Published by the Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne
Copyright: The Authors
Cover design: Ellie Foreman-Peck
CETL AfL Occasional Papers No. 5
Aims, ethics and values in group work assessment Editors: Lorraine Foreman-Peck and Liz McDowell June 2010
Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning
The editors wish to acknowledge the financial support provided by the Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning at Northumbria University and the University of Northampton’s Centre for Learning and Teaching.
Introduction: Group work assessment action research case studies: aims, ethics and values. Lorraine Foreman-Peck and Liz McDowell.
The case studies
1. Rinke Vinkenoog: The Mist-Covered Mountains of Group Work: Ensuring an equal contribution from all group members in a biotechnology project.
2. Lorraine Foreman-Peck: Fairness in group work assessment in higher education: an action research case study.
3. Julia Vernon: Involuntary Free Riding – Group Assessment and Under-performance in a Computer Simulation.
4. Antony Mellor and Jane Entwistle: Marginalised students in group work assessment: the effective support of such individuals and associated ethical issues.
5. Julie Jones and Andrew Smith: Facilitating Group work: leading or empowering?
6. Paul Sedgwick: Reflections of a “progressive” teacher in higher education: the opportunities involved in giving students control.
Conclusions: An analytic survey across the studies: values, ethical issues and aims. Lorraine Foreman-Peck and Liz McDowell.
About the authors
Introduction: Group work assessment action research case studies: Aims, ethics and values Lorraine Foreman-Peck and Liz McDowell This volume consists of six action research case studies focussing on the practice of group work assessment. The research was carried out by lecturers researching their own practices, from the Universities of Northumbria and Northampton in the academic year 2007-2008.
How did the project come about? Lorraine explains some of the background.
In 2006, I met a student who told me about his experience of independent group work on an MSc in Business Studies at a University in the UK. He raised the issue of the fairness of the marking. He had done badly despite scoring highly on all other assessments. This resonated with my recent experience of having just assessed some independent group work and finding, to my dismay, that an excellent student had fared badly in what can only be described as a dysfunctional group. Both students felt that they had been unjustly treated. These and similar experiences, some of which are documented in the literature, led me to present a paper at the University of Northampton, questioning the wisdom of group work assessments, and inviting interested members of staff to explore the issues with me. Later in the year at the EARLI/Northumbria Assessment conference in Darlington that August, Liz McDowell (Director of the Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning) and I decided to collaborate on a practitioner research project looking at the issues of aims, ethics and values in group work assessments. In all we comprised a group of 10 researching lecturers. Liz McDowell and I became joint project leaders, and we benefited from the minute taking skills of Jan Sofair, a PhD student interested in this area, and Martha Newson based at Northumbria University who provided administrative assistance.
The participants The lecturers who took part from Northumbria were Rinke Vinkenoog who taught a module on Plant Biotechnology, Antony Mellor and Jane Entwistle, who taught a module on Soil Degradation and Rehabilitation, and researched together. Two other lecturers, Roger Penlington and John Tan who teach Mechanical Engineering also took part and made valuable contributions to the process of the research, but decided not to contribute to this 6
volume because of the pressure of other commitments. The Northampton lecturers were Julia Vernon, who taught Business Computing, Lorraine Foreman-Peck, who taught the Philosophy of Education, Julie Jones and Andy Smith who jointly taught and researched the Foundation Degree in Learning and Teaching, a two year course for teaching assistants, and Paul Sedgwick, who taught the optional third year of the same degree.
The project organisation The project was organised so that each group of lecturers met with their project leader to discuss and plan their research and then met together at intervals for joint workshops and discussions of issues (including the ethics of the research). The first joint meeting was held in York in June 2007. Further joint meetings were held in Birmingham and Harrogate. At the end of the project a selection of the case studies was presented at the EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference August 2008, at Humboldt University, Berlin.
The research approach The group adopted an action research approach. Because we were concerned to look at the aims, values and ethics of group work assessment, the approach most prominently associated with the work of John Elliott was adopted (Elliott 2007). The philosophy behind this approach is that professional wisdom can be developed through deliberation of what one considers to be educationally worthwhile and action research can be used in the attempt to align one’s practices with those beliefs. The approach is strongly self-evaluative, that is, it requires a degree of self knowledge and self examination. Examination of one’s beliefs and practices is very demanding, cognitively and emotionally. Lecturers were supported by their project leaders, colleagues in the local groups and in joint meetings. These meetings provided a forum for discussion, research training in the action research approach, other research issues and negotiation of future directions.
Early in the research, the group worked with a common case study plan in mind and this pattern was adhered to in the presentation of the case studies. Action research comes in a number of varieties, but all attempt to introduce and learn from an intervention that addresses a practice problem or puzzle. The research is systematic in many respects: it follows a series of steps starting with the identification and careful specification of a problem in practice, the devising of an intervention plan intended to improve a situation, the collection of data focussing on the implementation phase and an evaluation. The action 7
research approach is flexible in that the evaluation phase may suggest that another spiral of steps is indicated. This might be because the research questions need to be modified, or the research methods adopted were not optimal, or the intervention itself needed to be modified or re-thought. Action research is essentially a systematic way of learning with others about one’s own work and the way in which it can be improved through research.
Although the group followed a common plan, it was sufficiently flexible to allow for differences in approach and writing styles. This is to be expected and encouraged since it is a personal form of research and the group came from very different disciplinary backgrounds. Nevertheless the case studies are written with the intention of being potentially useful to others facing the same problems of group work assessment. We thought it important that contextual features were made explicit so that readers could make comparisons between their own situations and the authors’ situations where possible. Therefore the nature and details of the course, module or programme are set out in some detail, and some details about the students are also presented.
The character of our Universities is also important. Both are post-1992 Universities, with strong vocational missions. Both have at one time or another been thought of as ‘teachingled’. Northampton, at the time of the research was describing itself as a ‘business facing’ University, and ‘less research intensive’ than the traditional pre-1992 universities. Its mission statement states that the University will meet the needs of individuals and employers, equipping our graduates for ‘a thriving career in tomorrow’s job market’, while growing links with ‘business and the wider community’. There is also a commitment to developing independent learning skills. The University of Northumbria also cites ‘enhanced employability through innovative and challenging learning and teaching’ as one of its aims.
The issues researched The case studies focussed on problematic aspects of group work assessment that raised either ethical issues (such as fairness) or questions of aims (such as collaborative learning). Within this broad framework, each lecturer found their own research questions.
Rinke Vinkenoog, draws on his experience of group working in his former life as a scientist in a Bio-technology business. He reflects that his own experience of group working in a firm,
could have been better, and today an individualist approach to working is no longer appropriate or possible because of the ‘rapid increase of complicated technologies’.
Vinkenoog’s module allows students to work on projects that could not be attempted by one person, but are possible for a cooperating group. The educational aim was to offer an authentic learning experience. Problems that Vinkenoog identified are those that were experienced by other colleagues as well. For example group formation: the groups were self selecting on the basis of friendship, but this meant that two common issues arose: the ‘left over’ group, and the nature of the dynamics in the friendship group. The ‘left over’ group were those who did not have ‘friends’, for various reasons, for instance they may have joined the course late. Sometimes they worked well, but some did not. On the other hand ‘friendship’ groups could mean that friendships came under strain or placed dilemmas on group members. Other problems identified were to do with timing, an equitable and equally educationally worthwhile work load distribution and organisation: some groups did not know how to start or progress the project and left things too late, some students within groups were avoiding the biotechnical work, and some were so disorganised that they were not contributing or turning up to meetings. Vinkenoog comments that assessing the groups work was problematic in that students received the same grade for essentially different work, in one case work that did not fulfil the learning outcomes.
One further problem that had also been experienced by other members of the research group was the ‘free rider’; the student who does little, does what is done poorly, yet benefits from the work of her group. The obverse of the free rider problem is the super star problem, also identified by Vinkenoog. This is where a student is performing at a much higher level than the others, who may be hard working, but her ‘super star’ qualities are such that the group mark is arguably not really as deserved by the others, who may have played a supporting role. Vinkenoog concluded that he needed more insight into what went on in the groups, that the students needed a structure, guidance about the division of labour, and that they needed to ensure that all were involved. In one way or another many of these difficulties had been experienced by colleagues in our group.
The starting point for Lorraine Foreman-Peck was her experience of assessing a group role play and presentation, which experience had shown worked well for most students , but not invariably, on a second year module on the BA Hons. Educational Studies degree. Taking 9
seriously Elliott’s comment that tutors can be blamed for acting unprofessionally only where there are consequences that can be forseen, she attempted to forestall problems caused by dysfunctional groups. Investigations showed that some problems were outside her control. Irregular attendance was one and had many causes, for instance, buses not arriving for 9am when the class started. In addition , because of incompatible timetables and work commitments, students were taking an instrumentalist approach to the assignment and were not meeting to ‘discuss and debate’ in the way envisaged and ensconced in the learning outcomes and generally required by ‘doing philosophy’! Her investigation showed that the obstacles students faced were far more various than had been realised. Students placed with students that had proved ‘dysfunctional’ in year 1, felt that they would be given unfairly depressed marks and that this was unfair. Her research questions became ‘how can we make the next group work assessment fair to all students, and can the group work assessment be designed to encourage philosophical dialogue’?
Julia Vernon’s concerns focussed on the possible negative effects for some students of their involvement in a semester long assessed simulation carried out with year 2 students, on a Business Computing programme. Her hunch was that some students, who were not as technically skilled as others in the group, felt undervalued in their own and others eyes, with a consequent loss of self esteem. This was despite playing other valuable and essential roles in the simulation. This is a variant of the ‘superstar’ problem highlighted by Vinkenoog. Vernon acknowledges that this situation may lead to some students receiving ‘inflated’ grades but this is not the main problem as far as she is concerned. As the project proceeds, she has noticed that those with high status skills tend to have a ‘strong sense of ownership and a decreasing degree of trust in the work of others’. Low status members are inclined to defer to their team mates and to draw back from expressing opinion in decision making situations, or giving explanations of their own work. This threatened the intention that all students should be enabled to learn from the module. Vernon set out to investigate how this situation could be ameliorated.
Antony Mellor and Jane Entwistle, lecturers in Geography, were increasingly concerned with ‘marginalised students’ that is those who did not belong to friendship groups, and felt that they had to work with ‘strangers’. These students felt ‘disengaged’ or ‘isolated’, either from the whole year group (third year BSc Geography), or the particular team they were in. They may not have had a ‘close circle of friends’ possibly because they were direct entrants to year 10
3, and /or because they were mature students, and therefore a-typical: some may have had childcare commitments and found it difficult to meet others outside timetabled classes. Some students were thought to have poor social skills and some had poor attendance records. Their research question was ‘How might we best support marginalised students in group work and what might be the most effective support measures’?
Julie Jones and Andy Smith were concerned in their inquiry with the issue of the fairness of individual grades within a group work project. Hence they were concerned to critically examine the design of the assessment, and the role that the tutor played in supporting group work. The students are all experienced teaching assistants, working mainly in schools, supporting learners with special educational needs. They are required to undertake a collaborative research project on an aspect of special education, as part of the Foundation degree in Learning and Teaching. They keep a diary of their individual involvement and produce a reflective statement. Students form groups, not on the basis of friendship, but on the topic of their research. Whilst no official dissatisfaction had been apparent with the group assessment, some students had indicated that a minority of students either ‘took a back seat’ or were excessively ‘dominant’. Jones and Smith adjusted the 2006/7 assessment weightings to reflect more precisely individual achievements within the group, but kept this issue under review in 2007/8. They wished to know whether the students perceived the new weightings as fair. They also undertook to critically examine the role of the support tutor for the students’ research projects. Were some groups of students over reliant on the tutor’s direction and perhaps being unfairly advantaged over more self sufficient groups?
The final case study, undertaken by Paul Sedgwick, took as its starting point the aim of exploring students values and ideas about teaching and learning in an open ended way that is at odds with the current assessment requirements to set learning outcomes for modules in advance. This aim was deemed appropriate since the students (experienced teaching assistants) were undertaking a degree in Teaching and Learning. His concern was how to design group work tasks that allowed students to explore their own values and ideas about assessment and collaboration, in a structured and efficient way, given that course contact time was limited to one day a week.
Elliott, J. (2007) Reflecting Where the Action is. London, Routledge
The Mist-Covered Mountains of Group Work: Ensuring an equal contribution from all group members in a biotechnology project. Rinke Vinkenoog
Introduction How it all began – the “Good Old Days”. There was no doubt about it: we would be very rich, and very famous. Neither the bags of money, nor the scientific fame could escape us. Our partner, an up and coming Biotechnology firm in one of the most affluent areas of America, had unlimited resources, a whole army of computer whiz-kids, and the most amazing facilities. We had the research running, and a box full of the most innovative and promising ideas. Whilst watching the sun setting over the Pacific, we all agreed that this cooperation would lead us straight to the Nobel Prize and a Rolls Royce – each.
Ten years later, with my little Nissan Micra stuck in the usual gridlock on the way to work, I have some time to reflect. What went wrong? Obviously, our expectations were unrealistic. But could we have done better? What actually were our aims, our expectations – and how did we in those far away days imagine to fulfil them? We were supposed to “work together” – but what did that actually mean to us?
Looking back, we could have done better on a number of group work issues. Though our overall aims were clear, we had not properly identified the role of each of the contributors. Each of us knew what to do – but there wasn’t a clear view of what the other parties were doing, and how all the information was coming together. How would our work feed into that of our partners, and vice versa? The communication structure and the dissemination of information could have been more clear and transparent. Was our cooperation, our group work, ever going to deliver more than the “sum of the parts”? We could have done better – but how?
In order to progress and improve on cooperation and group work, it is important to look back first, and explore the academic culture in the natural sciences.
Group work in the natural sciences In many Universities, students will encounter group work as part of their education and assessment. The aims of such group work often depend on the area of study. In areas like Social Sciences, Education Studies or Management, the actual group work – the group process itself – is (part of) the aims, and of the assessment. How people interact and work together to achieve a common goal is an important part of the learning outcomes. In sciences like biology, my own field, this is far less so. There are explanations for this. First, scientists are traditionally seen as “Einzelgänger” – soloists who are sometimes lacking a bit in social skills, but dedicated to their work, slaving away till late by the light of their Bunsen burner. Though this may be exaggerated (one should not forget that Charles Darwin, ostensibly the greatest biologist ever, kept a regular and lively contact and correspondence with many other scientists), truth is that sciences like biology, physics and chemistry in general do not have a great history in group work, and that students (and lecturers!) often have the tendency to go their way though work alone. Second, in science – both in academia and in industry - it’s the result that counts. A biotechnological company may give a group of employees from different divisions within the company the order to deliver a product – a construct, a patent – by a certain deadline. How this is achieved, is deemed of little importance. The company is not interested per se in the group processes along the way. The only thing that counts is the final product. If that is not delivered in good quality, in good time, heads may roll...
And yet, cooperation and group work are of increasing importance in biology. The rapid increase of (complicated) technologies that can be applied to solve biological problems means that ground breaking research can no longer be performed by one person. The “Uomo Universale”, that ideal product of a University education, has made place for a team of subject specialists who have to work together in order to move the boundaries of science forward.
Biology group work projects in University So, even though we may be soloists, group work there shall be! The justification for group work in our Biology curriculum has partly been sketched above: students need to be prepared to encounter group work in their professional life. In addition, it allows us (both students and staff) to graze in pastures otherwise out of reach. In a 12 week module, Biotechnology projects like the one that will be presented below are impossible for a single 15
student, but within reach of a cooperating group. In addition, for us as staff, supervising, assessing and marking a large number of single projects might take too much time – but keeping control of a relatively small number of groups, though labour intensive, is within reach.
Context Our Group Work assignment: Plant Biotechnology With these reasons in mind, we had a group work assignment as part of our final year module Plant Biotechnology, which my predecessors had started. This module is taken by students from two different programmes: Applied Biology and Biotechnology. The Applied Biologists are almost without exception students who have done their first two years with us. The majority of the Biotechnology students however are direct entrants into the final year, usually from India and/or Malaysia. The total number of students is roughly between 30 and 40. Plant Biotechnology is a 10 credit module, taught in one semester of 12 weeks, with a workload of 100 hours of study. The assessment consisted of the coursework (40%) and an exam (60%).
What did we want to achieve with this group work assignment? The usual weasel words were there: “to engender a spirit of enquiry – to stimulate active exploration and analyses of databases – to combine data from different areas – to present scientific data in a meaningful and coherent way”. How were we going to achieve this? The brief given out to the students was: “Pretend you are employees of a biotechnological seed company. In your group, you have to design a novel application of a Genetically Modified (GM) plant, which can serve as a “flag ship” project for the company”. This was going to be assessed in the last session of the module. Each group would present their proposal for a new GM plant in a 10-15 minute presentation. This would be assessed on:
Novelty of the idea.
Answers to questions.
In addition, students had to fill in a feedback form in which they evaluated the contribution of all group members. This evaluation form bore 10% of the group work mark, and hence 4% of the total module mark. 16
As support, each group had a 20 minute support tutorial in week 8 where they could present their ideas and progress thus far, and get feedback and advice. In addition, Northumbria University operates an “open door” policy, enabling students to approach lecturers for questions and advice outside lectures. For this group work assignment, I encouraged all students to make use of this.
In general, the group work assignment “went well” – meaning that the majority of groups did present reasonable to good proposals in week 12. But, over a period of three years I noticed that there were a lot of “hidden problems”. Overall, the problems could be classified in the following 5 areas:
How to start, time keeping.
Equal distribution of work.
1. Group forming As my predecessors before me, I allowed students to form their own groups (3-4 students per group). In most cases, groups of friends were formed – students seek others with whom they are friendly, have contact inside and often outside university already, and with whom they in many cases have worked before in other modules already. In some cases, whole groups lived together in the same accommodation as well. In general, this works well. There were problems in some groups however. In any class, there are students who fall outside of the established friendship groups for whatever reason. We always ended up with one group of “leftovers”. Sometimes, such a group performed really well. Other “leftover” groups consisted of students who clearly did not have the desire (and/or skills) to cooperate with each other, and who indeed requested to be able to work on their own. This raised an ethical issue: are we allowed to force people into groups – with potential damaging effects on their marks? In the “friend groups”, other problems occurred: the group work sometimes put established friendships under pressure. “We are really good friends”, John told me, “and I don’t want to run the risk to damage our friendship. But... she is not working hard enough, and we are left with all the jobs.” I would later see some stunning examples of the complications to which “friendship groups” could lead.
