Structure or nurture? The effects of team-building activities and team composition on team outcomes

Emily M. Hastings, Farnaz Jahanbakhsh, Karrie Karahalios, Darko Marinov, Brian P. Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How can instructors group students into teams that interact and learn effectively together? One strand of research advocates for grouping students into teams with “good” compositions such as skill diversity. Another strand argues for deploying team-building activities to foster interpersonal relations like psychological safety. Our work synthesizes these two strands of research. We describe an experiment (N=249) that compares how team composition vs. team-building activities affect student team outcomes. In two university courses, we composed student teams either randomly or using a criteria-based team formation tool. Teams further performed team-building activities that promoted either team or task outcomes. We collected project scores, and used surveys to measure psychological safety, perceived performance, and team satisfaction. Surprisingly, the criteria-based teams did not statistically differ from the random teams on any of the measures taken, despite having compositions that better satisfied the criteria defined by the instructor. Our findings argue that, for instructors deploying a team formation tool, creating an expectation among team members that their team can perform well is as important as tuning the criteria in the tool. We also found that student teams reported high levels of psychological safety, but these levels appeared to develop organically and were not affected by the activities or compositional strategies tested. We distill these and other findings into implications for the design and deployment of team formation tools for learning environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number68
JournalProceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction
Issue numberCSCW
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Algorithms
  • Learning
  • Psychological safety
  • Team formation
  • Team-building

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Computer Networks and Communications


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