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Identifying Roles And Behaviors Of Informal Leaders On Student Design Teams

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Fostering and Assessing Effective Teaming

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.682.1 - 13.682.12



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Paper Authors


Diane Zemke Gonzaga University

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Diane Zemke is a PhD candidate at Gonzaga University in Leadership Studies. Her interests include small group dynamics, reflective practices, learning, and qualitative methods. She has co-authored papers on use of small teams in design engineering.

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Steven Zemke Gonzaga University

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Steven Zemke is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Gonzaga University. His primary responsibilities are Design courses and assessment. His research interests include effective learning environments and design teaching and learning. Prior to teaching he was a design engineer and manager for 23 years and holds five patents.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Identifying Roles and Behaviors of Informal Leaders on Student Design Teams Introduction

Design faculty endeavor to create an authentic engineering design experience for their students. Since many engineers work at least part of the time in team environments, teamwork has become a significant facet of design curricula. However, it appears challenging to create an authentic and successful design experience involving teamwork within the classroom. Every instructor is familiar with teams that fail to successfully complete the task, degenerate into conflict, or both.

A team’s leadership affects the team’s productivity and outcomes. 1, 2 Since student teams frequently operate without explicitly assigned roles or established authority their team leadership is classed as “informal.” However, as with formal leadership, the quality of informal leadership can vary. LaFasto and Larson 3 noted that “a team without a formal leader eventually surfaces a leader from the available talent, but in ways that are not always predictable.” Thus, group processes will generate a group leader, but not always the best leader. Since team leadership affects performance, the quality of the informal leader can add or detract from team success and learning.

One could argue that the way to ensure quality leadership and high team performance would be for faculty to explicitly assign formal leadership on each team. However, unless faculty are very familiar with students’ abilities, there is no guarantee of an improved result. While leadership appears to be a key factor in a team’s success, neither the group nor faculty can guarantee the quality of the leader and the team’s success.

Further, Pescosolido 4 noted that groups rating high in group efficacy tend to set higher goals and achieve higher performance. Group efficacy is a group’s collective estimate of its ability to achieve a task. Informal leaders play a key role in creating group efficacy, especially in the early life of the group. Informal leaders seem to support group efficacy by creating and mediating meaning. This ability can be particularly important in navigating the ambiguity that is characteristic of the early life of a long-term team. Thus, the quality of informal leadership is a key factor in a team’s success.

Understanding the characteristics of, and being able to interact with, informal leaders thus becomes basic to helping student teams succeed. When faculty become familiar with the role informal leadership plays, they will be able to recognize and support effective informal leaders and intervene with those that are failing.

The intent of this paper is to describe, using a qualitative approach, the roles and behaviors of informal leaders of student teams. Our question is: “what behaviors characterize effective informal leaders of small student teams working on in-class learning tasks?” One of the goals of our research was to offer faculty ways to recognize informal leaders’ behaviors so they would have a solid context for interacting. Further, we examined literature outside of engineering education to bring diverse perspectives to our study.

Zemke, D., & Zemke, S. (2008, June), Identifying Roles And Behaviors Of Informal Leaders On Student Design Teams Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3249

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