2. How to Start? Time keeping The group work assignment is a lot of work. I stressed this to the students in the first week, and advised them to “get together soon, start working, and keep on working regularly over the semester”. From a student’s point of view, the matter probably looked a bit different. This was not only their first week in Plant Biotechnology, but the first week of their whole final year. They had to start their final year project (30 credits, as opposed to 10 credits for Plant Biotechnology) and many other 10 and 20 credit modules. The first milestone, the support tutorial, was far away in week 8 – and not even assessed. The assessment was at the ultimate end of the semester – time enough! Besides, how should they start? “Design a novel GM application” – but how? What steps did they need to take, how should they approach this – how to divide the labour if one can’t yet oversee what has to be done? Some groups delayed the start of their research until “later”. As I had not put a structure of guidance in place other than the one tutorial and the vague “you are welcome to discuss your project anytime”, this went largely unnoticed from my side.
“You go.” “No, you! I went last time!” The whispered conversation outside my door was brought to an abrupt end when the door was opened, and Milly was forcefully pushed in by her friends, who immediately closed the door behind her to prevent an early escape. I should not have been surprised: Milly was always chosen as delegate, as with her black hair and green eyes she was deemed to be the most likely candidate to convince me that a late submission of work for her and her friends was educationally a really good idea. Milly picked herself up from the floor, beamed her most charming smile at me, and said: “About the Group Work... actually, we don’t know what to do!” This was week 10. I had seen (part of) the group in the support tutorial, and noticed they had not progressed much beyond some pretty general ideas. I had given them advice on possible ways forward, but now had to find out they were still pretty clueless on how to organise themselves, and to get the presentation on the rails – with only two weeks to go! (extract from research diary)
This was an extreme example – but it became clear that many groups struggled with how to start and progress in the assignment.
3. Group process In the initial set up, I as lecturer was an outsider and had very little insight, let alone control, over what happened in the different groups. Anxious to find out how the groups functioned, I started to ask how the work was distributed within each group. One group (Milly et al) stated that “all of them did everything together”. That sounded pretty inclusive, but not very efficient. Some groups came forward with well worked out lists of tasks, which showed that not only were they well under way, but also they had indeed come to a fair distribution of work. A particular group presented me with the following: “Mark and David: constructs, biotechnology and downstream physiological effects; Anna: choice of promoters and transformation techniques; Carl: slides and ethical issues”. This worried me – for a final year module Plant Biotechnology I wasn’t particularly happy with Carl polishing the PowerPoint slides and exploring one or two ethical issues. How was he going to meet his (biotechnological) learning outcomes? Would the group itself be happy with what seemed to me an unequal distribution? The group did not see any problem: Carl was a computer nerd after all, and did indeed a very good job in putting together a very slick presentation, on which he obviously had worked hard. I realised that in not specifying what I expected from the students, I left the door open to this sort of situation. If at the end of the process all four of them got the same mark – what did they actually get these marks for? What was I testing, what was I assessing? In the case of this group, the answer would be different for each group member.
4. Equal distribution of work In the evaluation form at the end of the semester, the students were asked to indicate in percentages how much each group member had contributed to the final presentation. In addition, they were asked to comment in words on the participation of each member, including themselves. “Surprisingly”, not once did somebody give him - or herself a low percentage or bad comment! In most groups, all members seemed to have been “reasonably” happy with the distribution of work, although in the majority of cases students deemed that the work had not been perfectly well distributed. Distributions like “student A, 30% - student B, 30% - student C, 20% - student D, 20% were fairly common. In most groups, such distributions still satisfied students that there had been a “fair enough” distribution of work to justify equal marks for all. Or, at least fair enough for them to not bother about complaining.
Each year, however, there was at least one group where the members were clearly not content. In one case, a certain group member had clearly not been pulling her weight. In this group, a student had only ever turned up to the first meeting. In that meeting, she had hardly said anything, and had left without being offered or taking up any specific role. She was present at the final presentation, but had not seen the work her group members had prepared, and had hardly produced anything herself. The little she had prepared turned out to be insufficient and irrelevant. She was unable to answer any question I directed at her, even the most basic ones. I had told the students that their group work would be rewarded with a group mark – the same for all members – unless there were “clear indications” that the work presented was not the work of all members. In this case, and in few other cases, I gave separate marks to the different group members. The whole affair left me with some questions. Why had this happened? Had the girl been outright lazy – as her group members judged? Or were there cultural and linguistic problems as well? Again, I found that I did not have enough insight and contact to judge. What happened more frequently, and was more difficult to deal with, were groups where the suspicion was that one of the members had not been pulling his/her weight. This was sometimes brought to light by group members contacting me to complain – usually quite late in the semester. In other cases, I only found out afterwards, when reading the evaluation forms, that people had been unhappy. In all of these cases, I found it extremely difficult to judge. “I have been working very hard on the group work – I spent hours in the library searching for data...” “It’s unfair of my group mates to complain... they say I have not contributed to discussions. Actually, I have brought forward more ideas than any one, but they were all discarded by the others...” “The other three (group members) are close friends, and just don’t want me around”. Comments like these I heard frequently from “isolated” group members. Without data, and invariably hearing the story from both sides at the 11th (or even 12th) hour, it was a frustrating situation.
5. Assessment Some of the problems with our assessment have already been touched upon. Could I be certain that a good mark for the presentation meant that all members had met with the learning outcomes? I had growing reservations about other aspects of the assessment as well. The whole assessment was based on one 10-15 minutes presentation. All group members were asked to participate - but how fair an expectation was this in the short time allocated for each presentation? Individual contributions over the past three months were all but impossible to judge in this form. As the final presentation was judged, and not the 11 20
week process leading up to that, another danger inherent to this assignment was imminent. The design of a novel GM plant is a complex issue, which incorporates data from different disciplines. One group of Indian students had worked very hard on the design of a novel, sweet scenting GM rose. They had been making good progress and were well under way, when one of them discovered that due to the absence of a certain biochemical pathway their design would never work in roses. Though they could have checked this at an earlier stage, they had been working with great dedication and had delivered good quality – only to find themselves back at square one. Should there be no recognition for the work leading up to the final presentation, which sometimes was invisible in the final product? And then of course there was the group mark – one mark for each member of the group. Fair, unfair?
Ming and Stephanie worked together in the same group. Ming was a brilliant student of Biotechnology, extremely keen, with a good knowledge and insight in biotechnology. Stephanie was an Applied Biologist, a quiet, hard working student who took her study very seriously but who struggled with the more complicated aspects of molecular biology. As could be expected, Ming took the lead in his group, and dreamed up a design that in its complexity and biotechnological background went way above the level of my lectures. Stephanie had a supporting role: she explored and worked out the biochemical and physiological background of the plant. She worked very hard, and did a good job, but admitted to me feeling that “it has been Ming who had done the real work”. Their group got a very high mark. Though all four group members contributed and all worked hard, the height of this mark was largely due to Ming’s contribution. (extract from research diary)
To summarise, more and more I came to the conclusion that this assignment could be improved: • The supervisor had far too little insight into what went on in the groups and during the semester. • The students were lacking a structure – how to start, how to divide the labour, how to bring the different strands together, and, very important: how to ensure that everybody is involved?
Both for me, but particularly for the students, this “group work” introduced in week one was a huge mountain, which they had no idea how to tackle. To make matters worse, in contrast to an exam where at least the work ahead is visible, in this group assignment the peaks and ravines in the mountain are obscured. To paraphrase one of the most evocative Scottish songs, in week one students are standing at sea level, and are staring at the “Mist-Covered Mountains of Group Work”. How to lift this mist, and guide them safely over the passes?
Intervention Intervention – structuring the group work assignment I did not want to change one jot or title of the learning outcomes – my intention was to make certain that all students would meet these, and to help students along the way. The brief remained exactly the same: design and present a novel GM plant application. In order to make the road ahead more clear, I introduced two extra milestones along the way. Groups had to hand in two progress reports at different stages. Overall, the time table of the assignment now looked as follows:
• Week 1: brief + extra info (written) on what was expected of the group and its members • Week 2: formation of groups • Week 5: progress report 1 • Week 8: support tutorial • Week 9: progress tutorial 2 • Week 12: presentation + evaluation
The assessment weightings had been changed as well: • Progress report 1
• Progress report 2
• Presentation + final report
The last part (“Presentation and final report”) was composed of the actual presentation (powerpoint/oral), answers to questions (oral) and final proposal (written). The latter part would contribute to the majority of the marks in the “Presentation and final report”. Summarising, there were marks to be gained during the process itself, and there was less
emphasis on the actual performance during the short presentation, but more on the actual design and its biotechnological, biochemical and physiological background.
Structuring the group work: progress reports The main difference in the new set up was the introduction of the two progress reports. How were they going to help the students and the supervisor? The progress reports should contain: • Provisional title • Short introduction on the topic: problem, proposed solution • Overview of different aspects to be investigated • Minutes of group meetings held thus far • Distribution of work between members; aims for next report
Progress report 1: Each group member individually: short report on what individual has done thus far in the assigned task to him/her.
Progress report 2: • Overview of project thus far – progress since report 1 • Minutes of meetings • Aims to be achieved for final presentation • Distribution of work • Individual report as in 1.
By addressing the different parts of the progress reports, a much needed structure became visible for the students. The first report could still be relatively general. At this stage, the whole concept could still be an idea, backed up by a minimum of actual research. The overview of “aspects to be investigated” could well be presented as a series of questions. Even a limited preliminary literature search will indicate the presence or absence of literature relevant to the topic. In some cases, student ideas were either so detailed or so exotic that no literature at all could be found. The earlier students realise this, the better. This allows them to adapt or completely change their topic. They would not have lost any marks: the marks for progress report 1 on the first topic would still stand.
Once students had decided what kind of GM plant application they had in mind, they could make a list of what needed to be sorted out. The timing of progress report 1 forced them to write these questions down at a relatively early stage, and hence to visualise them. The next logical (and requested) step obviously would be: who will do what? The first part of the work, the first leg up the mountain, could now be overseen and the work distributed over the group members. Individual and group aims could then be set: for the next meeting, and ultimately for the next progress report. Finally, students were requested to write a short report on what each of them individually had done thus far. This set up would have several advantages. First, it would make the role and contribution of each group member transparent. This would hopefully bring an end to the woolly situations we had in the past: “I think you haven’t done enough.” “Oh yes, I have done loads!” Students who really did not carry their weight could now be identified. But this wasn’t just meant to be merely a parasite-detector. By letting students spell out their efforts and contribution, they would be able to convince their group members and themselves of their importance within the group. Like Stephanie, many students had felt that although they were part of a group, the “real work” had been done by others – they felt like “second rate” group members who “did not do that much” or “not so important things”. This could actually undermine the confidence of the students, who then would be less motivated or even afraid to fully contribute, but rather keep themselves in the shadow. In this new set up, the whole group decided on which areas of study were needed, and who would tackle what – and the progress reports kept a record of those decisions. This should give each student a chance to fully participate, and see his or her “raison d’être” within the group. If the distribution of work was skewed in a way that raised my eyebrows (like in the case of Carl who did not touch any biology in his contribution), I had the chance to intervene. But how to make certain that this really would be group work – that the result would be more than the sum of the parts, and that all students met with the learning outcomes? In progress report 2, I asked the students in their individual sections to identify how their work had supported the work of the group as a whole. Students were responsible for their own part, but also for the project as a whole.
Results Experiences with the new set up – did it work...? The biggest advantage of the introduction of the progress reports was that it made the whole process more structured and easier to oversee. I had no complaints at all from students or groups who “did not know where to start”. In general, students were happy with the 24
guidance provided by the reports. What I did not foresee, is that though it made life easier for them in one way, the reports themselves actually constituted a lot of work. I heard that remark several times, whereas in previous years few comments about the workload were made. The students did not mind, as in general they enjoyed the assignment (a remark which again I heard more frequently than in previous years!), but the general feeling was that the workload was too much for “only” 40% of the module mark. I agreed, and for next year have raised the contribution of the group work mark to 50% of the total module mark. Overall, the reception by students was very positive. They made good use of the structure provided, and enjoyed the “real life” scenario. Though the new set up brought extra work for me as well (marking the progress reports), it gave me much more insight in what was going on in the groups, and it allowed me to support the groups much better.
Not all groups hit the ground running. Naomi and her group scored a low mark for both progress reports. Though they had met several times, they had hardly made any progress. It looked like nobody had been able to get the bull by the horns, and make some decisions. My feedback on both reports was the same: get organised – identify areas of research, set reasonable aims and get cracking! After the second progress report, Naomi acted in a surprising way:
“We knew perfectly well that we had not made much progress... though we met frequently, it looked like everybody in our group was waiting for the others to come forward and decide what to do. After the second progress report, for which again we had a low mark, I decided to take things into my own hands. I called a meeting, in which I took the leading role, and dished out tasks to each group member. To my surprise, the others accepted it, and even seemed to be happy with it! I was quite surprised that I have been able to do this... Normally, I am the type of person that waits for others to decide. I’m happy I did this. I learned quite a lot from it” (extract from research diary)
Others had problems with the distribution of roles within the group as well.
Lie came to see me, a worried look over his normally happy face. He told me that in his group, it had been decided that he would be the “leader”. Now, he 25
complained, it looked like everything was down to him – he had the feeling that the others only worked when he told them to, and were waiting for him to think, and decide what each should do. A look at the progress report showed that all four members of Lie’s group had worked hard, and all produced work of a good quality. So what was the problem? “When your group decided that you would be their leader”, I asked Lie, “did you discuss what that actually would mean? What is your task as a leader – and what will be the task of your three friends?” Lie thought for a moment, and shook his head. “We didn’t talk about such things at all”, he admitted. (extract from research diary)
These two examples highlight that the group process itself can be tricky. In both cases, the problems were solved internally, and both groups worked well and to everybody’s content afterwards. Both cases show however that it’s not only the division of work within the groups, but also the division of roles – will there be a leader, and if so, what will be his or her task? I had not talked to the students about this at all. My interest was raised after Lie’s story. I asked all groups after the exercise whether or not one they had a “leader”. Interestingly, only half of the British groups had one – and in most cases, this had happened “naturally”, without discussion or “official proclamation”. The majority of Malaysian groups had deliberately appointed one of their members as group leader. Cultural background can play a significant role in group work processes, something I had not been aware of before.
A waterproof system...? As said before, one of the advantages of the progress report was to make each contribution more transparent – which was going to help each student, the group and me. But was this system waterproof? I thought it was – until I read the minutes of the group in which Zak and Babs were working together. Babs had put the minutes together:
Meeting 1. We discussed several ideas. Zak thought of the following... Zak proposed... Finally, we chose to work on... Zak remarked that...
Meeting 2. Zak reported... “This might take too long”, Zak said...
Good old Zak. Hadn’t he been active! There was just one snag with Zak – he had not attended any of the meetings of his group. I knew that for certain, since he had told me 26
himself. Zak, the eternal nail in many a lecturer’s coffin, “could not be bothered” as he confessed to me, because “Plant Biotechnology was boring”. Whatever he was, Zak was always open and honest to me about what he did and (alas, more often...) did not do. So what did his name do in the minutes? Babs, who at that stage had more than just groupmember like feelings for Zak, had tried to protect him and just made up entries in the minutes in his name! It would not have helped him much – what Babs could not do was write his individual report for him, which indeed was missing. Babs had tried to cover up for her friend – an act I could understand and even admire to a certain extent. But where did this leave her group? In what position did this put the other group members, who now faced the difficult choice to either become part of a conspiracy to protect someone who did not pull his weight, or become a “traitor”?
Conclusion The introduction of the progress reports and the reshuffling of the assessment were aimed at making the group work assignment more transparent and more accessible. This was intended to help both individual students, groups, and me as supervisor. In general, this worked. Students were enthusiastic about the progress reports, even though they constituted an extra work load. The students welcomed the introduced structure that made the path ahead more visible. Also, they appreciated (and in many cases made good use of) the possibility of gaining marks along the way. At the time of the final presentations, students were confident about their work. They could look back at their portfolios, and see the long road they had travelled. Individual students could clearly identify what their contribution had been, and how that had fed into the final presentation. Students appreciated the exercise as a “real life situation”, complete with minutes of meetings. They felt that exercises like this were a good preparation for their later professional life.
It’s not all gold that shines of course. Of the problems highlighted in the old set up, I had answered a few. Others (like the group formation) I left unchanged. And as has become clear from the last three examples presented in the previous sections, the “group process” still has the potential to face the students with many a problem.
There’s a deeper, ethical issue as well. This was brought to light by Klaassie, during a group work assignment in a different module. “You promised us this would be independent group work”, he complained, “and then you take our independence away by proscribing us what to 27
do.” Klaassie was right. In the Plant Biotechnological group work, on one hand we tell the students they have to work “independently” of the lecturer, design their own project, and solve their own problems. On the other hand, we force them fill in progress reports in a proscribed format, which will be assessed and accompanied by feedback. Is this just me as supervisor, desperately trying to be in control? Where is the fine line between control and support? I started explaining that in a biotechnological company, it is the result that counts. How that came into being, is of minor importance (although with patent issues in mind companies nowadays are keen on data recording!). If we promise students a “real life scenario”, should we not give them the freedom of “real life conditions”? The problem is that this is not real life – it is University. The group members are not well trained scientists with years of experience, they are students, and as such entitled to adequate support and feedback. Some students, like the highly intelligent and independent Klaassie, experience this as unwelcome restrictions. The vast majority of students welcome this structure and support however, and thrive with it.
To conclude, the re-structuring of the group work assignment has addressed four of the five problem areas. The biggest advantage of the current set up including the progress reports is that it introduces structure and transparency for the group, but also for each of the individual members of the group. The students now have the possibility to continuously see where they and their group are going, and equally important, where they came from. With regards to the mist-covered mountains of group work, the students are now equipped with a map and a compass. But once underway, pretty soon the group effort should make even the last mist lift, and unveil “chì mi na mòrbheanna”, those mystical mountains of the Gaelic folk song we started with, in all their glory.
