Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Developing Synergistic Knowledge in Student Groups

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Developing Synergistic Knowledge in Student Groups

Article excerpt

As organizations increasingly require employees to work in cross-functional teams and expect college graduates to be good team players and effective communicators (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000), student groups with members representing different majors are often used in higher education to provide cross-functional team experience to students and to enhance their learning (Baldwin, Bedell, & Johnson, 1997). Discussion of diverse viewpoints with other group members enables students to evaluate critically and integrate various perspectives and develop knowledge and skills at higher levels of Bloom's (1956) taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Lang & Dittrich, 1982). As Colbeck and colleagues (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000) suggest, tasks involving examination and integration of multiple perspectives are likely to help students develop more holistic knowledge.

Despite the importance of higher-order knowledge, we know little about factors that may help or hinder the development of synergistic knowledge. Accordingly, this research examines two questions: (a) what factors influence the development of synergistic knowledge in multimajor student groups? And (b) to what extent does synergistic knowledge enhance students' perceptions of their group's performance? To examine these questions, we develop a conceptual model based on the literature from social cognition, group processes, and organizational learning and empirically test the model using the context of students working on complex business-case projects.

We define synergistic knowledge development (SKD) as a process by which a group constructively integrates diverse perspectives of individual group members. We examine the extent to which task conflict (a cognitive element), psychological safety (a psychosocial element), and social interaction (a procedural element) influence SKD. Task conflict is defined as awareness of differences in viewpoints and opinions pertaining to group task (Jehn, 1995; Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Team psychological safety is defined as beliefs held by group members that the group environment is safe for bringing diverse viewpoints (Edmondson, 1999). And, social interaction is defined as the process of communication among group members (Barker & Camarata, 1998) experienced by students. Given the context of student groups, we suggest that high-task conflict might hinder synergistic knowledge development because disagreements may increase tension and reduce students' focus on the task. Negative influence of task conflict could be mitigated if group members feel psychologically safe in bringing up their diverse perspectives for discussion (Edmondson, 1999). Further, extensive interaction among group members facilitates SKD by allowing the members to better understand each other's perspectives. We also suggest that the greater the development of synergistic knowledge, the greater the likelihood that students will be satisfied with the outcome of the group project.

We examine these arguments using a sample of undergraduate students enrolled in a capstone course required of all majors in the college of business at a major state university. Each multimajor student group analyzed one complex company case and presented its analysis to the class. The group also critiqued the analysis of a case performed by another group. The results support our hypotheses, and have important implications for teaching courses involving student groups.

Conceptual Framework

Figure 1 presents the conceptual framework developed and examined in this paper. As the figure shows, the development of synergistic knowledge is influenced by task conflict, psychological safety, and social interaction. Further, the greater the synergistic knowledge development, the greater the students' perceptions of the quality of their group work. We develop below arguments related to each element of the conceptual model. …

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