Conflict Management in Student Groups – A Teacher’s Perspective in Higher Education

Five (out of 10) interviewees’ views on i) causes, ii) prevention, and iii) resolution of conflicts in student groups.

Harsh literature – lenient teachers

Two student yell at each other in the of your lecture. You know you’ll get two angry mails within 30 minutes – what should you do now? If you teach in project-based courses there will be conflicts. What is the best practices to resolve them? And how could they be prevented? This paper investigates the literature and compares the results to 10 teachers at Lund University.

My first journal publication: an open access paper on teaching in higher education. Who could have guessed that? It’s not that strange after all. All PhD students needed to take a course on teaching and learning in higher education and that included a project. I took the course already in my first year as PhD student and our group decided to run an interview study on a topic relevant to all teachers: conflict management. I took the lead in making a paper of the project report, and we decided to send it to a new Swedish open access journal: Högre Utbildning – the paper is in English though.

We reviewed the literature on conflict management in student groups. There were many best practices reported, and some empirical studies as well – but we found none from technical faculties. Thus we decided to run an interview study with teachers from different departments at our home faculty. Our mission was to compare the best practices from literature to the experiences of our interviewees – representing different levels of seniority.

Differences between literature and practice

Our empirical study shows that the most common reason for conflicts originates in students’ different levels of ambition. We also found that the Swedish teachers prefer to work proactively against conflicts, they are much less comfortable with more drastic conflict resolution, e.g., reforming groups or throwing out free riders – strategies that are commonly suggested in the literature. A future explanatory study could investigate this. Is it because of the teachers’ Swedish conflict-avoiding mentality? Or is because of the funding system, i.e., students need to pass all parts of courses, including group work – and teachers do what they can to let that happen? No matter what, we hope this study can be used as input when developing new guidelines for prevention and resolution of conflicts in student groups.

Implications for Teachers

  • Insights into conflict prevention and resolution from teaching in different faculties.
  • Compare your conflict resolution approach to the body of literature – you might be too easy-going.
  • Actionable input to guidelines on conflict management in student groups.
Markus Borg, Joakim Kembro, Jesper Holmén Notander, Catarina Petersson, and Lars Ohlsson. Högre Utbildning, 1(2), pp. 111-124, 2011. (open access)


Students working in groups is a commonly used method of instruction in higher education, popularized by the introduction of problem based learning. As a result, management of small groups of people has become an important skill for teachers. The objective of our study is to investigate why conflicts arise in student groups at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University and how teachers manage them. We have conducted an exploratory interdepartmental interview study on teachers' views on this matter, interviewing ten university teachers with different levels of seniority. Our results show that conflicts frequently arise in group work, most commonly caused by different levels of ambition among students. We also found that teachers prefer to work proactively against conflicts and stress the student’s responsibility. Finally, we show that teachers at our faculty tend to avoid the more drastic conflict resolution strategies suggested by previous research. The outcome of our study could be used as input to future guidelines on conflict management in student groups.