Fairness in group work assessment in higher education: an action research case study Lorraine Foreman-Peck Introduction Group work assignments are understood here as those requiring students to work independently of the tutor, wholly or partly outside class time, in order to collaborate on a ‘product’ of some sort, such as a presentation, role play, or business plan. Such assignments have become an accepted part of higher education, and in some degrees play a major role (Thorley and Gregory 1994). This case study set out to explore the practice of group work assessment on a philosophy of education module that had been running for a number of years. The purpose of the case study was to gain some conceptual clarity in a confusing curriculum area. For instance cooperation is a positively valued aim of group work assessments, yet our system of sifting people for entry into the job market requires grades to be attached to individual effort. This inevitably leads to tension between the needs of students for individual effort to be rewarded and the aim of a curriculum that attaches a grade to a group outcome (Foreman-Peck 2009). Similarly the problem of the fairness of such assessments has been recognised for some time, particularly the problem of ‘free riding’ students, those ‘bad apples’ who obtain a group mark on the back of the effort of others. The problem of fairness is however more pervasive than this, covering not only inequitable treatment, but also the lack of well grounded defensible judgements.
Practical action research (Carr and Kemmis 1986, Elliott, 1978, 2007) was chosen as an investigative approach, since it explicitly incorporates reflection about the aims and values embedded in our curricula and is organised so that thinking uses evidence. It is a form of practical philosophy that focuses on teaching and assessment decisions. It also has practical advantages for busy lecturers in that data collection, becomes part of (and should enrich) the teaching (Foreman-Peck and Winch 2010).
Although the general nature of problems people may experience when they work in groups has long been recognised (e.g. Douglas 1976) and accounts of lecturers using group work assignments are available (e.g. Parsons 2004, Parsons and Drew 1996, Thorley and Gregory
1994), and recommendations of a general nature are available (e.g. Bloxham and Boyd 2007) our professional knowledge is currently largely descriptive, normative and unproblematised.
The intention of this case study was to expose problems with current practice, discuss them with students and colleagues involved in this project, and to try out possibly better ways of conducting and assessing group work. Conclusions are offered to colleagues in higher education as ideas that might inform their own deliberations. The research reported in the case study here, was carried out as part of my teaching during the academic year 2006-07.
The background The students who took part in this research were taking a philosophy of education module, entitled Aims, Values and Ethics in Education. An optional, level 2 module, worth 20 credits, it is part of the Joint and Combined Honours degree in Education Studies. Joint and Minor students taking the philosophy module choose one other optional modules from Comparative and International Education, The Psychology of Learning and Teaching in Educational Settings and Debates in Education. Major students in Education Studies are required to take all four.
The degree as a whole meets the Quality Assurance Agency’s guidance for the content of Educational Studies degrees. The philosophy module in particular addresses the principles that students should be encouraged to engage with fundamental questions concerning the aims and values of education and its relationship to society, and develop in students the ability to construct sustained reasoned argument about educational issues in a clear, lucid and coherent manner (Joint and Combined Honours Student Handbook 2005-06). The module for 06-07 had 18 students and was taught by me with some guest lectures from two prominent philosophers of education. The module ran for 26 weeks and met from 9-11 am one day a week.
The majority of students were aged between 19 and 20 years. Three, however were mature students. Two of these were working part time as teaching assistants in secondary schools and wished to become teachers. The third was a part time lecturer in a further education college. All the younger students wished to become secondary school teachers, apart from one student, who was not resident in the UK, and was the only English as a second language speaker in the class. 31
Details of the module: Educational Aims and Module Values The module aims to encourage students to find their ‘philosophical voices’. They are introduced to the idea of valid argument and are encouraged to evaluate the arguments of others both in the media and the academic literature. Students are given opportunities to practice putting forward their own arguments orally and in writing. The philosophical approach is mainly analytic ordinary language philosophy, and the texts used are mainly by Anglo-American authors.
The syllabus content is guided by the centrality of certain concepts in the philosophy of education, such as ‘education, indoctrination’ ‘conditioning ‘‘teaching, training’ ‘knowledge’ ‘evaluation’ ‘moral and faith education’ ‘culture’ ‘curriculum’. ‘Assessment’ as a concept is also part of the syllabus content. Examples chosen for illustrative purposes aim to be interesting and topical. This year’s topics included, among others, sex education and the veil.
The module is not, of course, narrowly vocational: the general aim is to equip students to be citizens, able to understand educational matters, form their own valid arguments and to take part in constructive debate.
The implicit values of the module follow from the aims and the teaching approach. They are: • Respect for the opinions and viewpoints of others, listening and responding appropriately. • Respect for valid reasoning. The ability to detect poor argument and to engage in respectful dialogue. • A commitment to regular attendance and to cooperation with others in independent group work involving debate and dialogue. • Active use of concepts and modes of reasoning introduced in the module content. • A commitment to shared reflection on course processes.
These aims and values are reflected in the assessment strategy.
The module assessments There are three formal course work assessments. The first is a 1000 word critical analysis of a paper which they are given on the subject of the aims and concept of education. The second comprises two parts; a group role play presentation based on the exploration of a 32
philosophical problem in education and a critical review of two other group role plays presented by their colleagues. The third assignment is a conventional 2000 word essay based on a title of their choice but agreed with me.
The Group work assignment The focus of the case study is the second assignment which carries 40% of the marks. This is split between a role play (20%) and a critical review of two other role plays (20%). For the role play a group grade is given. Individual grades are given for the critical reviews. In the past students have been randomly assigned a ‘real’ life scenario and asked to produce arguments for or against a particular decision. For example a newspaper report featuring families who had opted for home schooling was the starting point for a prepared role play set around the dinner party table where the students were asked to engage in reasoned and evidenced argument defending or objecting to one couple’s decision to remove their children from school.
Problematic factors Dysfunctional groups In previous years the group assignment had been received enthusiastically by the majority of students, however in each year problems with group dynamics for a minority of students were reported. Typically at least one group member expressed dissatisfaction with other members, either because others were irresponsible and let the group down, or they considered themselves exploited because they had carried a disproportionate workload. Dysfunctional group dynamics are well known and reported in web discussion groups and in the academic literature (e.g. Castagna 1997, Chang 1999, Conway et al.1993 Maguire and Edmondson 2001, Mills 2003, Magin 2001). My expectation was therefore that there would be at least one group in this class experiencing problems of relating to one another.
Irregular attendance There were also additional problems. The learning outcomes for the module, are in large part skills that need to be learnt in dialogue with fellow students and a skilled tutor: for example the close reading of texts, and good dialogue need to be actively modelled. In the past attendance on all the modules for this degree had been patchy. The degree as a whole has no attendance requirements, and many students have part time jobs or childcare commitments. Roughly half of this present cohort were regular attenders, two students (X 33
and Y), however had a very poor attendance record, and the rest attended irregularly. Attendance was seen by some students as not necessary, since all course work, assignments, lecture notes, and exercises were posted on the university’s on web based interactive learning environment (NILE).
An unsatisfactory consequence of this was that students who failed the group work assignment through non-attendance could pass on a re-sit basis, but without undertaking the important learning outcomes required for the module, since it would be impossible to convene groups during the re-sit period over the summer vacation. Re-sit students are set a conventional essay. Thus it is possible to meet assessment requirements without meeting major learning outcomes required of other students
Irregular attendance also meant that students missed crucial learning points, since the course depended on a shared experiential mode of development. Unlike lectures which can be relatively self contained, classes in this module depended on linking and building on previous experiences and shared class reading. Reliance on course handouts and lecture notes put on the NILE was not a substitute for the course, as some poorly attending students believed.
Discussions with students in this cohort about irregular attendance elicited reasons such as working to earn money, buses not arriving at the University for 9am, the cost of travelling to the University being too expensive, illness, childcare problems, and for one student (student X) the inability to wake up in time (the student lived in a very noisy student house).
Is the assignment meeting the intended aims and values of the module? A further problem, which at the start of the year was just a vague suspicion, was that although the learning outcomes of the course were being met by the group work role play assignment in a formal sense, the basic intention that students meet to engage in philosophical dialogue, was not being met.
As has been said, the point of the group role play and the preparation for it was to encourage philosophical discussion, ‘interacting effectively within a learning group in order to debate controversial issues’ (Course Handbook). My hunch was that students were taking an instrumental syndicate approach, i.e. dividing the task into segments, working
independently, and then coming together at the eleventh hour to patch it together, without having engaged in discussion except at an organisational level.
Because of the unpredictable nature of the precise problems arising from group work, the research question had to be found from within the cohort. In order to do this I set a small exercise (described in the section ‘problem specification’ below) which was based around a group reading and presentation of a paper which they were given. The assignment was set in week 2, and students were asked to give a short five minute presentation on their task in week 5. They thus had three weeks in which to meet and discuss. Two hours of class time in Week 4 was set aside for students to meet, since variations in their timetables did not make it possible for most of them to meet otherwise. After the task had been presented and discussed students were asked to reflect on the process of doing this group work assignment in terms of what had helped and hindered them in carrying it out. From this early exercise several issues arose that students had experienced in year one, and which led to two mature students in the group forcibly expressing the opinion that they had no intention of undergoing a similar experience in year 2.
The research Ethics of the research My intention was to involve the students in the action research and I explained, after the first exercise, how the approach to researching pedagogical problems could be organised. I assured them that the information collected would be part and parcel of normal teaching activity and would be used by us to reflect on course processes. I was mindful of the danger that normal teaching, could be over taken by the research, so any written reflection or discussion would be brief. The students were given an information sheet about the research (as were my colleagues) and they could decline to have their written reflections used, or could disengage from discussion, without detriment. Anonymity in reporting was assured. In the event no one objected and there was a general level of excitement about being involved in research which they thought had future professional relevance.
Collecting evidence and reporting decisions Throughout the year I kept a journal recording what happened in each session, ideas for future teaching activity, and notes on previous empirical studies. I was able to do this immediately after each teaching session, over a coffee break. My evidence also consisted of 35
short reflective exercises which either asked students to think forward about group work assessments and how they should ideally be conducted, or to reflect retrospectively on what had happened. Sometimes they were given a structured set of questions, sometimes they were asked to write short reflective paragraphs. These paper exercises which were anonymous, were kept as part of the case record. These activities were quickly carried out and the students were positive about them. In the last session a discussion was tape recorded, with their permission. This took longer than anticipated as it was impossible to stop the students talking.
In the section that follows I have organised my narrative chronologically, following the action steps involved in the action research cycle of actions, i.e. specifying the problem, planning an intervention, implementing and monitoring it, and finally evaluating its success or otherwise. At each step some philosophical arguments were tried out. The group work assignment evoked strong feelings in some students and I resisted some of their ideas before understanding fully why I thought they were ethically unacceptable. In the chronological account they are described but not deeply engaged with. In the concluding sections, written after the events described below, I made an attempt to present more coherent arguments supporting my initial reactions.
Step 1. Problem specification I have already cited some general factors that made it likely that problems would arise on the module. Into the mix should be added my own ideas about assessment practice. Group work assessment challenged my ideas about good practice, I was not clear why. I felt there was something wrong about group work assessments where high performing students under performed and could have done better given an individual assignment, or where poor performing students gained grades markedly above their grade profile.
The general ideas informing my assessment practices were that course assessments should inform teaching decisions (i.e be formative), and teaching decisions should be reflected in the assessments (i.e one should assess only what had been taught). Ideally assessments should provide practice for subsequent assessments. End of course assessments were more summative in intention. As with most writers in this area, I believed that the point of most assessments, in education, should be to inform students about their strengths and weaknesses and learning needs (Birenbaum, 2006). As with all educational practices there is 36
an ethical dimension to assessments. They should not harm students, they should provide an educationally worthwhile experience, they should be fair and be seen to be fair.
In order to start to explore these issues, I set a small independent group work exercise. The students were asked to summarise and evaluate the argument, of a philosophy paper and to produce their own argument. They were given a template to fill in identifying the arguments for, and against the thesis being propounded. The paper used was ‘Why we Educate’, chosen because it was written by a well known philosopher of education, in accessible language, for a non specialist audience (Barrow 2005). It was made clear that the skills being practised were relevant to all three assessed assignments and the students seemed keen to practice them. They were asked to produce a short presentation in class.
The groups were formed on the basis of who was sitting close to whom. There were 5 groups of 4, 3, 2, 4, 3, (two students had yet to appear). As a preparation for the task we jointly brainstormed answers to the question ‘What factors make for good team work’? ‘What problems might arise’? ‘How might you deal with them?’ The class had no problems with this, suggestions flowing easily. A room was booked for the students to use for one two hour session. They had three weeks to complete the task. The resulting presentations were impressive. They were asked to fill out an evaluation sheet on ‘good team work’ and to write a paragraph about their experiences. I took these away to read and said I would feed back the following week.
What became apparent from the feedback (but not the presentations) was that two groups were failures. The students present agreed with this feedback. One group, (B) had failed to meet. The other group, (E), had met but had been unhappy together and had not been able to discuss the paper. Of the successful groups, two consisted of established friends who had worked successfully as groups in year one. The other successful group (D) contained a mature student.
The reasons given by one Group B member for their failure to meet was that a group member student (X), lost the assigned paper and was totally uncontactable. Furthermore one person in this group said they did not wish to commit the two hours it would take to get into the University, as they did not ‘trust’ one member of their group to turn up, referring I
took it, to student X. In the event only one student in group B did the work and the presentation, the other two were absent.
Group E reported that they had difficulty meeting because they had the wrong contact details, when they did meet they felt a group of 2 was too small to generate enough discussion. They did their presentations individually.
These two groups seemed to have had the most extreme problems but there were problems reported in the successful groups.
Group A, reported that communication was difficult with an English as a second language speaker as the philosophical concepts were not ordinary language ones and therefore were difficult to grasp. On the other hand, another member of the group saw this as a positive factor in that they had to be more explicit in the expression of their ideas. Although this group was successful, it contained two mature students who were scathing of the university’s requirement for group working. One declared that group work, while being part of the culture of the institution, and therefore something one had to comply with, was ‘irrelevant’.
Group C reported satisfaction with the task. One person felt disadvantaged because she did not have a home computer. Another said they needed more face to face time to rehearse their presentation.
Group D, which also had a mature person in its group, managed two meetings. Poor punctuality was cited as a reason for not being completely happy. They did not seem to have worked together particularly well or to have enjoyed themselves. One student reported after the class that the mature student had dominated and they had been unable to express their views.
At the end of the session the class was divided into 4 and asked to carry out a group SWOT analysis to isolate the factors that had presented difficulties in group work presentations.
The ‘threats’ were predictable from what had been reported in their written feedback. They were: • Incompatible timetables. 38
• Clashing assessment deadlines. • Poor attendance and commitment from some students. • Language difficulties. • Personality conflicts including dominant personalities.
An unexpected factor was cancelled classes. It was explained that modules had been chosen that ‘bunched’ so that students could organise their money earning jobs and economise on the cost and time of travel. When other tutors cancelled classes, it became uneconomic to attend just one. Some students were enrolled on a module that was frequently cancelled. This meant that some students didn’t attend meetings for this reason. Another surprising factor emerged from ‘Opportunities’ this was that ‘work shy free loaders were highlighted’. This was a reference to two students (X and Y).
My comment to the class was that although they had pointed out the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, no one had said anything about doing philosophy. My vision of students engaging in exciting intellectual dialogue did not match the experience of at least five (out of 16) members of the cohort, and the rest (apart from group C, who were friends and lived on campus) had worked under circumstances that did not facilitate dialogue.
This realisation led me to question whether the group work assignment, as currently set up as a role play, was an appropriate vehicle for the aim I had in mind. As I noted in my research journal, if a major aim of the course is for students to engage in philosophical dialogue then this did not seem to have worked in the cases where students lived off campus, and faced other obstacles.
My next step was to reconfigure the groups into three of six students each, dissolving the group of two students and reassigning students X and Y to the two groups with mature students in them. This led to a resigned acceptance but with a demand from one mature student that they be given the right to ‘oust’ underperforming students. Clearly student X and Y were seen to be liabilities and feelings were running high.
During the week I received e-mails from the same two mature students in the group who had been given student X expressing concern this student would ‘depress their grades’. They 39
wanted to know how the group work assessment was to work, whether they would be given identical grades or be assessed individually. At this point, given the emotional force of their responses, I suspected that the issue was an unresolved problem from year 1.
I e-mailed a first year tutor to ask about the experiences of this group with group work assessment.
The response from the first year tutor confirmed that there had been problems with student X and Y in the first year, on a module which also had a group assessment. The problem was the fact that neither student X or Y, had made a contribution. The first year tutor’s view was that the attending students must prepare work for absent students X and Y, for them to present, in the event that they turned up to the presentation. His reasoning was that in ‘real life’ employers would expect team members to cover for one another and would not expect to adjudicate between them about who did what. Furthermore, these difficulties were exactly what group work was meant to give students the experience of learning to cope with. In the context of the frequently given rationale for group work, that students should be taught team working skills useful for employment, this was, perhaps a reasonable reply. Employers’ needs are frequently invoked in the literature on any discussion about group work (e.g. Casperz et al 2005, Parsons 2004). However the complaining students were clearly unhappy with this and took the view, which I did myself, that it is unfair to be given a mark that you do not earn in an educational context. Similarly it is unfair, to be in effect penalised by the defaulting students by having to do extra work. Furthermore the argument that team workers should cover for less conscientious workers did not convince the mature students in the group, who had worked in teams in industry before embarking on the degree. To be fair, the first year tutor had also extensive experience of working in a business context.
At this point I determined, with the students, that the research questions we would explore together would be ‘how can we make the next group work assessment fair to all students’? with the subsidiary question ‘can the group work assessment be designed to encourage philosophical dialogue’?
Step 2 Planning for an intervention Over the Christmas break I rethought the formally assessed group assessment which was to be introduced in the first session of the Spring Term. I redesigned it so that preparation for 40
the role play could be more focussed on dialogue, rather than spending valuable time on literature searching. I gave them a choice of papers from which to choose the ones they would base their presentation on. In order to equalise the work effort they were asked to present a teaching session broken down into six parts, each part to be about five minutes long. They were to envisage teaching a class of their peers. The aim of encouraging philosophical dialogue was to be met by each person presenting an argument and making sure that it followed from the arguments and considerations that preceded, and followed it. Coherence and relatedness were presented as a major assessment criterion.
