NCL Coach Question: How Do You Group Teams?

Recently, the National Cyber League received the following inquiry about how to best group teams:

“I currently have 45(ish) students registered and was wondering if you had any recommendations for grouping them for the post-season. I was hoping to know what brackets they were in so I could put similar skillets together.”

Having been a player, team captain, coach, and now the Chief Player Ambassador for the National Cyber League, I have tried things a few different ways and I’ve spoken with people who have tried other ways. In the end, I feel most educators have one of two goals. Winning or Growth.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying you will only get one or the other. What I do believe is that it’s important to know which one is your priority. I will start with Winning priority as it’s more simple to explain.

Note: You currently do not have to register for team until after Pre-Season.

Winning Priority

Let me start by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with having one high ranking team as your goal. I’ve done it when I was a team captain and we were one position shy of the leaderboard (11th in Silver). This strategy is accomplished by ranking the students by their regular season scores and breaking off the teams by the top 5 scores in team one, the next 5 scores in team two, etc. What this strategy does well is that it pairs more advanced students with each other and pairs more novice players with each other so that everyone is competing with someone of similar skill level to them. It’s sort of the idea around the bracketing system in NCL.

That being said, I find this limits the growth of the majority and discourages anyone that is not in the top few teams.

Growth Priority

If overall growth is the metric by which you define your success, then I recommend an alternative strategy. Take your top x players (where x is the total number of students divided by five). These will serve as your team captains. Think of these as your Gold players (regardless of actual bracket rank).

Next, divide the remaining players into two levels. For ease of analogy, your Silver and Bronze players. Do this before you even start to make teams.

Once you have your Captains, decide which skill each captain excels in. This may have overlap and that’s 100% fine. For example, I’ve had two captains to excel in password cracking. To determine this, you may have to talk to your captains and get to know what they really excel in and what was lucky guessing for some last minute points.

Then take one student from your Silver group and one player from your Bronze group that struggle in that subject area. They will be paired with the Captain who excels in it. Now you have teams of 3.

Finally, use the leftover Silver and Bronze players to fill in (one from each group).

Your team should end up with one advanced player, two middle-level players, and 2 novice-level players. Your Captains’ jobs will be to help everyone make sure they understand and agree to each answer BEFORE any answers are submitted. No one is allowed to approach a challenge alone.

See my upcoming blog about “How to Go from Solo to Team in NCL” for more details on how to function in these teams.

The benefit of this methodology is that your top players reinforce their skill by teaching, your novice players get one on one help from more experienced players, and they all learn teamwork and grow in the field as a collaborator. The downfall of this methodology is that it doesn’t promise high ranks. It promises a great learning experience.

In the end, both methods are effective in accomplishing their goals. It all comes down to what is important to you as a coach. Hope this helps!

Happy Hacking!

4 thoughts on “NCL Coach Question: How Do You Group Teams?

  1. Taisa says:

    I’d like to come out in favor of the Winning priority for the NCL Team Game competition. I know this isn’t a popular opinion because I’ve been chewed out for it once before (quite successfully; I left the classroom in tears), but please hear me out, because I don’t think it gets a fair shake.

    As CryptoKait says, prioritizing one method over the other doesn’t mean you’ll only get one benefit. To reinforce that point, I’d like to say more about the kind of growth that occurs when you prioritize Winning during the NCL Team Game:
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    (1) There’s the potential for good press for the school’s cybersecurity program.

    Especially for a fledgling program—which many are since cybersecurity is such a new field academically—the Winning priority can help a school stand out and demonstrate its value. That’s going to draw more students in.

    With more students, a school can grow its program, gain access to more resources and more minds, and the ripple effect will be large-scale growth over time.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    (2) Allowing high-performing students to work together during the NCL Team Game is a positive and unique experience for them that they will pay forward to others.

    Here’s where I start to get myself into trouble…

    Students who are generally high-performing are likely already mentoring within their classrooms without being told. Additionally, throughout their academic career, when groupwork has been assigned, they’ve had an almost uninterrupted experience of the Growth priority. They understand that when it works out well, they help to elevate their immediate set of peers, and they benefit personally from the opportunity to reinforce what they know, and they develop leadership skills.

    They either learn this designated mentor role very well, or they learn to do the work of X number of people by themselves. They will attempt both methods eventually, partly because they are taking on an additional workload either way, and partly out of necessity on the occasions when groupmates are not in a position to contribute (which can happen for any number of reasons: distractions at home, different priorities, apathy, illness, detention, the occasional plagiarizer, etc.). Not everyone measures their success or satisfaction in life by academic performance, and that’s completely legitimate and OK. Successful professionals will be the first to tell you, things don’t work in the career world the way they do in school. (There’s even a CryptoKait blog post which touches on this, too: .)

    However… It can be very discouraging for the students who are frequently classified as mentors to feel like—after all they’ve invested in their peers over the years—they have to miss out on a rare opportunity to be a peer mentee academically themselves.

    When it comes to the NCL Team Game especially, they’re not being asked to absorb the consequences of a groupmate’s potential apathy or rule-breaking on something that’s just a classroom assignment. Their NCL Team Game Scouting Report is something they can use on their résumé and that can help them in the real world (see: ). There can be a real sense of loss if this becomes one of those instances when the Growth strategy backfires on the designated mentor.

    The criticism I received for this position was that I was implying that high-performing students had nothing to gain from working with students who aren’t high-performing. I do agree 100% that we can all learn something valuable from each other. However, the argument in this case was also ironic, because the professor who was telling me this was the same professor who had categorized high-performing students as being in better positions to lead and mentor during the NCL Team Game.

    The argument hits especially hard, though, here in Space City, home of the Challenger disaster—the ultimate example of why “smart people” in large groups need to be checked. One of my professors says outright that he prefers not to hire “A” students specifically because of the Challenger disaster, and I could write an entire essay on the things I’ve heard and seen disparaging high-performing students. Suffice it to say, the sentiment toward the Winning priority in academia here frequently seems to border on outright disdain.

    I know this isn’t the case everywhere, but if any part of this sounds familiar to you, then your high-performing students are feeling actively discouraged. One brief weekend of the NCL Team Game can be used to turn that around.

    Number 1 above changed my school’s mind. The high-performing students were ultimately allowed to work together on the NCL Team Game, for the potential benefit of the school.

    For me, it was the best groupwork experience I’d ever had, and it fueled my enthusiasm to pay it forward. It made me a better peer mentor to experience being a peer mentee. Collaborating with and being mentored by passionate fellow students cured a lot of dispiriting ills in one short weekend and made me eager to keep giving my all.

    Remember: The students frequently designated as mentors are also students themselves. They benefit from receiving peer mentorship when it’s available to them, and nothing is more encouraging for them than working in a group that’s pulling together. The ripple effect of their renewed enthusiasm for groupwork will go beyond a single classroom.

    In a longterm sense, there are benefits to both the school and to the students even if you prioritize Winning during the NCL Team Game. There really, truly is nothing wrong with it.

    Liked by 1 person

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