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Disagreement in Engineering Student Teams: Analyzing the Impact of Gender and Conversational Medium

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


James A. Coller University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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James Coller is PhD student in marine robotics at the University of Michigan where he also completed his BSE in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in 2017. He spent three years during his undergraduate education as an Instructional Assistant for a first year engineering course. His research interests include autonomous robotics for both land and marine environments and ship design for the U.S. Navy.

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Magel P. Su University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Magel P. Su is a recent graduate with a B.S.E in materials science and engineering and a minor in chemistry from the University of Michigan. He was a member of the Ultrafast Laser - Material Interaction Laboratory and the Engineering Honors Program. He also served as an instructor for several courses including Introduction to Engineering, Introduction to Materials and Manufacturing, and Structural and Chemical Characterization of Materials. He will be a PhD student in the Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology starting in Fall 2018.

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Robin Fowler University of Michigan

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Robin Fowler is a lecturer in the Program in Technical Communication at the University of Michigan. She enjoys serving as a "communication coach" to students throughout the curriculum, and she's especially excited to work with first year and senior students, as well as engineering project teams, as they navigate the more open-ended communication decisions involved in describing the products of open-ended design scenarios.

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Productive disagreement is a healthy part of both the design process and collaborative learning more broadly. However, beneficial effects of disagreement depend upon students’ willingness to express disagreement with peers. It is possible that gender and power dynamics at play in team conversations affect that willingness.

Previous studies have investigated gender in team learning, finding that women participate less or differently in group conversation and on project teams overall. Speaker gender and group gender balance may complicate whether and how teams express disagreement. Additional work has shown that students are more willing to express disagreement in an online environment compared to face-to-face, but the role of gender in these interactions has not been studied.

In this project, we investigate disagreement on project-based learning teams engaged in a planning activity, face-to-face or via synchronous chat. Specifically, we compare disagreeing behaviors on 54 teams of 4 or 5 students with varying gender breakdowns, from all male to all female. Almost one third of participants were female (65 of 231 participants); students were assigned to teams following normal course policies that avoided stranding female students. Student teams were assigned to face-to-face or synchronous chat conditions and instructed to compare individual design ideas and determine a design for further consideration; these conversations were recorded, transcribed, and coded for the rhetorical function of each utterance.

In this paper, the authors analyze disagreeing behaviors of the teams to determine how the medium of the conversation and gender breakdown on the team affect the expression of disagreement in team conversations. The results suggest that medium affects disagreeing behaviors, with students interacting in an online chat space more likely to express disagreement than students interacting face-to-face. However, we do not find differences by gender nor an interaction between gender and conversational medium. Additionally, we suspected we might find students who were gender-isolated on teams might be less willing to express disagreement in team meetings than students who were not; however, we actually found such students expressed increased disagreement compared to others of the same gender who were not isolated, though this effect was not significant.

Coller, J. A., & Su, M. P., & Fowler, R. (2018, June), Disagreement in Engineering Student Teams: Analyzing the Impact of Gender and Conversational Medium Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30337

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