Instead of personal logs recording their own contributions (which in the past had, in some cases provided contradictory evidence of effort and contribution) I asked the groups to keep formal minutes of their meetings which were to be signed by each group member as a true record. This would I thought provide more reliable evidence of what had occurred outside of my purview. I required just one of these to be handed in by a group Chair appointed in the session, in effect making at least one meeting compulsory.
On the issue of non attending students, I suggested to the class that if the opting out student turned up for the presentation but had not come to a sufficient number of meetings, that they be given the last ‘slot’ which required summing up the points made by the others. However they would only be permitted to do this if they had sent in a 500 word contribution to the Chair before the presentation. Failure to send in 500 words meant that they could not take part in the presentation and would fail. This meant that the groups with known opting out students could prepare their presentations without detriment. I further suggested that if the opting out students failed to send a 500 word contribution to the Chair of the group before the presentation meeting, they would be deemed to have failed the role play assignment, whether they took part or not in the presentation. These ideas were discussed with the class. They were invited to think it over, to consider whether this was a fair solution, and contact me by e-mail with any thoughts.
Step 3 Implementation and monitoring In discussion one response was that a simpler and more satisfying solution was to put all the people with poor attendance in one group. I know that this solution has been in operation on another degree course at another university. It was not an option for us at his point in time because we had not declared it at the beginning of the course nor put it in the Course 41
Handbook. Even if we had, however, I thought that putting them in a ‘losers’ group did not seem a responsible response, although at this point it was hard for me to justify my moral intuition. I argued that as an educator, one shouldn’t give up on people, and that they were still registered on the course. I argued that some people may have been absent for reasons outside their control. This suggestion was treated with scorn by one group member. Two students asked why I wasn’t angry about the lack of attendance of students X and Y, and the irregular attendance of some of the others. I was, in fact fairly fed up, but I kept this to myself!
The other suggestion, which had been mentioned before, was that students who failed to cooperate should be ejected by the group. This too had been tried in other higher education locations. I argued against this since my moral intuition was that the students should not be given this right, that it was the tutor’s responsibility to decide who should fail and more importantly the manner in which they failed. The problem with the group work assignment, as it had been conceived, was that it was ‘fail proof’. This could not be right, although at this point in time I was unclear about what this meant.
A lot of ‘what if’ questions were raised by the students. For example, suppose someone attended the meetings but not the role play presentation, they would fail, but wouldn’t their absence also depress the grade the other students achieved for the role play? The answer I gave to this was that if they had worked together they would be able to take into account the part the missing person or persons played. What if someone misses one of the role plays? How can they do the comparative report? The answer was that they could not do it and would fail.
The group were asked to think through my suggestions, possible problems and to e-mail me with any thoughts they had and we would re-visit the problems in the next session and rewrite the rubric together. I would then discuss any decisions with the Course leader to check that he had no objections. In the event only one student e-mailed comments and only six students appeared in the next class due to an exceptionally heavy fall of snow. We discussed the emerging rubric and the points raised in the e-mail. The e-mailing student student approved of the signed minutes idea as this ‘would also serve as a record of attendance’. However she thought the form of the minutes should be presented to the class before she could ‘endorse’ the idea. 42
She thought that in reality it was impossible for everyone to make an equal contribution, since the material was too difficult for the student whose first language was not English (I understood her to be saying) so fairness in terms of effort, was not necessarily guaranteed by the equal time division of the role play presentation. I said that the extra help that group members gave to those members who needed more support would be recognised in the grading. Again I felt this was the right thing to say and it satisfied the group, but at this point I was not sure whether it was right nor how to do it.
In the next session the rubric was revised and agreed with the students present. We clarified the point that failure to send in 500 words in lieu of attendance at a sufficient number of meetings would result in a failed grade and students would not be entitled to take part in the role play presentation. Failure to take part in the role play presentation, even if the meetings had been attended, would be a failure. Failure to attend all the role play presentations would likewise result in a failed grade for the Critical Review. In effect we established eligibility criteria for being awarded a grade. Thus to get a grade the following was required:
• Attendance at a sufficient number of group meetings or 500 words in lieu of missed meetings. • Participation in own group’s role play presentation. • Attendance at two other group’s role plays.
I attempted to meet the objection about students who were absent for the presentation depressing the role play grade by adapting ‘holistic criteria’ (table 1) developed for assessing student performances in the performing arts. The way in which a grade is reached does not involve summing individual contributions.
Did the group succeed in getting the concepts across? Were the teaching methods interesting and appropriate? Was your interest maintained? Did you feel engaged/challenged? Was the role play well organised? Did it hang together as a group performance? Were there any distinctive qualities/points of excellence or originality? Table 1. Holistic group assessment criteria used for assignment 2 role play
I shared the criteria with the students and invited them to use them to assess their peers’ role plays and to use them to inform their Critical Reviews. I also said that I would present them with my assessments in verbal feedback, to check my perceptions with theirs, so that we had agreement in judgements. They liked this idea very much and group Chairs were appointed.
In the next few sessions, in addition to the scheduled course content, I presented them with a model lesson plan, a model set of minutes and we carried out some exercises into different teaching methods that they might use, such as hot seating. I originally set aside one session for preparation time, later adding another at the request of the students.
The rubric was set out on NILE (as were all course documents, lectures handouts etc) and I sent an e-mail to our non-attending students (X and Y) bringing these to their attention and advising them to contact their group Chairs.
Step 4 Evaluation The evaluation was in two parts. A short questionnaire on group work processes designed to see whether philosophical dialogue had been facilitated (see appendix), the second was a tape recorded whole group discussion reflecting on their experiences of group work over the year. The first question on the questionnaire was designed to assess the mode of group working using categories adapted from Waite and Leonardi (2004). The students were asked to say which descriptive statement most nearly approximated to their way of working, to determine in effect whether they had adopted a syndicate approach with little non organisational discussion or whether they had ‘interacted closely’ each contributing to each other’s sections. They were also asked to reflect on the new rubric, to highlight any impeding factors and to reflect on my assessment of their presentations. I emphasised that there were no right answers, that the point was just to see what had occurred within the new guidelines. Eight students were present and completed the questionnaire.
Group A (4 students present, 2 absent, i.e student X and a student whose first language is not English). There was agreement that they had ‘interacted closely’. They reported difficulty in contacting student X, and had to ‘accommodate’ the needs of the student whose first language was not English. The new rubric was thought to be very satisfactory. It enabled ‘everyone to participate’, it was more ‘structured and organised’, so it ‘was easier to work together’. The signed minutes ‘showed who attended and who contributed what’; they were a ‘great idea’. The idea of 500 words from absentees allowed us ‘to consider the person’ and ‘they don’t lose marks if they can’t attend’. The insistence on a contribution ‘was excellent’. The hindering factors mentioned by two students was the fact they had no choice in group composition and therefore had ‘student X’ and an ‘imbalance of skills’.
There were two people present from group C. They adopted the group working process of breaking the task up into sections and every one doing their section (i.e. no dialogue between the group on the substantive content). On the new rubric, one student commented that it made no difference to the regular absentees ‘who never turn up’ and ‘let the rest of the group down’, another student commented that some members were a ‘bit lazy’ and left 45
their sections until the last minute. This group were also unhappy about the composition of the group and the fact that they were forced to take a ‘bad apple’ (i.e. student Y). Student Y, despite not turning up for any sessions, had submitted 500 words, contributed to her group’s presentation and was present at the two presentations necessary for the critical review (although late for one!).
Two members of Group B were present. They reported that the task had been broken into sections and everyone had done their bit. However one student said this was not ‘out of choice’, one person had ‘taken control’ and did not allow ‘room for options’, this person was ‘only interested in her own grade’. One student thought the new rubric took away the worry of not being able to make meetings and made for a more ‘unpressurised approach.’
During the tape recorded discussion eight students were present. They were asked whether the group work assignment was worthwhile and whether it would be better to replace it with an essay or an examination. The general feeling was that it ought to be kept, but that certain unsatisfactory features should be eliminated. The discussion was lively. For brevity I have distilled the problems identified by the students and the suggestions made.
While the idea of the minutes was welcomed, some students thought their discussions should have been audio recorded since the minutes did not reflect the quality of the discussion they had had.
A huge amount of administrative work was borne by the Chair of the groups and the nonattending and poor attending students caused a lot of problems in trying to arrange meeting times. They recommended that more class time be set so that non attending/poor attending students did not have the excuse of prior commitments. In addition administrative work could be eased by having a limit of 4 in each group.
The composition of the groups caused a lot of debate. There was still resentment at having the non attending students allotted to them. They would have preferred self selection. However one student said that choice based on ‘liking’ was not necessarily the best idea. There was general agreement that there was a need for attendance requirements for the degree as a whole, and that student who did not attend for a certain percentage of the time
in the first term, (e.g. 85%) should not be allowed to take the group work assignment. This should be published in the course handbook so that students had fair warning.
The issue of too many group work assignments being set simultaneously on other modules was raised and it was suggested that better co-ordination was needed across the modules, although it was acknowledged that in a degree of this design it would be difficult.
Discussion The research was intended to throw light on two questions: • ‘how can we make the next group work assessment fair to all students’?
• ‘can the group work assessment be designed to encourage philosophical dialogue’?
To take the second question first. It seems likely that only one group succeeded in undertaking the quality of dialogue required and that the other groups worked in a more syndicalised way. It has to be said that these differences were not apparent in the final presentations, which did cohere satisfactorily and provided evidence of engagement with the issues. The contribution of Y, as would be expected, stood out for its poor quality and lack of integration with the work of the others.
On the question of fairness, students were assured that the assessment process was as fair as possible, in that no one who was free riding was given a group mark. One student, who due to his sporting and socialising commitments was unable to attend any meetings nor submit 500 words, did fail. In private discussion with him, he accepted that this was fair. Student Y was careful to fulfil the requirements of the rubric and got a group grade. This was seen as fair by the students, but her minimal compliance (she had not attended one taught session) and her evasion of all attempts to discuss her lack of participation with her tutors was extremely frustrating. The best that can be said is that she did not get away scot free.
Conclusion In my concluding remarks I attempt to draw together my reflections on the practical and normative issues raised by the action research. Firstly the tutor has a responsibility to all group members to give them a fair chance to participate. This involves knowing about the practical obstacles students face and trying to accommodate these as far as is possible. It 47
was a revelation to me that students living at a distance from campus faced such difficulties with the transport system. A high proportion of students at this university are home based for financial reasons.
Secondly care has to be taken over the design of the assessment task, so that as far as is possible, the workload is equally shared and that the task is focussed on the essential learning it is trying to facilitate. This cuts out time consuming and inessential tasks, such as finding suitable source materials. The focus on essential learning should be the case, even if students subvert or are prevented from carrying out those intentions, because of the group dynamics they are in. In retrospect the task should have been focussed more directly on dialogue, perhaps by requesting evidence in the form of audio tapes, and the requirement for a presentation dropped.
A closely related point is that the essential learning to be acquired is taught. Dialogue and good/poor argument were extensively discussed and practised on the course and assessment criteria for good dialogue were derived with the students. However these were not the same as the assessment criteria for a good presentation, which was what they were assessed against. This was a weakness in the teaching and assessment strategy.
Thirdly, and more contentiously, the tutor (not the students) has a responsibility to let poor performing or opting out students fail the group work assignment. Cooperation is a virtue we wish to endorse in society, but so is the idea of personal responsibility and just dessert. Students should not be allowed to ‘eject’ students they perceive as unsatisfactory. Only the teacher has the legitimate authority to fail a student in an impartial manner. So I would argue it is necessary to think through what a student would have to do in order to fail. Indeed the possibility of failure is a central to the concept of fairness in assessment, but one that has been missing from group work assessment (or mistakenly delegated to students). The idea of failure is essential not only to the logic of learning, but also to stop students who exploit the good will of others from doing so again and again.
An issue raised by the students was the ‘unfairness’ they felt at having a student in their group who might depress their grades, for example a student whose first language is not English. My intuitive response was to say that I would take this into account. In the event the students in group C who had a non native speaker worked with her to produce a script 48
which she read out. Their presentation was excellent gaining a top grade so I was not faced with the issue of ‘compensation’. However this issue has still to be thought through in a satisfactory manner and is of obvious importance where groups containing students with learning difficulties are concerned.
Group work and its assessment are very complex and require much more research and deliberation. By presenting this action research as an example it is intended that other education professionals will be able to formulate questions so that problems with group work assignments and assessments can be addressed. The case study shows that while we may wish to promote educationally worthwhile ends through encouraging collaboration, more deliberation is needed about how it is managed and assessed.
Notes *1+ What counted as attendance at a sufficient number of meetings was left to the Chair’s discretion.  Students who were absent for genuine reasons may apply for consideration of their case under the mitigating circumstances policy of the university.
References Barrow, R (2005) Why we Educate. Prospero, 11, 2 pp 8-13
Birenbaum, M (2006) Evaluating the Assessment: Sources of Evidence for Quality Assurance. Keynote presentation at the Third Biennial Northumbria/EARLI Sig Assessment Conference August 30th
Bloxham,S. and Boyd, P. (2007) Developing Effective Assessment in Higher Education: A Practical Guide. Buckingham, Open University Press.
Carr, W and Kemmis, S (1986) Becoming Critical : Education, Knowledge and Action Research, London, Falmer Press
Caspersz, D. Skene, J. and M. Wu (2005) Principle and Guidelines in managing student teams . In the Reflective Practitioner. Procedings of the 14th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum 3-4th Feb 2002. Perth, Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf2005/refereed/capersz.html (accessed 22.4.06)
Castagna, J (1997) Grading Group Projects – discussion group WMST-L October /November http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/group_grading.html
Chang, V. (1999) How can conflict within a group be managed? Teaching and Learning Forum http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlfl1999/chang.html accessed 22.4.06
Conway, R., Kember, D., Sivan, A. and Wu, M(1993) Peer Assessment of an Individuals contribution to a Group Project. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 18 (1) pp 45-54 50
Douglas, T (1976) Groupwork Practice. London, Tavistock Press.
Elliott, J (1978) Action Research for Educational Change, Milton Keynes, Open University
Elliott, J (2007) Reflecting Where the Action is. London, Routledge
Foreman-Peck, L (2009) Employability and the problem of independent team work by students. Prospero, 15,3, pp6-19
Foreman-Peck, L and Winch C (2010) Using Educational Research to inform Practice. Abingdon. Routledgefalmer
Magin, D (2001) Reciprocity as a Source of Bias in Multiple Peer Assessment of Group Work. Studies in Higher Education 26, no. 1
Maguire, S and Edmondson, S (2001) Student Evaluation and Assessment of Group projects. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 25, no.2 pp209-217
Mills, P (2003) Group Project Work with Undergraduate Vetinary Science Students. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 28,no.5 Parsons, D (2004) Justice in the classroom: Peer Assessment of Contributions in Group Projects. www.naccq.ac.nz/conference05/proceedingd_04/parsons.pdf (accessed 22.4.06)
Parsons, D.E and Drew, S.K. (1996) Designing Group Project Work to Enhance Learning: Key Elements. Teaching in Higher Education, 1,1, pp. 65-80
Ransom, L.S (1997) Grading Group Projects – discussion group WMST-L October /November http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/group_grading.html
Thorley, L and Gregory, R. (1994) Using Group- based Learning in Higher Education, London, Kogan Page.
Waite, W.M and Leonardi, P. M. (2004) Student Culture vs Group Work in Computer Science, SIGCSE March 3-7. 51
Evaluation of group work processes
1. Please tick one of the following descriptions that most nearly corresponds to your perception of how your group worked together (there are no right or wrong answers!)
One person worked on the task and then passed it on to another.
We broke the task up into sections and everyone did their bit.
We each tackled all the parts and then selected the best results and let that person do that bit.
We interacted closely, each of us contributing to the other students sections.
2. If the descriptions do not capture the way you worked, please describe in your own words. 3. Were you satisfied with the new rubric for this assignment? Give reasons for your answer? 4. Were there any factors that hindered your progress on this assignment? Please explain. 5. Please say whether you agree or disagree with my assessments of the group role plays.
Involuntary Free Riding – Group Assessment and Under-performance in a Computer Simulation Julia Vernon Introduction For several years I have led a module that incorporates a large element of group-work assessment. The ‘Web Application Project’ runs in Year 2 of an undergraduate course in Business Computing. Students feel that the project, which is the development of a website for a local charity, gives them valuable skills for employment, and an opportunity to test their abilities and show flair in a real-world context. Although the positive aspects of the module outweigh the negative, I have not felt entirely comfortable with every outcome. The literature (and, of course, discussions with colleagues and students) suggests that I am in good company in this ambivalent view of group-work.
Many studies (Maguire and Edmondson 2001, Mills 2003, Gupta 2004, Greenan et al 1997), note the positive effects on learning which group-work may engender, and others (Knight 2004, Hand 2001) discuss the existence of phenomena such as social loafing, free-riding and the inequity of workload.
‘Social loafing’ is a term first applied by Latané et al. (1979) to characterise the reduction in effort from individuals when they are asked to undertake a task as part of a group, rather than independently. ‘Free-riding’ refers to the situation where one member of a group depends on the others to contribute the majority of the effort towards completion of the task (Albanese & Van Fleet, 1985).
Much earlier than this Whyte (1943) discussed the effect of status on the performance of individuals, noting that lower-status members perform poorly in the group, even in areas where they possess good skills. Cottrell (1972) suggested that a diminution in performance is caused by concern with being evaluated by others. Ingleton (2005) highlights the importance of emotions, particularly those “associated with being affirmed and of being shamed”, have on the learning of women.
Over the four years that I have been leading this module, I have come to realise that some students appear to lose confidence and engagement during the course of the work, in relation to other members of their group. The proportion of the work contributed by them diminishes while that of others increases, and I have come to believe that this is, at least partly, the result of loss of status within the group.
In this action research case study, I have attempted to counter the negative effect that working in a group may have on the self-esteem and confidence of individuals, when they are teamed with students considerably more skilled or more experienced than they are.
Background/Context Students taking part in the project, the subject of this case study, may be enrolled on an Honours degree, a Higher National Diploma or a Foundation Degree. I have led the module for four years, during which, in line with general trends in Computing in HE, numbers have seen a decline, from 26 in 2004/5, to just 11 students in 2007/8, only 3 of which are traditional full-time students. Students on the Foundation degree have full-time employment in various industries including health, education and retail.
