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An approach to managing diversity in student team projects

D. Caspersz, J.Skene, M. Wu and M. Boland
The University of Western Australia

The increasing internationalisation of Australian university student populations juxtaposed against what current research highlights as issues in handling multicultural teams, stimulates a challenge in managing cultural diversity in student team projects. Addressing this requires attendance not only to the development of generic team work skills in students; but also to issues of inclusive curriculum and matters of learning styles. The aim of this paper is to describe an approach which is under trial at the University of Western Australia Business School, and some tentative conclusions emanating from evaluations.


The increasing internationalisation of Australian university student populations juxtaposed against current research issues in handling multicultural teams, poses a challenge for managing diversity in student team projects. In 2003, international students accounted for 13 per cent of the student population in Australian universities, an increase of 16 per cent over the previous year. In business, economics and information technology courses they usually outnumber domestic students by two to one (Hewett: 2003: 8). Thus, the imperative to ensure that teaching strategies cater to the needs of a culturally diverse student group is increasing rather than decreasing.

The challenge which this picture presents is intensified when considering research showing that multicultural teams suffer from 'process loss' arising from inability to communicate clearly, frequent disagreements on expectations, and attitudinal problems such as dislike, mistrust and lack of cohesion (Adler: 1997; Watson & Kumar: 1992). Hinds et al (2000) suggest that individuals subsequently veer towards mirroring themselves on observable diversity characteristics. Also described as 'homophily' by Smith, Fischer and Sale (2001) the overall impact on individuals can be detrimental, as it restricts access to communication and information. However, research simultaneously shows that workforce productivity can improve if cross-cultural teams are effectively managed (Cox and Blake: 1991; Adler: 1997; Richard: 2000; Distefano & Maznevski: 2000).

In response to these challenges, research has been undertaken in an undergraduate international management unit, to trial strategies aimed at more effective management of cultural diversity in student teams. The aim of this paper is to describe the strategies used and their evaluation.

Valuing diversity

Derek Bok, President of Harvard Business School, has posed the challenge (cited in Keating and Byles: 1991: 12): "How do we provide an adequate foundation to prepare undergraduates for a world in which they will have to understand and cope with other traditions and cultures?" The benefits to be reaped by enhancing diversity awareness include improved creativity in problem solving (Gardenswartz et al: 1998), development of critical thinking skills (Day & Glick: 2000; Hurtado et al.: 2002), improved social interaction by increasing willingness to share and appreciate different perspectives (Terenzini et al: 2001; Hurtado et al.: 2002) and enhanced problem solving skills (Business-Higher Education Forum's Diversity Task Force: 2002). However, the challenge arises in designing a program that assists students manage cultural diversity. While research shows that team work can have both academic and non-academic benefits for students ( see Caspersz et al 2002), preparing students to manage cultural diversity in teams stretches beyond generic team-work skills. Student teams can also suffer from homophily and little social interaction between different cultural groups (Volet & Ang: 1998; Marginson: 2002). One response to these dilemmas is to examine whether the curriculum is inclusive enough to address these issues.

An inclusive curriculum is one which values the culture, background and experience of all students and encourages students to adopt a cultural relativist perspective (McLoughlin: 2001; Gudykunst, 1994 as cited in Ramsay: 2000). In its most advanced phase, inclusive curriculum means "rethinking of disciplines, of areas of study, of methodologies, and of pedagogics" that take into account racial, ethnic, class, and gender diversity (Garcia & Smith, 1996, cited in Firebaugh, 2000).

The many benefits gained from adopting an inclusive curriculum include higher minority student retention, greater cognitive development and more positive academic and social self-concepts (Terenzini et al. 2001). Furthermore, in Investing in People: Developing All of America's Talent on Campus and in the Workplace, the authors note that students who have been educated in a diverse environment develop higher level critical thinking abilities, will more likely value differing viewpoints, and transfer the creativity, innovation and problem solving skills acquired to their future jobs (Butler et al 2002: 14 & 34).

The concept of learning styles, the way that a person takes in and processes information, underpins an inclusive curriculum approach. As more than three-fifths of learning style is biological and less than one-fifth is developmental (Restak:1979; Thies:1979 as cited in Doolan & Honigsfield, 2000), it is their biological and social uniqueness that makes people learn differently. Learning styles are affected not just by personal experience, but also diversity such as age, gender and of course cultural background. Thus, some people learn by focussing on facts and data, others learn through visual cues and others respond to verbal techniques of learning. Of the many models describing learning styles (see Felder, 1996), the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator is one of the most commonly known. This identifies 'opposites' of learning styles and through a series of questions and tasks assists the individual identify their learning style. Knowledge of one's own learning style, as well as that of others, can contribute to managing cultural diversity in student teams, through unravelling dynamics which may impede student participation and in developing appropriate responses.

