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We should aim to create diverse student teams in software engineering

Diverse teams are more successful than homogenous ones

An extreme case of when a homogenous group got it right was the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’re all still here and there wasn’t a nuclear war in the early Sixties. The group around President Kennedy were all similar, and suffered from some group think, but happily for us made the right decision about how to respond to the Soviet action in Cuba at the time.

We can’t always count on the exceptional outcome of a homogenous team. This means we should aim to create more diverse teams in our classes. They are repeatedly shown to be more successful. This also helps to shape more rounded people.

Diversity is found in many attributes. As staff members, we can only use some of these directly, and have to ask about others if we want to include them.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

Applying diversity in the classroom

When I’m setting up teams I consider a few attributes where possible. My work here is often guessing as you’ll see, and hopefully this shows you options that you can use in your work.

I always try to put two of each ‘attribute’ in a team. This, hopefully, puts an ally for each of them in the team. who will understand and support them.

First, gender is one option. In the various university systems we have that list who’s in a class, one of them is available to be modified by students. This also has ‘Mr, Miss, etc’ and pronouns too. This isn’t perfect, but is a start in the right direction.

Second, language is another key issue. We have a large number of Chinese students due to various agreements with the South China Normal University, and I want to ensure that they have ample opportunity to pratice their English. While I see translator apps actively recording/transcribing discussion in teams, I also know this is insufficient.

Third is culture, and this one is a guess on my part. I use names to guess where people might be from. I do appreciate that with a large multicultural population, myself included, that this will not always be correct. This often provides clusters of Asian, South Asian, European/Eastern European, African, and a few other places, and seems to work ok.

This approach has worked well-enough by my observation. I see students engaging and collaborating together. I also see some frustration with those, who don’t engage. Sometimes a person from that team will ask for my help to resolve issues too.

How far should one go?

As I write this I just realised there might a better way to do this: I can pull a report with student’s home addresses, which would possibly also help sort out English speakers, which is important for proof-reading the report. I must admit, this also seems like possibly overstepping their privacy. I’ll need to discuss this with the current students to see what they think. (Alway be reflecting on how you work…)

Class size issues for diversity

The above works fine with bigger classes. For smaller ones, in my case about 20-26, I add one more adjustment. I ask those students three questions in an online form. This is the wording I use:

“I need to ask a few questions in order to put together teams for the group project, so that teams can be balanced as fairly as possible, for diverseness, language skills, and gender.

Tell me the one person, who’d you’d like to work with on a project this coming term from January to April.

There is NO guarantee that I’ll be able to make this happen, but I will try to make this possible.

I will try to enable these small ‘pairs’ where possible. This will also only work if BOTH of you say each other’s name.”

The questions that follow are:

  1. Tell me your name
  2. Tell me the one person you’d like to work with on your team this term.
  3. Which gender do you identify as? I ask, so that I can take this into account without relying on your photo.

This approach has worked well for a number of years. Students are happy to have one person they chose on the team. In a team of six, this still leaves lots of variety too.

Other types of diversity

For a number of years I co-organised a course with a colleague at another university, called CityLab Aberdeen Students from any discipline from either university could attend the course, and would form teams around the challenge they wanted to address. Each team had to follow several rules to ensure diversity. This time the diversity was different:

  1. no more than two people from the same discipline
  2. there should be members from both universities
  3. were possible teams should also have a balanced gender diversity

We wanted to have diversity across institutions and disciplines, as well as the other ones mentioned earlier. Given any student could participate, we had extremely diverse teams with respect to discipline: A jeweller, mathematician, biologist, architect, and computer scientist might collaborate on a team.

The more diverse the team, the more fun, and more interesting the collaboration. Keep mixing things up, and create diverse teams in your classrooms.

Adjust ‘diversity’ to suit your needs and think big. Then sit back and watch the fun as people learn from each other.

Over to you now. How will you add more diversity to your student teams?


This post is part of a project pulling together my materials and ideas about Teaching Team Collaboration: the Human-Side of Software Development for software development to students.

The ideas above are from my book 101+ Ideas to Improve Team Collaboration, which covers all of these little things that students can do to improve their collaboration.

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