The module involves student groups acting as small consultancy firms, competing to produce a website for a local charity. Group members take on a variety of roles, some of which are to be found in a real world context, in which they demonstrate different skill sets. Individuals would expect to take a lead in several areas, and share in carrying out others. Roles as suggested in the module document comprise: • Client liaison [building good relationships with the client, finding out their changing needs, keeping them informed] • Technical [web site interactivity] • Creative [look and feel of the site] • Investigating associated issues – website hosting, search engines, user training, site maintenance, what to include in a charity web site… • Document production [using MS Project, producing charts] • Group leader [overseeing equal contribution, chairing meetings, ensuring completion of tasks, overcoming slack periods] • Group co-ordinator [gathering contact details, posting to VLE, keeping all stakeholders informed] 55
• Meeting organiser [producing agendas and minutes, arranging rooms] • Report co-ordinator [bringing together all sections of the report, writing the descriptive comment]
Because of the attempt to create a simulation of team working in the commercial sector, parallel segmentation, which is sometimes identified as being a way that students might circumvent group-work requirements, is not discouraged in the module. Group members are communally responsible for the quality of the overall product, but they are encouraged to take leadership of different roles depending on their perceived strengths and preferences.
The project runs from October, when the groups form, to May, when they present their prototype site to the tutor, client and fellow students. The groups receive 5 taught sessions at the start of the year on such topics as group-working, client liaison and project management. After this the groups are largely self-managed around set milestones as they work towards the production of a prototype site. The milestones include assessment deadlines and arranged meetings. This module is complemented by another running alongside (a co-requisite module - Web Application Development). This has sessions on coding techniques, author design, usability etc. and is intended to be a resource for the simulation module.
It can be seen that this is not a traditional teaching module. Following the short programme of lectures and seminars at the start of the year, I describe myself to the students as an ‘internal client’. This means I have a set of requirements that differ from those of the ‘external client’, and are connected with process rather than product. These include the set assignments, of course, but I am also interested in their professional approach to their remit, and responsibility taken within the group. I act as coordinator, setting up the arrangement with the organisation (this has been done for several years with the help of the Community Volunteers Network here at the University), organising the three visits from the charity to the University and disseminating general information. Students are encouraged to invite me to some of their meetings, either as consultant or simply to monitor their progress. Each group has an on-line area within a Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard) which provides file storage and a communication facility e.g. for on-line meetings and email. I use access to these areas to check on progress, and as I see all the students in classes for the associated module, I am able to monitor how the groups are getting on. Assessed items include a 56
planning document, the main system file, and a post-implementation report with reflection and evaluation. These milestones are based around a system development framework that could be expected to be used in the IT industry, adjusted naturally for academic purposes. The main file details the history of the project, and plans for ongoing development, and presents sets of designs, project management documents, meeting minutes etc. These items of assessment are given a group grade, unless students indicate that they would prefer to receive individual grades.
Visits from the charity are a plenary introductory session in November, for agreeing requirements; a meeting in January, when each group presents design ideas for discussion; and the final presentations in May.
At the final meeting the charity organisation we have been working with chooses one of the prototype sites, and the successful group undertakes to complete the functionality, train the staff in the maintenance and updating, and launch the site. For this aspect of the project there is no academic incentive, but of course it is of great value to the students in terms of experience. Students respond very well to the competitive aspect of the project, and success, notwithstanding the additional work involved, is highly prized.
Why group-work? In order to support the collaborative nature of the module all assignments are group-work. The whole grade for the module will depend partly on other students, so the element of ‘unfairness’, where students may benefit or be disadvantaged by the efforts of others, is unmitigated by being mixed with grades achieved individually.
An over-riding characteristic of the project which may not always be shared with assignments in other contexts, however, is the sense that it is a ‘natural’ subject for collaboration. As the focus of the course is on employability it is appropriate that students have the opportunity to practise skills and techniques required in the IT industry. All those involved in the module recognise this, and so there is no pressure from students to change this aspect of the assignments. The concept of bringing in a consultancy company to achieve a project is one that students appear happy to accept as taking place in the real world and therefore suitable to adapt within an academic context.
There are other aspects of the project that are less closely aligned to the outside world of course, e.g. the lengthy process prior to the awarding of the contract, but this compromise is readily accepted. The expectation at the start of the project is positive; there are many challenges in the requirements of an unfamiliar exercise, and the idea of working intensively with others is welcomed. The session we spend, in the early stages of the module, on group dynamics and the pitfalls that may arise, is received quite light-heartedly by students, who show no awareness of potential problems ahead. The idea of competing to ‘win the contract’ is one that appeals to and stimulates individuals during the group formation process and throughout.
I have taken the decision to detract as little as possible from the simulation of reality, and this position has been accepted and supported by internal and external moderators, and by students at all stages of the process, including those who may have experienced some problems associated with group-working. Student feedback provides evidence that they appreciate the opportunity to participate in a real project, and gain benefit from the skills they acquire during it.
I set certain parameters to try to regulate the experience. For example I stipulate that groups must be of three or four people. Fewer than this would, in my opinion, require a disproportionate amount of effort from each. More than four may make it easier for a member to take a passive role, and benefit excessively from the effort of others. Also, groups who choose to vary grades between members may do so, and we follow a process which uses mutual agreement to reward members according to the effort brought to the project, but this is not imposed. More often than not groups prefer to receive the same grade, even when there is an obvious difference in contribution. I have later chatted to individual students who recall their strong feelings at seeing other group members putting in less effort than them, but have at the time preferred to maintain the cohesion of the group.
Research Questions Possibly the person most likely to suffer doubts about the validity of the process is me. Naturally, despite the positive elements described, the project is not immune from most of the issues familiar to anyone who participates in or supervises group-work. I have been conscious of being responsible, via the structure of the module and the weighting of the group-work, for the extensive nature of any effects of unfairness. 58
In relation to grades the unfairness may be manifested in two directions. Good students may be undeservedly down-graded, and others may benefit unwarrantedly from improved grades. In my experience, the former has not manifested itself. The engagement engendered by the nature of the project and perhaps the competitiveness felt between groups has tended to lead to a determination among the higher achievers to maintain the standards they expect of themselves by putting in more than their share of the work if necessary. Of course this has been of benefit to those with a lower level of contribution.
However, viewing the matter only in terms of grades is overly simplistic. The internal dynamics of the group, I suggest, has a profound effect on the level and quality of the learning for individuals.
There is scope within the project setup for the development and demonstration of a range of different skill sets – project management, client liaison, meeting management, creative input, contextual research and programming. All students should have input into a number of different areas, but it is not necessary to perform in all of these. However previous experience has suggested to me that some skills are considered to have more ‘kudos’ than others. Those students able to master the more technical skills experience improved status within the group, giving them more control over unrelated aspects of the project as well. One student put it to me as “They think I’m an expert even when I’m not”. As the project proceeds the status of individuals within the groups tends to become polarised. The high status individuals have a strong sense of ownership, and a decreasing degree of trust in the work of others. Low-status members are inclined to defer to their team mates and to draw back from expressing opinion in decision-making situations, or giving explanations of their own work. Even students who are highly regarded by their team mates for, for example, their organisational skills, have less authority in decision making than the technically able. I am aware that this reduced status has led to a degree of under-performance, in the way that Whyte (1943) has described.
Students who don’t establish themselves early on as possessing skills necessary to the completion of the project are in the most difficult position. I would go so far as to suggest that students who intend at the start of the project to contribute fully to it, nevertheless, through these effects, find themselves in a position of being involuntary ‘free-riders’. This is actually damaging to their levels of achievement, and also their confidence and self-esteem. 59
While their grades are inflated, an undesirable outcome in itself, their learning and skills development risks being degraded, and the project may fail to demonstrate what they are in fact capable of. This is frustrating to individuals at all levels of participation, but contrary to appearances, I suggest that the students with the high work load are the ultimate beneficiaries of this effect, while the ‘free-riders’ are the losers in all ways except one – their grades.
During this study I have attempted to introduce measures to break this cycle, to support both the groups and individuals, and to counter the negative effects noted. As a starting point I reviewed the outcomes of the module from the perspective of the students’ collaborative working.
Decision-making factors Among the benefits to the learning of an individual student of engaging in group-work I would include the opportunity for skills development, particularly communication. The interaction of, and negotiation between, group members requires problem-solving skills over and above those provided by the task set. In addition there is the opportunity for reflecting on their own learning process, something that a Business Computing course may not naturally lend itself to in all areas.
Secondly, one would expect that students working together, even on diverse tasks, would learn from each other, from seeing the way their team-mates approach the work, the different style of product that emerges, and from explanations among the group of what is needed to accomplish the task. All these forms of knowledge transfer undoubtedly take place informally when students are set individually to a task, but more particularly during group working.
An enhancement of these benefits, I felt, would improve both the final product and the experience of the individual students. I proposed two interventions, one to support reflection, and the other knowledge transfer, to be carried out during the period when experience shows that the negative aspects of group work within the module can become evident.
During the Autumn term the groups, this year as previously, worked harmoniously through the initial client meeting and towards production of the first assignment, the planning document, and then began preparation for the second client meeting.
Some differentiation did show, during this meeting in January, as most of the interactions tended to be initiated by one or two people in each group, whereas others looked less familiar with the designs being demonstrated. Dynamics within the groups were becoming apparent, with some natural leaders, and others seemingly content to watch and wait.
It is usually following this meeting, and as the Spring term progresses, that any problems within my groups begin to impact. The project comes under pressure for a number of reasons: • There has in the past been a lack of project milestones in this period; • The size of assignments from other modules tends to increase, distracting students’ attention towards more pressing, and individual, deadlines, and • The ‘design’ phase of the project is largely completed by the end of January, the need now is for the underlying functionality, i.e. the technical aspects of the site, to be developed, in order to support user interaction, data persistence and content management. These skills, which are being learned by the students in the corequisite module, are a considerable challenge. The size of this task is generally underestimated, and unless a group has a member who enjoys writing code for fun, its commencement tends to be postponed.
As the project takes a lesser place in students’ attention, group cohesion is inclined to flag. By the time other distractions are out of the way, and looming deadlines for the project come back into focus, it is easier for those students who feel they have mastered the technical skills of web interaction, as required by the co-requisite module, to take a lead in the project. Although a number of tasks will by now need progressing, implementation of the code is the one that everyone is now aware of, and those less confident in this area are likely to take a back seat. This tendency can become a spiral, if active members lose patience and progressively restrict communication and the opportunity to contribute, while the less engaged members shed more and more responsibility for the tasks necessary to complete the project.
Interventions My attempts to break into this destructive spiral took two forms.
I arranged to bring the students together as a whole group for an activity away from the usual class environment. This session was mediated by colleagues in the University’s Centre for Academic Practice. This took the students out of their normal working environment. In addition food was provided, which made it a popular event! Of the students involved in the project, one, a conscientious high performer, was absent from this session through illness. The activity was designed to bring issues of groupwork into the open, and develop strategies to improve group cohesion. The Metaplan system (Schnelle, 2000) was employed. This method uses workshops to facilitate discussion within groups, to initially identify issues, and then develop strategies to deal with them. Characteristics of the process are objective moderators, and activities that support contributions from all participants. In particular the focus is non-confrontational.
After an introduction to the process, students were each asked to identify, and write down on cards, three issues, associated with group-work, that affected them. They were then divided into two groups and arranged the cards according to theme. The most pressing issue was chosen by vote. Although expressed in different ways, both groups identified unequal commitment/unequal workload as the issue that caused them most concern.
In the next phase students were asked to suggest strategies in which groups might overcome the identified issue. These varied from the supportive “carry each other along” to the punitive “replace slacking team members”. An action plan from the session was to consider learning styles and group roles, which we subsequently looked at, using the work of Honey & Mumford (2006) and Belbin (2001) respectively.
It was evident during the afternoon and from later feedback that the students engaged well with the process, and enjoyed the activities – and the food of course.
My second intervention was to set up a session where each student gave an individual presentation to their own group. The four areas of responsibility that I selected and detailed in the initial project requirements were project management, website interaction, testing
plan, and website management (i.e. maintenance, training, security, hosting, web analytics etc.). Each student was asked to give details of the current progress of one of these topics.
Preparations for the individual presentation, coming shortly after the Metaplan session, brought about some interesting discussion in terms of task renegotiation. A member of one group, who had been absent from the Metaplan, questioned the way I had divided the roles, and wanted a free choice of topic, perhaps seeing the presentation as a way to highlight her own considerable contribution to the work. A member of another group had taken on project management but also saw himself taking a lead in the testing process. He could be seen to consciously rein back as another group member staked out his claim to the testing role, resulting in an amicable division of labour.
Although there was no assessment credit allocated to these performances, every student engaged well and worked hard to demonstrate to their team mates how they had fulfilled their role. Some genuine knowledge transfer took place, although the quality of the performances varied considerably. One effect of the preparatory work done was to boost the production of the major item of coursework, a written report detailing the development of the project.
End of the project Before the final presentation to the client, one of the groups indicated that they wished to have differentiated grades. The agreement for this to take place had been made and minuted during an early meeting of the group, so it would appear that the possibility of an uneven contribution had been recognised by then. The other groups had no issues, even though differences in skill and confidence levels were evident. The final presentations went ahead, and were received with enthusiasm by the client. All groups were awarded good grades for the main item of assessment, and no student failed the module. In addition, students remained enthusiastic throughout, as evidenced by module evaluation statistics.
Reflection Revisiting the issues raised by groupworking, after students have been able to experience them first-hand, resulted in a much more thoughtful response than when discussed early in the project. Crucially, awareness of group dynamics had increased and was seen in less simplistic terms than at the start of the project. Introducing an additional task at a lull in the 63
progress of the project was instrumental in bringing the groups back together, and helped them to re-focus both on the work, and on their individual roles.
Both interventions, I felt, were supportive of the students and contributed to the smooth functioning of the groups. Opening up the issue of workload to discussion seemed to have had a positive effect on interactions. But had I succeeded in counteracting the effect of status on the performance of the students?
On completion of the project, I invited all my students to meet me on a one-to-one basis, to get their feedback on the project and the additional measures I had introduced. About half the students responded to my invitation, and all were enthusiastic about the interventions that took place, particularly the Metaplan session. They were also positive about the process of the group-working, while being open about the tensions that arose from time to time. Students with a range of abilities expressed these views.
Of course the students who chose to speak to me were self-selected, and it is to be assumed that at least some of those who didn’t were less happy with the process. The fact that one of the groups chose to differentiate their grades, based on varying degrees of effort, rather than ability, implies that free-riding did occur, possibly to a lesser degree than would otherwise have been the case. The two students I perceived to have contributed least, and to have had the most difficulty in the tasks allocated, were among those who did not respond to my invitation (which was repeated) to meet up.
Conclusions The measures taken had the effect of alleviating, somewhat, the effects noted, supporting positive help-giving and knowledge transfer within the group, and allowing members to contribute more fully to the group task. Possibly the greatest benefit has been to the students who possessed non-technical skills. The importance of their role within the group has been reinforced, and their confidence to assert their opinions strengthened. Status has been shared more equally, and performance potential enhanced.
However I have to conclude that, although worthwhile, my actions did not entirely prevent any of the common problems experienced by groups, nor did it enable the least skilled students to shine in their allocated roles. Within any group of individuals there will be those 64
with more confidence and skills than others, and the role of an academic tutor can only be to make the process of group-working as painless as possible, and to enhance the positive outcomes by putting in place sound structures.
I have to accept that I have not overcome the involuntary free-rider effect entirely, and conclude that if we wish to avoid the drawbacks and inconsistencies of the process entirely then we would need to abandon groupwork as a form of assessment. While the ability to work as part of a team continues to be valued, and is arguably more relevant than ever in a world where extensive communication and cooperation are enabled by technology, this issue will continue to occupy educators.
It has been my experience that where students can accept the appropriateness of group working, they are more likely to accept the sometimes painful dynamics inherent in the process, and will persevere to preserve group cohesion. The following questions are suggested as a basis for reaching this consensus: • Is group working the right assessment tool for this task? • Is this task the most appropriate vehicle for group-work?
As a result of this exercise, there are some guidelines which I feel I have learned for the management of the module.
Firstly, that in a long-running group work exercise, there is value in periodic re-focussing on the task, and that tutor input can be helpful in supporting this. It can help to break the cycle of non-engagement by some, and dominance by others.
Secondly that students appreciate an acknowledgement that group-work carries intrinsic dangers, and are willing to explore these issues, but both the approach and timing of this exploration is critical. Including it as a topic in the early seminar programme is not as useful as providing a forum for reflection and problem solving some way into the project, when students have started to be affected by the difficulties of working with others.
Finally, that a careful judgement needs to be made, in relation to the benefits to be gained and the hazards to be encountered, for each piece of group-work contemplated, and that the task ought to be justifiable in terms of value added to the individual. 65
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Marginalised students in group work assessment: the effective support of such individuals and associated ethical issues Antony Mellor and Jane Entwistle
We have been lecturing in HE institutions, principally in soil science and research methods, for well over ten years and have experience of using group work across all levels of our degree programmes and in a number of contexts, including practical field- and laboratorybased activities, data processing and analysis, literature-based research projects, oral and poster presentations, and written reports. Indeed, group work is well embedded in the learning, teaching and assessment culture of our subject discipline of Geography (Chalkley and Harwood 2006, Knight 2004, Livingstone and Lynch 2002, Maguire and Edmondson 2001).
Over the years we have become increasingly concerned about the reluctance of students to participate in groups that are not self selected ‘friendship’ groups. Comments from students on group-work like “None of us had met or spoken before. It was like been trapped in a broken lift with complete strangers” have encouraged a culture of group-working in ‘friendship groups’ to become the norm. We commonly use sign up sheets where students self-select with whom they want to work, thus reinforcing this trend. As a consequence, we have become increasingly concerned that this reinforces the marginalisation of some individuals, and may even promote disengagement.
In this study, we adopted the action research methodology outlined in the introductory chapter to this volume. Drawing on our previous experiences of student marginalisation in group work assessment, outlined above, we implemented a series of interventions as part of the module teaching, learning and assessment strategy, with a view to offering improved support for such individuals. We then decided to evaluate these interventions, from both student and staff perspectives. This evaluation led us to re-evaluate our views regarding what constitutes a marginalised student, and indeed, how this status may change over time, thus leading into a second phase or iteration of the action research process, which is currently work in progress. 68
Background and context The importance of group work for social and academic integration, student retention and engagement, and graduate employability is well established (Bourner et al. 2001, Hiley and Carter 2003). A number of key elements to reducing student disengagement are identified, many of which can be promoted through group work activity:
Allocating time and effort to student activities (e.g. timetabling group work sessions) (Kuh 2003).
