal Issues through an Interdisciplinary programme, International Journal of Engineering Education, (retrieved from research gate)