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Setting the scene: teamwork and collaboration in higher education

Teamwork and collaboration skills are among the most in-demand in the labour market†. Increasingly, organisations use agile or cross-functional teams to address complex business needs.

Teamwork offers better problem-solving, greater potential for innovation and more opportunities for personal growth. A study by EY revealed that almost 9 out of 10 companies agree “that the problems confronting them are now so complex that teams are essential to provide effective solutions”.

In this context, staff in higher education are recognising the value of teaching collaboration and teamwork in project-based learning, to boost self-understanding, increase employability and prepare students for the world of work.

However, there are a number of obstacles to doing so: syllabuses fit to burst, insufficient time and instructors lacking confidence or being reticent to teach these skills.


† The ability to communicate and work effectively in a team is one of the skills most in demand by engineering companies (Loughry et al., 2014; Oakley et al., 2004; Zhang et al., 2020). It is also one of the key outcomes required for the accreditation of engineering programs (ABET, 2020; EFCE, 2020).


In 2018, Asier Aranzabal, Eva Epelde and Maite Artetxe, professors at the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), identified several problems with team selection in the project-based elements of their chemical engineering course.

The professors sought a reliable and valid method for forming teams, with a view to improving performance and engagement, and incorporating learning around teamwork.

They used the Belbin methodology to assign students to teams and measured a number of key outcomes, including project and exam scores, and individual accountability (via the Individual Accountability Factor or IAF). They compared results in these key areas for 2018/19 and 2019/20 cohorts compared to results achieved in previous years.

Forming the teams

Teacher-selected teams drew complaints from students. Diversity of opinion caused tension through disagreements, and students were resentful of the intrusion.

Student-selected teams, on the other hand, suffered from poor collaboration, engagement, and organisation. The teams were frequently unbalanced in terms of skills, abilities, specialism, sex or ethnic background, which limited learning opportunities.

Staff sought an objective method for forming teams which would have legitimacy in the eyes of the students.

A new method for forming teams

They interviewed former students and asked them to reflect on those skills which were key to success, with a view to deciding on an appropriate methodology. The Belbin Team Role theory was chosen for its focus on complementary skills that would allow students to tackle different tasks within the project successfully.

They stated:

“We found that most of the suggested competencies and duties were not strictly based on technical skills and knowledge, but on transversal skills closely related to those of Belbin’s roles.”

Embedding Team Role understanding

Prior to forming the teams using Belbin, the researchers developed a multi-step process for introducing the benefits of teamwork and forming teams based on Team Role theory.

The professors were trained by (and received feedback from) Belbin Spain and Latam in Team Role methodology. They were in regular contact with Belbin regarding students’ progress and problems arising during the course.

First, the instructors introduced teamwork in a general sense. They used the rocket exercise from Belbin Co-operate and discussed skills needed for effective teamwork.

Students completed the Self-Perception Inventory (SPI) and were asked to complete Observer Assessments (OA).

Using the Team Role data from the completed reports, the instructors built balanced teams of 4-5 members.
Students were given a lecture on Belbin theory, so that they understood Team Role descriptors, strengths and weaknesses. They subsequently received their Belbin reports and were notified of their group allocation.

Using the information contained in the reports, students wrote a reflective essay and received feedback from their instructors on this.

Once gathered, the team members filled out the Team Role Circle. This gave an at-a-glance view of roles in the team, including any gaps or overlaps. It was revised during the project, as students’ self-knowledge (and knowledge of their team-mates’ strengths) developed.

The results…

The researchers performed independent t-tests and discovered that student performance – in terms of project score, exam score and IAF – was significantly better for Belbin-selected than for self-selected teams.

Exam score

Researchers remarked particularly on the increased rate of students with ‘outstanding’ grade, and the drop (from 20% to 7%) of students not taking the exam.

They commented:

“This drop suggests that students working in Belbin teams feel more engaged and that their learning is higher. Therefore, students feel more confident that they can pass the exam.”

Accountability and engagement

Individual Accountability Factor (IAF) is a measure of students’ performance related to their engagement to teamwork.

Students completed monitoring questionnaires (MQs) which allowed researchers to gauge their knowledge (according to a set of deliverables) and to incorporate the corresponding scores into their project grade, by multiplying the overall team project score to the Individual Accountability Factor (IAF).

“These results show that forming teams by Belbin’s role theory improves the positive interdependence and individual accountability of team members, which, in turn, allows improving team and individual performance.”

The research team commented that “the performance of students in terms of project score, exam score and IAF is significantly better for Belbin teams than for self-selected teams”.


Class attendance

In addition to increased engagement, students in Belbin-selected teams had higher attendance rates overall and required less study time outside the classroom, since they were able to work more effectively in class.


Interest in the subject

At the end of the semester, students were asked to rate their interest in the subject.

In Belbin-selected teams, the rate of students whose interest in the subject was “high” or “very high” increased considerably, whilst “medium”, “low” and “very low” interest decreased.


Feedback from students

At the end of the semester, students were asked to rate whether forming teams according to Belbin Team Role theory helped them both on group work and personal levels.

The areas identified as being most positively influenced by working in Belbin-selected teams were those related to positive interdependence, interpersonal relationships and social skills, and individual accountability.

90% of students agreed (or strongly agreed) that Belbin had helped “the ability to listen to the opinions of others”.

80-84% agreed (or strongly agreed) that forming teams with Belbin favoured the following aspects of their work:

  • The ability to draw on the knowledge, ideas and skills of others;
  • The communication of ideas, knowledge and proposals;
  • The integration of colleagues in collaborative work;
  • The ability to accept and welcome proposals from colleagues, even if those ideas were different to their own;
  • Their perceptions of other, lesser-known, colleagues;
  • Consensus decision-making in the group.

Embedding learning and improving teacher-student relationships

The researchers indicated that a key element to the success of their endeavour was that students’ learning was not limited to Belbin theory or their own Team Roles, but was focused on building understanding around the Team Role methodology.

Similarly, the lecturers did not simply distribute individuals into balanced teams and hope for the best. Their nuanced understanding of Belbin helped them develop a sophisticated process for disseminating Team Role information and identifying and addressing team dysfunction when it arose.

Team Role Circle

Completing the Team Role Circle enabled students to deepen and apply their learning by focusing explicitly on group work skills, whilst the reflective essays consolidated students’ understanding of their own positive contribution to make to the team.

Staff reported that this part of the exercise had also changed instructors’ attitudes towards them, and students noticed and appreciated it.

“This has been reflected in the progressively improved rating in students’ assessments of our teaching quality.”

If you are in higher education and would like to find out more about how you can use Belbin to help your students, please fill in the form below and we'll start a conversation.

You can download a copy of this article here.



The findings in this report are from the paper 'Team formation on the basis of Belbin's roles to enhance students' performance in project based learning', Education for Chemical Engineers 38: 22-37 (2022)

Images reproduced with kind permission of the authors.

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