Promoting a strong university based academic and social network (e.g. teaching group work skills to encourage acceptance and understanding of diversity) (Wilcox et al. 2005).
Encouraging students to see the University as part of the rest of rest of their life, not an isolated activity (e.g. including an element of individual critical reflection of the group work activity, thereby broadening the group work experience by drawing on wider ‘life’ experiences) (Zepke and Leach 2007).
Enabling students to feel like a valued member of the University (e.g. allowing students to play to strengths as part of a coherent team) (Inkelas et al. 2007).
This study is concerned with a 20 credit, year-long module, Soil Degradation and Rehabilitation (GE0156), taken annually by around 30 third (final) year students on our BSc (Hons) Geography degree programme. Most of these students are so called ‘traditional’ undergraduates, aged around 21 years and entering the programme directly from a UK Alevel or equivalent background. For a number of years we have used group work assessment as part of a literature-based research project to examine a range of soil conservation strategies. Each group would focus on one soil conservation strategy and share their learning with others in the class via group oral presentations, which were assessed. Students would then submit an individual report as an additional component of assessment. As a whole, this project constituted 40% of the module assessment, with 30% of this for the group oral presentation and 70% for the individual written report.
Following annual module reviews and informal discussion with students about group-work assessment we became concerned about a number of issues adversely affecting the student learning experience. These included dealing with adverse group dynamics and unequal contributions by individuals within groups (e.g. Mills 2003, Hand 2001). Of more significant concern, however, was the small number of individuals in each year group who felt 69
disengaged or isolated, either from the class as a whole, or from their group. These feelings often arose because of an age difference, in the case of some mature students, but also because some individuals did not have a close circle of friends within the cohort. This concern was compounded by the fact that a number of individuals had commitments beyond University, such as child care issues, which made it difficult for the group to meet outside of timetabled classes.
In addition we had concerns about the high student workload on this module and the need to more formally embed group work skills into the module. We decided to change the written report from an individual to a group submission and to add an individual critical reflection component, which allowed the students to reflect on the process of group work rather than just on the end product. Assessment weightings were revised as follows to accommodate the latter component: overall weighting to remain at 40%, oral presentation 25%, written report 60%, individual critical reflection 15%.
Aims The above concerns led us to develop a particular interest in ‘marginalised’ students including those who were new to the year group, coming in either as a direct entrant, repeating the year or returning from interruption, mature students, or individuals who appeared to be ‘outsiders’ for less tangible reasons such as those with poor social skills, poor attendance record or not part of a friendship group. Our aims were, therefore:
To investigate how best to support marginalised students in group work assessment, using a series of interventions as part of the module teaching, learning and assessment strategy.
To evaluate the above interventions from both student and staff perspectives using a range of approaches.
Example profiles of what we perceive to be marginalised students are outlined below (these are aggregated profiles and are not based upon any one individual):
Sally is a female mature student, in her late 30s, who is rather introverted with ongoing feelings of low self esteem and a history of depression. Whilst a highly capable student, Sally feels she doesn’t want to impose herself on the other students who are much younger. Although Sally has been part of this cohort for the duration of her degree programme she has 70
not become part of a friendship group. She usually sits on her own in lectures, and whilst she does interact with her peers, she very much chooses to stay on the margins.
Joshua is a male mature student who interrupted his studies and so is new to the year group. Although extrovert in character, and a good, proactive communicator, he suffered some personal health issues during the early part of the academic year resulting in long periods of absence.
Frank is a male student of similar age to the majority in the cohort, but new to the year group having transferred in to the final year of his degree from another university. Frank was absent for long periods as a result of having to spend time at home (in Wales) because of family and financial difficulties.
Sarah is a female student who has been part of the cohort since the start of her programme and who is similar in age to the majority of other students in the year group. Paid work commitments meant that Sarah had a poor attendance record for much of the year and was therefore unable to engage fully with her group.
Ethical dilemmas For us, the key ethical questions are: first, does marginalisation in group work matter?; second, should we support such (marginalised) students?; and third, in supporting these students are we neglecting the majority of individuals in the cohort? We believe that the answer to the first two questions is an emphatic YES because we are imposing the group work on students and assessing the end product. Moreover, assessment can be life changing and if we get it wrong, it could be argued that we are in breach of our moral duty (Elliott 2007). However, in offering additional support to marginalised students, are we in danger of alienating at least some of the so called ‘silent majority’ who we do not perceive to be marginalised? Either way, we may be disadvantaging some individuals and so need to consider how to deal with problematic issues that can affect not only their mark but also the rest of the group’s mark. If the experience is poor it can also reinforce feelings of marginalisation, and reduce self esteem and engagement as well as generating other negative emotions.
The interventions In order to support marginalised students, and to try and prevent others from becoming marginalised, we decided on a model of equality of support for all groups and individuals within groups. We felt that it was unfair to target marginalised groups and individuals for three main reasons: first, those groups and individuals may not wish to be targeted and may perceive such support as intrusive; second, non-marginalised groups and individuals may feel disadvantaged, and third, it is often not possible to identify marginalised individuals in advance of the group work, or marginalisation may happen during the process.
With equality of support in mind, and to encourage individuals to feel valued and thus to promote engagement, we identified and implemented four key interventions as possible solutions to our ethical dilemmas. The aim was to promote a supportive environment for the students by the tutor-led interventions:
To make compulsory timetabled sessions available for the groups to meet; to promote a sense of group identity and of subject community and to allow groups to discuss progress with the tutor, thus addressing the practical problem of lack of opportunity to meet and facilitating group interaction early on in the process.
To allow individuals in the groups to play to their strengths. We encouraged the students to think about their strengths in terms of the tasks required as part of this assignment, to identify what their contribution might be and their role within that group.
To provide formative feedback on drafts of the written report. This enabled us to encourage and promote the need for a dialogue between group members where a synthesis of materials was lacking.
To include an individual critical reflection component as part of the assignment. We aimed to promote reflection on the learning inherent in the activity regardless of the form of the experience or the summative mark of the end product.
Evaluation The extent to which our interventions were successful was evaluated using a number of approaches. These were: • Production of a teacher diary or log to record student and staff views throughout the duration of the project. • Questionnaire with open questions. 72
• Questionnaire with closed questions (Likert scale). • Individual student critical reflections allowing students to reflect personally on the processes of group working.
Key outcomes Findings from the teacher log included a reluctance of students to participate in groups that were not self selected ‘friendship’ groups and concern about reliance on others for their marks, especially in the final year. Most found engagement with critical reflection very challenging, which is perhaps not surprising as it is the first time they will have encountered this type of writing. In five of the seven groups, students were highly engaged with the activity and achieved a commendable end product. Of the remaining groups, one started rather late as a result of poor attendance early in the module but achieved equally good summative results. The final group, however, presented particular difficulties, comprising two mature students, one of whom was repeating the year, and a student new to the year group. Consequently, the students did not know each other and to compound matters further, they all experienced personal problems, which had adverse effects on communication and progress. For example, one student experienced a family bereavement, whilst another had to return home to a remote part of the country as a result of family problems.
Results from the open questionnaire indicated that dominant emotions were highly polarised with most being very pleased that groups were self selected. There was general agreement on what makes for a well functioning group including: effective communication, strong work ethic, democratic decision making, awareness of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and identification of clear roles and good organisation. Dominant communication methods were group meetings (post lecture), e-mail and text. The main positive aspects of group work were found to be: ability to learn from each other (bounce ideas around), ability to see how others work, sharing of workload (and ‘worry’), learning valuable teamwork skills, having fun and “it was good to reflect on the group’s performance – this could help when in a work environment and I will need to understand how group dynamics work.”
The main negative aspects of group work were found to be: poor communication, clashes of opinion and over-dominance of some individuals, unequal contribution, dealing with variable 73
standards, clashes with (paid) work commitments and meeting agreed deadlines. “I thought it (individual critical reflection) wasn’t really beneficial to us and the style of writing so different to an essay.” Issues arising focused on role designation, individuals unable to work on their weaknesses, and on the individual critical reflection and word limit, which students believed should be longer than 500 words.
Key findings from the closed questionnaire were as follows. More than 70% of students agreed with the following statements: • I enjoyed the group assessment project overall. • I prefer to be part of a group that is self-selected. • It was easy for me to find a group to engage with. • I chose to be part of my group mainly for personal and social reasons. • My group was easily able to agree and allocate tasks. • I felt positive about my personal contribution to the group effort. • Everyone in the group appeared to be clear about what they were meant to be doing.
These positive findings cannot be attributed directly to the interventions adopted but simply reflect the group work experience as a whole.
Less than 20% of students agreed with the following statements: • I felt that I learned more as a result of being part of a group than I would have done on my own. • I chose to be a part of my group mainly for academic reasons. • I feel uncomfortable working with individuals in a group that I do not know well. • The tendency for one or more individuals in the group to be over-dominant made me feel uncomfortable. • At times I felt that my views were not listened to by other members of the group. • I took on a dominant role in an attempt to lead my group as I felt that insufficient progress was being made. • I had some concerns about unequal workload and contribution across individuals in the group.
The individual critical reflections, with selected student quotes, identified the following areas for consideration: • Friendship groups - “None of us had met or spoken before. It was like been trapped in a broken lift with complete strangers.” “..the fact that we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and are good friends helped a great deal.” “…I did feel a little excluded in the group as dominant characters took over…made it difficult to have a say, especially when it was a friendship group because any conflicts could have created awkwardness in my social life.” • Disagreement and conflict - “(disputes) resolved by all members listening to each side of the argument and taking others thoughts into consideration…” In another case “…disagreements around relevance of content resolved with majority vote.” • Communication - “Effective communication is undoubtedly a key skill for any successful group to have….we set out to be as transparent as possible” “I became aware that I was being very assertive within the group and was dictating rather than discussing each point.” • Unequal workload - “It was irritating when somebody missed a meeting at late notice, disrupting the group dynamic…resolved and I tried to boost team morale and keep the rest of the group motivated.” “I feel that some members have put a lot more into the report than others.” • Organisation and roles - “As a group we defined roles in presenting and report writing to play to our strengths.” “….shows what can be achieved with efficient teamwork helped through having regular meetings and schedules to keep to.” “I was not a dominant member of the group, which meant that part of my degree mark has been left in the hands of other people.” “In my role as chairperson, I occasionally felt I was being too domineering…felt I needed to do this so the report could be finished on time….I felt I was in a difficult position as I was trying to keep everyone happy as well as produce a high standard report…” • Learning - “I believe that I should have been more confident and spoken out and it is this aspect that I need to work on in future group activities.” “… part of the purpose was to increase our confidence in speaking in front of groups as it will most likely become an integral part of our lives when we leave University.”
Discussion Of the four interventions noted above, all had a positive role to play (to a great or lesser degree) in supporting the whole group with their experience of group-work, including those who we considered to be isolated and marginalised at the outset. The three students who were identified initially as marginalised students, however, remained so throughout the project, largely because two in particular were absent for considerable periods of time. In both cases, the reasons for absence were beyond the student’s control, namely a family bereavement and personal illness in one case, and personal family difficulties in a distant part of the UK in the other. So how did the interventions support them positively? The interventions allowed us to be aware of the issues from their outset, and the impact of continuing problems on the group dynamics and summative output. However, these individuals did not respond to e-mail and telephone contact until close to the oral presentation and project submission deadlines, leaving little time for them to react to the tutor support on offer. It appears, therefore, that our interventions had limited impact on these marginalised individuals, although they did at least turn up to deliver a viable group presentation and were able to submit a satisfactory written report. The extent to which this was due to our interventions is difficult to establish as even the individual critical reflections from these students failed to shed further light on this issue.
The fourth intervention, the individual critical reflection, was perhaps the least successful across the cohort as a whole because the students were relatively inexperienced in this way of thinking and writing, coming largely from a scientific background. It did however provide a platform for student grievances and issues to be raised, and facilitated their ability to develop different approaches to solving more abstract problems. It also provided useful feedback from the students regarding their personal experiences of the group work assessment project.
Despite these successes, however, we still had some marginalised students and those with a less than satisfactory experience of the group work assignment. But, are these the same marginalised students? Is the issue of marginalisation (and hence the identification of marginalised individuals) more complex than we first thought? Does our interpretation need to be revised? The simple answer is ‘yes’ and in this context, another issue worthy of note, from a group where a number of members shared a house (and hence a ‘friendship-group’), was a temporary breakdown in friendship of one member who was concerned about a loss of 76
control over the project work and a fear that her marks would be pulled down by the work of other members. We did not identify this as a problem during the group support and progress meetings, nor was it brought to our attention at the time by the individual concerned; the issue was only identified on reading the individual critical reflections after the event. Despite this concern, however, the group were able to produce a good oral presentation and written report, and we believe the individual critical reflection went some way to providing individuals an opportunity to air their issues (and grievances), giving them a focus to promote reflection/resolution.
An issue that we need to reflect on further is that of group formation. Should marginalised students form their own (fall-out) groups or should we allocate them, following appropriate discussion, to existing groups? This year, we took the former approach to form a fall-out group consisting of three (marginalised) students. However, one member commented in the individual critical reflection that: “I have found the experience of working with a group to produce this report difficult and challenging. None of us had met or spoken before. It was like been trapped in a broken lift with complete strangers.” This very strong viewpoint leads us to believe that the latter approach might have been preferable. The wider issue of friendship groups also merits further consideration. We used friendship groups for this module assessment because the students have been accustomed to this approach since the start of their academic programme where residential fieldwork activities involve students sharing accommodation and undertaking project work in groups; inevitably, these are friendship groups. The existing power-base within friendship groups can be problematic, however, discouraging students from adopting different roles within the group and inhibiting individual contributions (Buxton 2003). Research also suggests that working in such selfselected groups can undermine the academic purpose of an exercise and that more diverse, tutor-selected groups might be more effective, better reflecting situations that the students might encounter in their future employment (Thorley and Gregory, 1994). If we were to adopt such an approach to group formation as part of this final year module, we would need to change the culture of group formation during the early stages of the academic programme so that students become more comfortable with working in groups that are not necessarily self-selected.
Conclusions Our findings cast some doubt over the use of closed question questionnaires as instruments of evaluation of such complex problems in that emphasis is placed on the majority view. In relation to marginalised students, we need to capture the minority view, which may be achieved more effectively through qualitative, open question questionnaires. We perhaps need to conduct one to one interviews with group members in order to gather more refined information. Nevertheless, we have identified a number of additional modes of equitable support including: • Additional facilitation of group working to include 10 minutes for discussion at the start of each timetabled session • Closer monitoring of groups to include a request for copies of minutes from meetings, perhaps on a fortnightly basis with a record of attendance, task distribution, outstanding issues and aims for next meeting • Greater, more proactive staff follow-up to address any problems that may arise • Consider ways of assessing the contributions of individuals within the groups.
Having completed the first cycle of the action research process, we feel that although some of our questions have been answered and our interventions have been, at least in part successful, our ethical dilemmas have changed and broadened out as the issues appear to have become more complex: • Are the four interventions, and the additional ones identified above, sufficient to support the groups and individuals within the groups? • Is the definition of a ‘marginalised’ student more complex than we first thought and can this change over time through the course of the project? • Is the guidance that we are offering too intrusive? • Should we target additional support more closely towards marginalised students (i.e. those we initially identify and those that emerge as the group-work progresses), thus moving from a model of ‘equality’ of support to one of ‘equity’ and in doing so are we in danger of making the non-marginalised students feel disadvantaged? • To what extent should we support groups who are behind in the assignment, but not necessarily marginalised, more than those who are progressing well?
To what extent the individuals we identified as marginalised were helped by our interventions is difficult to assess. Did we help group integration and interaction? Did we facilitate group cohesion? Certainly the feedback suggests we did at the general level of the group work process, but what of these specific individuals? As determined from the individual critical reflections, the experience of Sally, the mature student, was certainly more negative than the rest of the cohort. As to the impact on our other so-called marginalised students, this is equally difficult to judge due to the lack of student engagement with this component. Our conclusions emphasise the need to conduct face-to-face interviews and/or to conduct non-anonymised feedback at the end of the next cycle of the module.
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Facilitating Group work: leading or empowering? Julie Jones and Andrew Smith Context Within the Foundation Degree in Learning & Teaching (FDLT) at the University of Northampton, students engage in a second year module dedicated to identifying and understanding issues of special educational needs and inclusion in schools and other education settings. Assessment of the module is by a group project together with a record of the individual student’s involvement in the project. This latter is assessed using a project diary and reflective statement. The students conduct group-based research into an aspect of inclusion, with an emphasis upon them working collaboratively and developing skills as reflective practitioners.
As the Programme Leader and the Module Leader for this module, we identified that students’ experience of assessed group work presents issues in terms of the values and ethics of good assessment practice. We challenged ourselves to consider how well the assessment and grading of the group work fairly represented the achievement of individual students. We considered it important to be confident that the assessment system accurately measured individual student achievement. Although we regarded the module as successful, we wanted to research the student experience of the assessment strategies and evaluate whether we had made unwarranted assumptions regarding an equitable process and whether this varied from the students’ perceptions. A focus of the research is the understanding that educators operate through making assumptions although they may not always be aware of having made those assumptions, (Sherman and Webb, 1995). This is particularly significant where educators make judgements about fairness of approaches on behalf of students and where these judgements impact upon grade outcomes.
We identified two main areas for consideration: (i)
The structure of the assessment strategy in empowering students to demonstrate their individual achievement via assessed group work
The role of the tutor in facilitating the student experience.
Within this action research, we therefore set out to examine whether student groups, working collaboratively to produce a group assessed assignment, can fairly demonstrate and be assessed upon their capabilities and contribution to a group effort.
Key literature sources identified aspects of practice related to understanding issues regarding fairness, justice and reliability of group work (Maguire and Edmondson 2001, Barnfield 2003, Knight 2004 and Skinner et al 2004). Awareness of the motivational factors implicit in group work assessment including the effect of rewarding the group product or the individual contribution were considered in relation to Chapman (2002) and with regard to the interrelationships in groups (Arango 2007).