Strategies to manage cultural diversity in student teams

The program which has been designed to manage diversity in student teams emanates from this theoretical framework. The strategies developed reflect these principles and can be aggregated into the following areas:
  1. Teaching program.
  2. Assessment process.
  3. Staff awareness.

Teaching program

The teaching approach adopted included the seminar (lecture) program and problem solving in small groups (tutorials) using case studies. The aims were to raise students' awareness about the theoretical issues underpinning strategies to manage cultural diversity and to assist students to develop and 'test out' appropriate strategies. Seminars focused on providing students with information about cultural differences and explained theories of cross-cultural communication, including both verbal and non verbal communication. Case studies helped students develop appropriate problem solving strategies in two main areas: management of human resources and the establishment and maintenance of organisational structures and processes.

Students also participated in a three week simulation team-based, cross-cultural negotiation exercise, involving two culturally different management groups attempting to establish a joint venture. Students formed teams and negotiated to reach a resolution on key management issues, such as who was to be the President of the joint venture. Students were required to research the cultural influences affecting the management styles of both teams, and plan appropriate negotiation strategies.

Assessment process

Team work was preferred as the major assessment tool because, if appropriately constituted, the teams provided an immediate vehicle for students to both encounter and develop strategies to manage cultural diversity. Thus, there was deliberate intervention to establish culturally diverse teams by academic staff, who used random selection as well as the skills audit exercise to compose culturally diverse teams with a fair distribution of the skills required to complete the project.

Whilst team composition was one strategy, attention was also given to the findings from research on factors influencing effective team performance. This confirms (see Caspersz et al: 2003 a & 2003b) that management of effective student teams requires addressing both individual- and team-level factors. Individual-level factors such as an individualist orientation and interpersonal abilities in managing conflict and communication, affected the willingness of the individual student to participate in teams. Team-level factors on the other hand influenced effective team performance. This is where students express satisfaction with both the process and outcome of their team project (Caspersz et al: 2003b). Concepts such as trust, interpersonal work group processes, team-member satisfaction, workload sharing, communication and leadership, were significant in affecting team performance (Caspersz, Wu & Skene, 2003a).

It was hypothesised that addressing both levels was also important when managing cultural diversity in teams. Therefore, the following strategies were subsequently pursued.

Development of individual level skills for team work

A problem-solving case study approach wherein students prepared responses to questions and then discussed them in small groups, aimed at assisting students develop individual-level skills such as general communication skills. Specific cross-cultural communication skills were harnessed as a result of deliberate intervention to ensure that the teams were culturally diverse. The cross-cultural negotiation exercise already described, further aimed at assisting students develop negotiation and conflict resolution skills (both generic as well as cross-cultural) identified by the research as being individual-level factors affecting team work.

Addressing team level factors

  1. Intra-group trust, communication and cooperation
    The attempt to harness intra-group trust, communication and co-operation was addressed primarily in the pre-team work phase (weeks 1-4). This concept was modelled on Michaelsen et al's (2002) Readiness Assurance Process which primarily aims to enhance students' understanding of subject content before teams form. The pre-team work phase also helped students get to know each other and to develop an appreciation both of their own, as well as others', commitment to their program of study, learning styles and skills that could be used in the team project. Within this context, the following specific strategies were pursued:

  2. Workload sharing and shared leadership
    These factors were addressed once students formed their teams (week 5) when students completed a team members' task list, identifying tasks required to complete the team project and assigned responsibility for task completion, and a Project Time Chart which identified completion deadlines for components of the team project.

  3. Team member satisfaction and interpersonal work group processes
    Team members agreed upon team operating guidelines, which included frequency of team meetings, attendance requirements and processes of communication. Teams then signed a contract pledging to adhere to the guidelines. The contract outlined a process whereby members could appeal against the performance of team members if needs be. Students were also asked to complete a feedback exercise at the end of semester in which they wrote down why they liked working with a particular team member. Students then gave this to the individual concerned.

Staff awareness

Increasing staff awareness was a critical aspect for the successful implementation of this program. In preparation, staff attended an information session to understand the aims of the activities, how to conduct them and the evaluation process being implemented.


Both quantitative and qualitative tools were used to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach in enhancing student awareness of cultural diversity and assisting them develop appropriate responses to managing this. Evaluation included both staff and student responses to the teaching program and assessment process.

