Four women stand arm-in-arm in front of a whiteboard filled with writing. They are smiling at the camera.

What happens when you put a small team of highly experienced staff working within work-integrated learning in higher education, who have never met, together to form a research team? What do you do when you realise that we all wear the same badge but in a very different way? How do we find a common ground and a place where everyone is engaged and invested in the research topic? How do we do this in less than one week?

This blog post explores how we rose to the challenge of forming a multi-professional, multi-national research team as part of the CEL work-integrated learning (WIL) research seminar series.

WIL as a Concept

WIL is widely known across the globe as a pedagogical tool to situate experiential learning in real-life settings (Bleakney 2019). It is an umbrella term and represents a vast array of different types of activity, from unstructured fieldwork experiences to statutory placements that are an integral and essential component of a programme of study. What they all have in common is the desire to facilitate the application of academic learning to a work environment. As academics and professional services staff all invested in WIL, we came together in June 2022 to commence on a three-year-long research seminar series to explore and develop research ideas in this vital area.

Team Dynamics

Forming a team takes time and the stages of group development are clearly articulated in both Tuckman’s seminal work (1964) and later review (Tuckman and Jensen 1977). Developing relationships, understanding each other’s position and priorities and even articulating just what we all do on a day-to-day basis within our own institutions requires engagement and considerable interaction. Add to that the complexity of a global health-care context, across the whole spectrum of pre-entry to post-graduate programmes and the possibilities for research are endless… or are they? How do you find a common ground when the only common ground is that we all have a role to play in WIL? Delivery of healthcare professional degree education programmes varies greatly between the US and UK settings. Some team members work with one specific professional group; others work across a range of different programmes. Three team members have worked as healthcare professionals. One team member works with students at pre-entry level before they have decided on their chosen professional group. We had a vast amount of experience to draw on but no single element entirely in common.

With a very short five-day timeframe, pressure to develop clear ideas and work plans, and emotional and financial investment in the process, we were highly challenged to make this work. And we very nearly failed. Hains-Wesson (2021, 731) outlines failure as an incident, or series of incidents, that have an impact on the collaborative research process. Her paper articulates the value of failure and the proactive lessons we can learn from preparing successfully for this. As a team, we were not remotely prepared for failure and as a consequence, the impact of this very nearly destroyed the shaky foundations of our developing team dynamic.

Experiential Learning

What we learned about ourselves and our resilience through this process was, in fact, career defining. Acknowledging our challenges, open and honest dialogue, and a reminder of why we were present enabled us to move forwards. Leaving our pre-determined agendas and opening our minds to the art of the possible was essential. This led us to the realisation that we had the basis of a good research plan but we needed to take a step back. We focused on our differences and celebrated these as key features that would enhance our research collaboration. We took time to get to know each other, the way we think, the way we work, our internal, external, and personal pressures. This should have been the first thing we did as a team, yet we lost our way and forgot the fundamental basics of how to form successful working relationships (Tuckman 1977).

We are pleased and proud to say that our steep learning curve from that point on did enable us to get back on track. But our experience is one that we will never forget and one we have shared as a reminder that even highly experienced higher education teachers and professionals sometimes forget the basics. Never be too proud to admit that things are not going well, no matter how far along you are with a project. Enable time for forming relationships (Tuckman 1964) and understanding each other at that crucial introductory stage, even if the pressure to get the project underway feels high. Far better to successfully “almost fail” and learn well from your mistakes to enable long-term success.

Key Take-Home Messages:

  • This is a “messy, but often beautiful” process that can lead to unexpected outcomes.
  • Understand team dynamics and the stages of group formation.
  • Be cognisant and aware of “How to Succeed at Failing.”


Bleakney, Julia. 2019. “What Is Work-Integrated Learning?” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 13, 2019.

Hains-Wesson, Rachael. 2021. “Something Went Terribly Wrong: Failing Successfully.” Higher Education Research & Development 41 (3): 729–42.

Tuckman, Bruce W. 1964. “Personality Structure, Group Composition, and Group Functioning.” Sociometry 27 (4): 469–87.

Tuckman, Bruce. W. 1965. “Developmental Sequences in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384-399.

Tuckman, Bruce W., and Mary Ann C. Jensen. 1977. “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited.” Group & Organization Studies 2 (4): 419-427.

Deborah O’Connor is the Director of Placements and Partnerships at Manchester Metropolitan University. Robin Selzer is an Associate Professor, Multidisciplinary team, Experiential Learning Career Education at the University of Cincinnati. Leah Stade is an Assistance Professor / Academic Fieldwork Coordinator in the Occupational Therapy Program at University of Nebraska Medical Center. Cynthia Bennett is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at Elon University. Together, they make up Team Magnolia, one of the research teams of the 2022-2024 Research Seminar on Work-Integrated Learning.

How to Cite this Post

O’Connor, Deborah, Robin Selzer, Leah Stade, and Cynthia Bennett. 2022. “How Do You Successfully ‘Fail’ as a Team?” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 18, 2022.