In this study we have tried to contribute towards an understanding of the sensitivity of issues surrounding the assessment of group work. Although the scale of the study dictates that conclusions are tentative, some clear evidence was obtained with regard to the diversity of the group-working experience for students and the need for tutors to challenge their perception of their students’ understanding of the assessment process.
The Group Work and its Assessment This module draws from students’ experience and expertise in their individual setting by requiring them to research and reflect upon any area of practice relating to special educational needs, inclusion and diversity which is of relevance and interest to them. Students work both in groups and individually as part of the module. In the opening sessions students explore their areas of interest and consider the range of topics they might research so that by session three they have formed research groups of three to four based upon agreed areas of interest. Tutor input and guidance is considerable in terms of advising, directing and teaching research skills; particularly the structure of the collaborative research project, how to manage research methods and the management of being an insider researcher in their work-place. A key discussion topic is how communication within each group can be self-managed and how to take collegiate responsibility for ensuring the success of their project.
For the subsequent time-tabled sessions the module tutor is available for consultation face to face and via email and telephone. The groups are self-sufficient at this point, meeting out of session time as frequently as they perceive necessary until project submission. 83
The project is dependent upon a successful group approach; however, within this the students are expected to demonstrate their individual contribution through two elements: The diary record of the work a student undertakes for the group project e.g. contribution in group meetings, collecting information in school, reading relevant materials, trialling materials in school, discussions with other school staff, meetings with the tutor and school-based mentor, and preparing the documented project. In order to maintain the integrity of their work each group member counter-signs one another’s diaries, as a true record. The Personal Reflective Statement is an analytical discussion of the mode of working and the research outcomes. Students structure this into three sections: o What they have gained in terms of their own professional knowledge and how this will impact on their own work. o What their schools/settings might gain from the research. o Their experience of collaborative group working.
The Reflective Statement is not read by the other members of the group.
Each student is awarded two grades: A grade for the project, which is the same grade received by all members of the group. A personal grade, for the individual diary and reflective statement.
These two grades are combined and, according to the assessment weightings, an overall personal mark is awarded for this module. Assessment Item
1 x group research project
1 x Diary
1x 1000 word Individual. Reflective Statement Table 1
The assessment strategy in Table 1 was updated for the academic year 2007/8 with an increased weighting for the personal elements of work from the original 20% to 40% and the group grade reduced from 80% to 60%. This was to reflect the importance of the individual’s 84
contribution to the group project and to enable the students to give a detailed analytical response in their reflective statement.
Although student module evaluations (2006/7) had not indicated significant opposition to the joint project mark or the integrity of the process, a minority of students held the following views about the dynamics of their group which they felt influenced the final project and its associated grade. Specifically, a few students claimed that there were students who took a ‘back seat’ during the group research and others who were forceful and ‘took over’ the group.
Therefore a minority of students felt that the sharing of the workload or influence within the group, became unfair. Unfairness is a well documented problem identified by others including Ransom (1997), Parsons (2002), Hand (2001), Cheng and Warren (2000). Woodhead (2008) stated that as a consequence of unfairness, ‘Group coursework should be banned’.
In addition, a comparative review of module grade outcomes indicated that the module assessment strategy did not sufficiently discriminate between students, as a significant proportion achieved very high grades. Thus, in an effort to provide a more equitable assessment process, the decision to increase the weighting of the individual element of the assessment was taken. It was also decided to further research the extent of the issues identified by students and whether there were other factors to be addressed in relation to securing a process of assessment which ensured equity.
Research Questions Tutor role Central to the research questions was the nature of the tutor role and whether there is a conflict between the tutor view and the student view of the role. The 2006-07 module review caused us to reflect on whether the tutor’s support of students was a factor in the high grades awarded. This led to the further question of whether a high level of tutor support could cause lack of engagement in some students by allowing them to be led rather than, as was intended, empowering them to develop their own projects.
Tutor input when setting up the projects is very high, with continuing extensive tutor support available through time-tabled sessions and by e-mail contact. This led to the questions: How much of the group work project is influenced by the tutor? Do students consider they have extensive guidance? How far does this contribute to student groups maintaining their cohesion and direction?
Assessment strategy Following the decision to adjust the assessment weightings for 2007-08 we wanted to explore the student perception of this and whether students had an opinion about whether the new assessment weightings still discriminate against some students as the majority of marks are awarded via a group grade.
During the research it was also expected that further information would be obtained concerning: What influenced students’ perception of a successful experience. What encouraged effective collegiate management of group dynamics and communication between group members.
Methodology The research was in two stages:
Stage one focussed upon the experience of the 2006/07 student cohort who were able to reflect upon their impression of the process.
Stage two investigated the experience of the 2007/08 cohort and their on-going perceptions of the process.
The initial research aims sought to explore: • Whether students had an awareness of the detail of the assessment weightings in the assessment strategy • If so, what the level of their understanding of this was and to what extent they perceived it to be fair and to be a reliable reflection of their achievement as a group and as an individual
• The effect of the level and nature of tutor facilitation on group dynamics in intragroup communication, task-sharing, empowerment and ownership.
Key to this research is that interpretations of events within the module made by the module tutor and course leader may be based on different understandings from those of the students. Therefore the research sought to access the student voice from a range of sources: • Analysis of reflective statements from the 2006-07 cohort • Semi-structured interviews with students from the 2006/07 cohort asking them to reflect retrospectively on their experiences • Analysis of 2007/08 students’ reflective statements • Questionnaire on collaborative working and the tutor role to 2007/08 students • Three focus group interviews with a tutor selected group 2007/08.
Discussion of findings Reflective statements 2006/07 cohort (n=20)
The analysis provided findings that indicated: A mainly positive experience of collaborative working and an enthusiasm for group working An awareness of the need to be supportive of anyone experiencing difficult personal circumstances during the project (n = 4) A minority of students who commented, there were some who took a ‘back seat’ during the group research period and some students who, through forceful personalities, ‘took over’ the control and direction of the group (n = 2) Groups became focussed and worked together in order to meet deadlines A varied means of communication was used by students to ensure the success of the group Where a group identified that at times not everyone contributed fairly, the group dealt with this satisfactorily and did not apportion blame Groups shared the workload and were committed to doing their individual best One group found gaining initial focus difficult but resolved this via additional discussion within the group and seeking some comment from the tutor.
These responses suggest the students have a professional maturity in their approach to group work and a degree of confidence and experience which enables them to manage the group dynamics and overcome difficulties in the interest of achieving a successful group project. However, it also indicates that the students are involved in problem-solving throughout the process and some found the issue of individual personalities and unequal contributions difficult to manage.
Group interviews with 2006/07 cohort (n=10 individual group representatives) (a) Significance and fairness of the assessment weighting Comments from students tended to demonstrate their acceptance of the requirements of the module and the approach to assessment: •
“Grades represent different inputs and skills.”
“Group grade reflects our effort and measures our ability to work as a group.”
“Group grade reflects the amount of work put in and so 60% is appropriate. As the individual assignment doesn’t do this it should be a smaller weighting.”
“The assignments are separate from one another and we just put in our best effort for each.”
The comments indicate that students tend to measure the weighting via the amount of work they put in whilst being aware that the two assignments enable them to demonstrate different learning outcomes. Some students acknowledge that the ability to work in a group is a key skill in the module learning outcomes. However, most had not considered the assessment weighting and approached the assessment items by being unquestioning and by putting in their best effort for both items. Initially most students did not attach significance to the weighting of the assignments and, once prompted to reflect, they tended to assume fairness within the assessment strategy. This raises issues for the FDLT Course Team in maintaining an ethically sound stance in ensuring students understand the significance of assessment weightings.
(b) Sense of achieving a fair grade for the group project Comments from students tended to demonstrate their commitment to producing a high quality group project. There was a strong sense that the students would endeavour to ensure fairness by managing the equitable sharing of tasks within their own groups. It was also evident that the students considered they were drawing upon their professional work88
based practice in their awareness of the importance of successful teamwork. This is demonstrated in the following comments: • “May not be fair if group didn’t gel and not all effort was equal, but groups needed to co-operate and compliment each other’s strengths.” • “We all wanted a good grade and so we supported each other for the sake of the project.” • “It worked because our group had strong team ethics.” “Fairness came from the project being about teamwork and that’s part of our professional practice.” • “We signed each others’ diaries so we knew the marking of the individual effort would be fair.”
Limitations to this however, were noted where the students identified: • “In a very small group it wasn’t possible to share the workload evenly if one student was particularly weak.” • “Students new to the cohort felt difficulty in fitting into a group.”
This may be an indicator of where tutor influence in establishing groups is vital at the outset of the project and can be key in supporting students’ avoidance of potential issues in relation to fairness.
Influence of the tutor There was no evidence that students felt the tutor was dominating their decision-making or hindering their exploration of ideas. The students valued the tutor as a point of contact; someone who was able to oversee the progress of the project and provide support if needed.
Comments included: • “Help at the start and keeping us on track.” • “Gave the input that was needed but didn’t intervene in our ideas.” • “Let us develop our interests and then suggested ways forward when we asked questions.” • “We didn’t have too much help – it was just right and was a stepping stone or scaffolding approach.” • “Didn’t give answers but reminded us of criteria and aims.”
Aspects of the project which supported or inhibited a sense of the assessment being a valuable experience The students did not make any comment which indicated the experience was made less valuable as a consequence of the assessment including a group grading. In summary, the points were: • Learning to trust and share with each other. • Learning from the talents and strengths of others. • Producing a useful document respected by colleagues. • Pushing yourself to meet the expectations of the group.
When prompted, students were able to make suggestions to further improve the assessment process: • Use an evaluation sheet of the group process for the group to comment on the individual contributions of others. • Acknowledge both parts of the assessment strategy equally; although students went on to state that this would not reflect time spent on the project.
Initial questionnaire responses 2007/08 focus group This short questionnaire was presented to individual members of the focus group at the end of the group ‘forming’ stage of the module. It was designed to discover their initial impressions of how their engagement with their research will increase their professional knowledge, their working preferences, the level of support from the tutor so far and any emerging difficulties.
The analysis provided findings that indicated: • All the students felt that their engagement with their chosen area of research would have a significant impact on their own professional role in their schools/settings. • Some students were unsure about group working (n = 3). They work in groups in their professional role in schools but had worries about engaging in research with ‘research partners’. This was solely based on their own fear of ‘exposure’ as being, “not as clever as the others in my group” (student ‘A’) or of having to face potential conflict, “It gives me the chance to share ideas but I often prefer to work on my own particularly when ideas conflict and it’s hard to reach agreement.” (Student ‘C’). 90
Other students (n = 3) welcomed the opportunity to work in a group, “I have enjoyed it so far. It is nice to be able to bounce ideas off the others, clarify them and generally debate. It also makes me get on with the work as I feel that I may let the others down if I don’t.” (Student ‘B’) The need to support the others in the group and to play a full part in the project was a particularly strong motivating factor for all students. • All of the students had the right amount of support from the tutor; no student stated that the tutor gave too much support or ‘over-directed’ the group.
‘Exit’ questionnaire responses 2007/08 students (n=32 students from 2x cohorts) This was a brief questionnaire presented to two cohort groups and was completed, in class, on the day that the final group projects were submitted for assessment. It was designed to discover the individual student’s belief about who was responsible overall for managing the group, on their experience of receiving tutor support and their opinion on the fairness of the 60/40 assessment weighting.
The analysis provided findings that indicated: The majority of students (n= 27) believed the group as a whole was totally responsible for managing the group in terms of establishing tasks, creating/maintaining the communication framework, directing and executing the school-based research, utilising key texts/sources and writing up/compiling the project in a ‘corporate’ style. A few students (n = 4) stated that it was a joint responsibility shared between the group and the tutor – with the tutor taking responsibility for dealing with any disagreements/difficulties arising within the group dynamics or with any difficulties generated through the school-based research. The majority of the students (n = 30) believed the role of the tutor in the module was to help them interpret the assignment brief and direct them during the initial ‘set up’ phase of choosing the area of research and their groups; after this, to support them with issues/queries relating to study/research skills, their reading and with any specific school-based issues arising out of their insider research. Two students were unsure of the tutor’s role. The majority of students (n= 22) stated that they used the available tutor support only moderately after the initial set up phase. A significant number (n = 8) 91
completed the project with only using tutor support sparingly while a small number (n= 2) did not seek any tutor support. In accessing tutor support the most frequently used method was through face-toface communication in the given ‘taught’ sessions (n = 28). Four students did not take up this option and did not attend the taught sessions after the initial set up phase of the project. A small number of students accessed the tutor through e-mail (n = 8). No students used the telephone and no students accessed tutorial support outside of the taught session times. The tutor was perceived to be most influential during the planning stage of the project with their influence being less in establishing group roles and concluding and collating the research (see Table 2).
The influence of the tutor during the project (by phase) 25
Number of students
Very Quite A Little Not at All
0 Interpreting requirements
Establishing group roles
Deciding the research plan
Supporting the research
Concluding and collating the research
Phase of the project
The majority of the students (n=29) said that the assessment weighting was ‘appropriate’. Three students disagreed:
“It seems slightly wrong that one person’s degree marks rely on the input of others. Although it was an interesting way to work, there are problems.”
“This may be difficult if some people do not have the same impact or an input to the final piece of work. The diaries do not necessarily reflect this.”
“This is hard to comment on as the 60% means that all group members benefit from the final grade on the project. In our case one member contributed very little, although this was because she had dyslexia and found the work hard; we helped her and she did do some useful stuff for the project but not on the same level as the rest of us – particularly all the research and the analysis. 40% for the individual element is fair enough as this gives individuals the opportunity to prove their worth. Perhaps a 50/50 split is the best.”
Analysis of 2007-08 students’ reflective statements (n=10 diaries as a representative sample across all four cohort groups) There was a clear similarity between the statements from the 2006-07 group and the 200708 group. Without exception, all of the 2007/8 students stated how their engagement with the school-based research combined with extensive reading had made an effective impact on their professional knowledge and practice. Professional maturity was evident in the reflective statements along with evidence of the supportive nature of the groups and individual members. Comments relating to the students’ experience of group working illustrated how the students used skills of working with others in a pressured environment:
“I struggled to adjust to the ‘limited autonomy’ in a group project and had to ensure that I listened to and valued everybody’s contribution. I felt that I tended to naturally take the lead and had to be aware of this and not be ‘controlling’.” Student ‘J’
“I don’t mind working in a team but knowing that my input affected every one’s grade put pressure on me and I realise that this affected how the rest of the group distributed the workload. The others helped me a lot with the use of correct language, writing skills and also tuning my concentration, but I do feel that this took away my own personal skills as an ‘academic student’ at times.” Student ‘L’
“When working in group situations I am usually the most assertive or dominant character, often the one elected to lead or represent the others if required; in this group that was not the case and I found that to work successfully I had to compromise and sometimes take a ‘back seat’. I found it quite frustrating at the beginning if I didn’t get my own way; I went home a few times feeling quietly anxious. Over the course of the project I feel that I have become more tolerant and tactful towards others.” Student ‘A’
“In any group work all participants need to have the confidence and skills to be willing and able to participate. One member of the group made no contribution to the literature side of the project – although this was difficult I decided to encourage her in the areas she felt able to contribute with. This experience has made me accept that group work can present you with unexpected challenges but for the benefit of the project it was advantageous to proceed positively with the task in hand and to discuss difficulties openly.” Student ‘W’
Exit interview with 2007-08 focus group This was in the form of a group interview and had its focus on considering the group’s perception of ‘fairness’ and the working relationship between the focus group and the tutor throughout the life of the project.
The analysis provided findings which indicated: • That fairness and equitability was established through individuals and the group as a whole working strictly according to the guidelines and protocols set by the tutor in the initial planning stages of the project. Minutes were kept at group meetings with action points for individuals. The group established a ‘wiki’ discussion board so that information could be shared electronically. An e-mail and telephone communication network was created. • Within the group, discussion was initially focused on each individual member’s strengths in terms of existing knowledge & skills in small scale/school-based research and the area of study. Tasks/activities were agreed and distributed according to level of expertise and emerging interest. 94
• All group members stated they understood the nature of the assessment weightings and the need to work collectively in order to achieve a high grade by producing a high quality research project. This was a major motivating factor although the majority of the group viewed the assignments as being totally separate pieces of work with the weightings becoming irrelevant. • Group members frequently read through each other’s contributions and suggested improvements, links, directions to supportive literature/sources and encouragement. This was a key motivating factor and led to a collegiate ethos. • There developed, over time, a strong team and work ethic where group members were not afraid to admit mistakes/show weakness or share good work. This contributed to a learning community where any disagreement over approaches was amicably and swiftly resolved. • All group members understood that their individual contribution to the project would be registered through the research diary which would then be read and agreed by all the other group members prior to submission for assessment. This further motivated individual group members to not let the group down and provided a transparent method of showing fair contribution. • The tutor was helpful throughout the project; particularly in the early phase where key information on the nature and rationale behind the project, discussion on areas of research focus, direction on how to manage the school-based research, protocols on school-based work and warnings about potential pitfalls in group working and school-based research was presented. • The tutor directed the group if they asked specific questions and helped them to limit the scope of the research but generally let the group develop their own area of interest, research questions and direction of the research. The tutor did suggest ‘ways forward’ when asked. “We didn’t have too much help – it was a steppingstone or scaffolding approach where he bought the focus back for us if we’d gone too wide or off the mark.” • This was the first time the students had been given this level of autonomy in an assessment. • The students felt that they were not ‘led’ by the tutor, but were advised on how to achieve an effective project.
“There was no loss of ownership, we were just helped to know how to achieve a particular level.”
“The tutor encouraged us to achieve more as he had high expectations but we were not spoon-fed.”
“I can’t think of an incident when we were provided with resources – we were given direction/help but it was our responsibility to find resources.”
“We would clarify things with him and then go away and work on it.”