Evaluation tools included feedback sheets administered to students at various points assessing their response to specific exercises such as the cross-cultural negotiation and team work exercises. Exit interviews with the same aim were also conducted. End of semester focus groups of students (3) and staff (1) were also conducted. Inclusion of items in the Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT) questionnaire administered to the student body in week 13 of semester examined specific components of the teaching program and assessment process; and finally, three surveys administered in weeks 4, 8 and 12 of semester aimed at assessing individual level and team-level factors affecting team performance.

Discussion of results in the next section covers the feedback sheets, exit interviews, focus groups and SPOT results. Analysis is still being undertaken on the surveys and these results are not reported.

Preliminary results

When asked in the first feedback sheet (week 2) whether it was important to raise their awareness about cultural diversity, 95 per cent of students (n=91) responded affirmatively. A total of 78.5 per cent thought that the seminar/tutorial program would be appropriate vehicles to achieve this, while 72 per cent felt that the team project would also help. When asked in the second feedback sheet (week 10) whether they preferred culturally homogenous or heterogeneous teams, 76 per cent of students (n=51) responded to the latter in the affirmative. Seventy per cent also rated their response to the initiatives used in the course as enthusiastic, while 22 per cent rated their response as very enthusiastic. Finally, when asked about the benefits of working in culturally heterogeneous teams, 53 percent of respondents in feedback form two suggested that the team 'had more creativity' as a result. Students felt that diversity in their team gave them an advantage in the team project because 'there were more points of view to solve the problem'.

In the exit interviews conducted (n=11) 63.6 per cent of students rated the seminar on cross-cultural communication as assisting them to increase awareness about managing cultural diversity. However, in the exit interviews conducted (n=11) after the simulation cross cultural negotiation exercise, 85 per cent indicated that this had increased their awareness about managing cultural diversity.

Three focus groups were conducted with students who volunteered their participation. The composition of these groups was as follows:

In summary, students in all three groups acknowledged the value of raising their awareness about managing cultural diversity. Most felt that the teaching program content and assessment process techniques helped raise their awareness about cultural diversity and appropriate strategic management responses. Students particularly felt that their problem solving skills were enhanced by being exposed to different points of view and by the case study approach. Students reported that completing the cross-cultural negotiation exercise contributed to the development of critical thinking skills. They also favoured this experiential task above the more theoretical exercises such as the learning styles exercise. Whilst finding this useful, many suggested that it was too theoretical and not 'hands on' enough. Finally, students suggested that 'friendliness' had been an unexpected and outstanding aspect of the course. They made comments like 'broke down barriers', 'we communicated more with people from different backgrounds' and ' everyone talked to everyone'. They attributed this effect to the small group work and the strong emphasis on inclusivity.

Responses from tutors to focus group questions (n=4) were similar. Interestingly, even though students had found the learning styles exercise to be too theoretical, tutors rated this quite highly as an effective exercise. Tutors also affirmed the benefits of the simulation exercise and recommended more experiential exercises such as this.

Finally, in the SPOT questionnaire administered in week 13 of semester (n=104), students were asked a number of specific questions aimed at assessing their response to the initiatives used. Again these responses overall indicated a positive response by students to the initiatives undertaken.

Discussion and conclusion

Space precludes a more in depth discussion and conclusion, as the decision was made to use the words available to present the strategies and preliminary results in this paper. Nonetheless, it is argued that the results presented broadly support the benefits of enhancing creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills identified in the literature that can be gained by proactively pursuing a cultural diversity initiative. Students' perceptions of increased social interaction are also heartening and lend support to continuation of the initiative. At the time of writing this paper, results from the team work surveys have not yet been fully analysed. Therefore, hypotheses about the team process factors will be addressed in a subsequent paper. These will undoubtedly add further enlightenment about the benefits to be gained from pursuing a cultural diversity initiative.

Finally, the challenge of managing cultural diversity is complex indeed. However, the benefits of effectively doing so are many and varied. Not only are these personal but managing cultural diversity undoubtedly has the potential to significantly affect an organisation's triple bottom line. Results available indicate that students acknowledge these benefits; the fact that they do can only add value to society at large and in the long term.


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Authors: D. Caspersz Organisational and Labour Studies, UWA Business School, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. dcasperz@ecel.uwa.edu.au

J.Skene, Student Services, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. jskene@admin.uwa.edu.au

M. Wu, Organisational and Labour Studies, UWA Business School, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. mwu@ecel.uwa.edu.au

M. Boland, Organisational and Labour Studies, UWA Business School, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. mboland@ecel.uwa.edu.au

Contact person: D. Caspersz
Tel: 9380 2927 Fax: 930 1055

Please cite as: (2004). An approach to managing diversity in student team projects. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/caspersz.html

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