Conclusion Curtis & Curtis (1995) stated that it is accepted practice in many work places and organisations to place people in teams and to give people something to relate to and to work for, other than their own task. Fiedler and Garcia (1987) define a ‘group’ as a set of individuals who are interdependent and who interact to achieve a particular purpose. They share a common fate so that an event that affects one also affects other group members (i.e. they may jointly share rewards or suffer punishment). In short, these two views apply to the students who undertake the group research project. From the student responses to the various questionnaires, interviews and from their individual reflective statements it can be said that: Overall, most students had a positive experience of group working. The success of the project is down to the group and that the group is entirely responsible for the grade received. However, there is still a proportion of students who have concerns relating to the concept of having a shared ‘group mark’ when there is a weaker student in their group. In this case, however, the students within the group still accepted shared responsibility to manage this situation, with tutor support and guidance if required. There is a strong awareness amongst the students of being supportive to other group members. Generally the students felt a need to ‘not let their groups down’ – this was a strong motivating factor throughout. Time management and maintaining close communication remained a difficulty for a number of groups particularly with regard to distance and availability due to other 96
work pressures. However, those groups who managed a tight process of structured meetings with a fair distribution of tasks/activities and a varied means of communication, created a collegiate work ethos which proved to be exceptionally supportive and effective in terms of managing the school-based research and project completion. This was particularly evidenced by the focus group (2007/8 cohort) who established an inclusive working environment and positive group selfesteem by following a tightly structured model of operation underpinned by a strong communications system. The students’ engagement with their research focus/area of study and their wider reading made a positive impact on their own professional knowledge and practice and in their development as ‘teacher-researchers’. The students recognise how their group research work will have a positive impact on their schools’ policy and/or provision.
In terms of the influence of the tutor, evidence shows that: The tutor was not dominating the students’ decision-making or overly influencing their exploration of ideas. The tutor’s role is seen as being a facilitator and a guide/supporter, particularly in terms of subject knowledge and in the management of school-based research. The tutor did emphasise the assessment strategy and weightings but a proportion of the students did not fully understand the significance of the weightings in relation to the group and individual gradings.
These key points generate some important areas for discussion by the Course Team responsible for the Foundation Degree in Learning & Teaching (FDLT). The current assessment strategy (60/40 weightings) appears not to create difficulties with the majority of the students who, from the 2007/8 questionnaire responses, seem to think this is appropriate for the nature and level of the work required. Within the programme of study, it is identified that further work is required on raising student awareness of the weightings system and how this influences their grades.
In terms of the ethics of having a potentially tutor-dominated group research module, this has not emerged. The influence of the tutor is a significant one in setting up the research projects and providing on-going support but there has been no indication, from the students, 97
of the tutor being overly prescriptive. The students felt motivated and challenged not disempowered.
This is a key finding as it contrasts with the initial course team view. It challenges those responsible for assessment strategies to ensure they do not make assumptions about what is in the students’ best interest, but consider the issues and actively seek student opinion. Perhaps the most important factor to consider in this case is the actual nature of the students themselves; they are mature students who are educational professionals with at least three year’s experience working in schools or other educational settings. They are used to working collaboratively and cooperatively within their professional roles and it is this vital background which creates the solid foundation for this school-based project. Group work is not new to these students and they naturally undertake it; this research project is within their experience, although due to its particular demands many students do discover some pertinent personal strengths and weaknesses. The main foundation for success in this project is the unique professional expertise and experience of the students; without this factor and with a more traditional year 2 undergraduate cohort of students, the project would potentially have ethical flaws in terms of equity.
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Reflections of a “progressive” teacher in higher education: the opportunities involved in giving students control Paul Sedgwick
I started my school teaching career in England two years before the advent of the National Curriculum in 1988. During my initial teacher training I remember little discussion of “learning intentions” or “learning outcomes” and acronyms intended to help us with formative assessment such as “WALT” (we are learning to) and “WILF”(what I am looking for), had not yet been invented (Clarke 2001). In those “child centred days” the idea that the teacher was looking for a particular outcome from a lesson would have been a hot debating point, not the accepted orthodoxy. We learnt to plan topic work by use of extensive diagrams that included any number of curriculum subjects and any number of possible outcomes - this was pupil led learning where children discovered new ways of understanding and the teacher facilitated the learning process. Knowledge was social - generated by the group - as well as factual - imparted by an expert – and there were many discussions about the joy and fulfilment involved in the learning process.
Years later a fellow student remarked that we were the last of the “progressive” teachers to be trained. According to Education Secretary Blunkett (1999), we collectively presided over a decline in standards that necessitated the introduction of standards for Qualified Teacher Status.
Although I would now admit that I was under-prepared for the classroom and that my training lacked in essential elements of classroom practice, I am grateful that we were allowed to have opinions, encouraged to think and to develop our voices as autonomous professionals.
Once in work, I resisted the march of the “instrumentalisation” of school education by working in various special educational needs (SEN) jobs. In SEN education, the individual needs of the child and his or her family were still the most important aspect of the work and professional autonomy and individuality were seen as important. But despite a long career in 102
school based education I never really felt comfortable and escaped, first to a Local Authority and then to the Higher Education sector.
Although HE offered freedom of thought and a chance to explore educational ideas in practice, I entered the sector at a time when higher education was as much driven by learning outcomes and an instrumental approach as school teaching. The area I worked in, the professional development of support staff in schools, was, if anything, even more bound by this approach than the more “traditional” HE sector.
If I was to provide good quality education as opposed to job related training, I needed to find an approach to teaching that encouraged questioning and discussion. Students had to see why methods worked and why issues were important. They had to analyse ideas as well as teaching methods to see what the values implicit in them were. Furthermore, they needed to link the session content to their own lives in order to make individual sense of it, if their own value systems were to develop in a way consistent with being autonomous professionals. As Latham says,
“The philosophy underpinning the program is that in order to study teaching, one needs to study the patterns of values, institutions, emotions and actions in one’s own life.” (Latham 1996: 63)
If I was going to push the students beyond an “instrumentalist” approach to one underpinned by “the patterns of values”, I needed to take some risks with lesson planning. I had to find some way of exploring what it meant to have a value-based system of education, whilst working within the constraints of delivering a professional development course. This had the potential to be doubly difficult as our particular student cohort are often participating in higher education as a means to achieving greater status and earning potential.
As I was mulling over these issues, the opportunity arose to take part in the action research project that is reported here and I began to consider how I might best explore the delivery of a programme that was led by ideas rather than by learning outcomes.
I decided to focus my research on the value of student involvement in the assessment process, focussing on the assessment of a group-work presentation. In doing so I hoped to consider the extent to which students benefited from producing the “product”, in this case the group presentation, or going through the process that led up to the product. I was also hoping to get students thinking about how they would make an assessment of their colleagues’ work, and in doing so help them to consider issues of team working and professional autonomy.
It was a risky approach, potentially exposing possible weaknesses in the assessment system. Involving the students in the marking process also opened up the potential for argument and delay since the group work presentation formed part of their module mark and would ultimately influence their final degree classification.
Delay was a particular risk because the course has significant time pressures associated with it and the research activities needed to be justified both in terms of the value to the students as well as the value to the research project.
However, I ploughed ahead confident that in the context of a Learning and Teaching Degree there was enough justification for the approach and enough potential for the students to positively benefit from the process.
Context: The course, students and module The students involved in the research were all on a BA “top-up” degree in “Learning and Teaching” (BALT), effectively a third year course. The stated aims of the BALT courses are to: Establish a rigorous understanding of learning and teaching through engaging in detailed analysis and evaluation of theoretical perspectives in education and professional practice. Extend and refine students’ critical reflection on practice. Consolidate students’ learning in relation to the proposed Higher Level Teaching Assistant Standards (TDA 2007). Support students’ in making progress towards the Standards for Qualified Teacher Status (TDA 2009) in readiness for progress to an employment based route following the completion of this course.
A “top-up” degree is designed to follow on from a Foundation Degree, which is a two year “work-based” qualification. During a Foundation Degree all students are expected to be in employment relevant to the subject being studied; in this case employment in schools (Foundation Degree Forward-n.d.). Although the third year “top-up” is not employment based all students are in employment in schools and course teaching takes place on one day per week. Thus, the teaching time available on the course (and so the data collection time) is very constrained.
The course was run at three locations, one at the University and two off campus. The group size varied between 20 and 25, with a total of 66 students. Reflecting the norm in the Education-Support sector of employment, students are predominantly female, with only about 9% male. The average age of the students is considerably older than for most university courses, about 35 years, with a range of 23 to 55 years. As a result nearly all students have considerable life and employment experience. This maturity and experience enabled a data collection plan to be constructed that might not have been undertaken with a “typical” student group.
The module, ‘Professional Practice in Education’, aims to develop professional practitioners who can justify what they do from first principles, understand the context in which they work and in which policy is formed, understand and be aware of the limits of their competence. Professional competencies or standards linked to employment situations are deliberately not dealt with on this module although the Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA) standards and Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) standards are referred to during the course. This is because the notion of professionalism being wholly defined by outcomes is, as explained, challenged during the course, with attempts made to get the students to understand the principles and philosophy behind teaching and learning rather than just considering the professional standards required.
Assessment strategy for the module The Professional Practice module had four items of assessment: 1. A written submission (worth 5% of the module) - in which students explore their own position at the start of the module. 2. A group presentation (worth 20% of the module) - in which is prepared during the course but delivered at the end of the academic year (the subject of this study). 105
3. A written assignment (worth 40% of the module) - in which students analyse an interview they have undertaken with another professional. 4. A written submission, linked to assessment item 1, (worth 35%) - in which students reflect on how much they have changed since writing assignment 1.
Assessment methods 1, 3 and 4 are fairly standard ways of assessment in many degree courses and as a result are not contentious or difficult to justify.
The group presentation does, however, require further explanation and justification. In previous years, there was a course learning outcome, since deleted, that stated:
“…(students should) work as an integral member of a team, contributing positively to the corporate life of the institution in which they work, as well as work collaboratively with specialist staff, teaching assistants and other adults to enhance pupils’ learning.”
In the past, assessment of this outcome was done indirectly through students’ written reflection on work situations, but this was felt to be rather unsatisfactory. However, the course team felt that teaching, and assessing, group-working skills was a highly appropriate objective of the module. In the context of a Learning and Teaching degree, learning to work with others as part of a team and assessing one’s own team work performance are critical professional skills, especially for those students who want to go on to become teachers. Therefore a shorter learning outcome,
“Work as an integral member of a team, contributing positively to group outcomes”
was reinstated and an assessed group task, a presentation, was introduced. The presentation, the product of the students’ group-work, could be directly assessed but the process the group went through could not be, or not directly.
By including a group work task in the assessment scheme, it was intended that the presentation would be more than a simulation of a work situation for assessment purposes. It was hoped that non-participating students would benefit from listening to the 106
presentations (the product of the group-task) in the same way that they benefited from lectures or seminars by tutors. The brief for the presentations was written so that groups were aware that their efforts were going to be compared to those of staff members with similar briefs.
In addition, each group of students was asked to express a preference about the marking criteria to be used for marking all the presentations on the course. Agreeing what these criteria were to be formed a group task in itself. In this case the task was not marked in a summative way but each group had to agree a statement about how well they had agreed the criteria. This was to be written collectively and presented as ten bullet points. These comments were available as data for the research but also formed a type of self-assessment. Again, each task in the session had to serve more than one purpose.
Issues Including such group presentation as part of the assessment for the Professional Practice module immediately raised a number of practical and philosophical issues. These included:
a) Time constraints and other practical difficulties The students who are studying on the BALT are mostly mature people with family or caring responsibilities, who are attempting to juggle a working life and family life with studying for a degree. They do not all live in the same area, and are unlikely to meet up outside of their day a week at university. As a result, the group work task presented them with real practical difficulties with replicating the “team situation” required by the task. Allowing timetabled time for group-work and on-line conferencing only partly alleviated this.
b) Student needs and expectations The particular nature of the students studying on the BALT also created issues about the way in which the research was carried out, and indeed whether it was justifiable to take “time out” of the hectic course timetable to consider issues to do with group-working. Some students, a minority, have a very utilitarian view of studying for a degree and will only value those things that give them credits towards that degree. They see a degree only as a necessary step in their career development. This group needed convincing of the value of taking time to prepare as a group. The clinching argument for this group is that the presentation is assessed and so has individual value. Other students, the majority, could see 107
the value of experiencing group-work and also value discussion and reflection as ways of broadening their understanding. c) The fairness of assessing a group presentation It is well recognised in the literature on group-work assessments that there may be potential for unfairness in assigning group-work grades. A range of problems can occur including; dysfunctional groups, individuals doing more or less than their share of the work, individuals getting marks which do not reflect their effort or attainment and individuals not benefiting from potential learning experiences because of the actions of other students. Some of these issues did arise during the course of the research process as will be seen below.
d) Peer Assessment It may be questioned whether it is appropriate for students to have any sort of control over the final marks of their colleagues. In the example under consideration, students could influence the marks of other students in two ways; They could contribute or not to their individual groups and so influence the marks of other students in their small group and They could influence (and apply- see below1) the marking criteria used to mark all the presentations of the course.
Including an element of group work in the assessment process raises a series of sometimes, thorny issues, but involving students in establishing the assessment criteria and even awarding marks to their colleagues raises even more! The appropriateness, or otherwise, of giving students control in this way therefore became one of the key issues to be explored during the research process.
Each group of students was given a list of marking criteria and asked to select the top nine and “diamond rank” them in order of importance. Having done this as a group activity they also had to agree how well the group had worked together and provide feedback on this. See appendices i and ii 108
The research question At the start of the research process I had the general aim of looking at how team-work in paid employment could be assessed through a group-work task within the University environment. I also felt that the idea that students should have more understanding of, and control over, assessment was worthy of further consideration. I did not, however, have a very clear research question or clear idea of what the outcomes might be!
During the planning period, I felt it was perfectly possible to try to simulate a team-work situation at the University and to make an attempt at assessing the associated group-work. Simulated group work or role-play is, of course, a familiar strategy used in many higher education courses, but student involvement in choosing the criteria for assessment was, I believed, less common.
Exploring the involvement of students in the assessment process therefore took more prominence during the research process and ultimately formed the basis of my research questions: How can group-work on an academic course be constructed so that it has intrinsic value as a task and also be a useful teaching and learning tool? How can the involvement of students in establishing marking criteria and in assessing their colleagues work as a teaching and learning tool?
The research The research process began with the devising of a structure and teaching plan for the group work sessions with the students. The teaching plan was almost synonymous with the research plan. After consideration this was finalised as: A short, 1 hour, introduction near the start of the year that formed part of a discussion about research ethics. This session used the research project as a way of highlighting ethical issues involved with participant and action research: what do concepts such as “informed consent” and “the right to withdraw at any time” mean when the subjects are being researched on by the teacher who is simultaneously teaching them? This was delivered as part of another module in the degree, ‘Research Methods in Education’. On-line resources consisting of discussion documents about group work, the rational for the research project and ethical issues. 109
A taught session consisting of input followed by a discussion about group-work and a formative group-work exercise, (3 hours in all). Timetabled sessions for students to work together without staff (to prepare their group presentations). The facility for groups to interact on-line via a virtual-learning-environment (also to prepare material for their presentations). The assessed presentations and the marking of them.
In addition to experiencing the reactions to the sessions above, making notes immediately after the sessions and viewing and assessing the output the following data collection methods were included in the research plan: • Written group feedback about how they went about the formative group task (choosing and rating marking criteria). This task itself was part of the formative group-work. • Individual (voluntary) written feedback about how they found the session and how they found doing the tasks above, asked for immediately after the session or to be sent by e-mail (about 30 responses were received). • Informal focus groups held after the end of the course, one from each venue with 5 or 6 participants in each. • Informal individual interviews after the end of the course, 5 in all.
Introductory session As mentioned above, the research process was introduced to the students during a previously timetabled discussion on research ethics, which was aimed at preparing students to conduct their own research projects. The initial outline of the project focussed on the ethics of practitioner research, where research and teaching are carried out simultaneously, and students were offered the chance to object to being involved in the project either there and then or by private e-mail/letter.
It was stressed that objections would have no impact on their grading, and that comments and/or objections were welcomed as a way to illuminate the conflicts between research, teaching and assessment. Had more than a few students opted out the project would not have been feasible in the form envisaged.
It should be noted at this point that neither students in university nor pupils in school can, realistically, opt out of lessons and if these lessons are also part of data gathering for research then the concepts of “informed consent” and “voluntary participation” (BERA 2004) are potentially compromised. Students were encouraged to consider this issue in relation to their own dissertation research projects as well as in relation to this research project. Most of the students were engaged in, or intended to carry out, small-scale practitioner research in the settings in which they worked, often with the pupils they were teaching or supporting. Thus, these students had the experience of being both the researcher and the research participant, something that was used as a teaching opportunity.
Ethical Issues The ethical justification for this research project was discussed during the introductory session. This discussion was itself a teaching situation. Students had to produce an ethical statement about their own research and this project was used as an example of practitioner research that raised problems. In this case, the thorough discussion allowed students to become fully informed as well as dispelling anxiety about being the subject of research. It was suggested that being on both sides of the situation - staff as researchers and students as subjects of research - might enable students to gain further, as yet unknown, learning outcomes from the experience. It was also stated that students would not suffer any known detriment as a result of any stage of the research, although they might consider they were disadvantaged as a result of participating in unsatisfactory group sessions or through unfair assessment of the group task.
As the intention was to give a group mark for the presentation where all group members got the same mark and, also, to involve other students in the marking it was acknowledged that unfairness might result. This issue was left for students to consider and reflect on. They could discuss it face to face with each other or with teaching staff, or on-line and voice objections to staff if they wished. In fact no students did discuss it and, at this stage (early in the course) students seemed quite happy about being the subjects of research. This particular group of mature students was very willing to accept things proposed. In hindsight, insufficient cognisance was taken of the way students perceived themselves as relatively powerless. Despite open discussion, at this stage of the course, power and control of the research and of the teaching rested very firmly with the lecturer.
Online resources One of the key issues with group-work is how the groups are composed and who makes the decisions about grouping. A discussion paper in the form of some questions and responses was posted on-line and on-line discussion invited but no students took the opportunity to do so at this stage. Slides from the introductory session on research ethics were also posted together with an invitation to debate, but again no students did so, either in open forum or by private e-mail. It can not be inferred that this lack of discussion indicated complete agreement and consent but the opportunity to question and negotiate participation was given.
As previously mentioned and despite open discussion of key issues, some students perceived, and a few later admitted, that their need to successfully finish the course meant that they did not feel that any objection would be in their best interests or worth the time:
“I did not see it as worth rocking the boat over a minor issue when there were more pressing things for me to do. You set the assignments and we do them to the best of our ability… That’s what we do… we want a degree, you give it to us.” (student in focus group).
Taught session on group-work The aims of the group-work session were to teach and practise group-work and to agree the criteria that would be used for marking the group presentation. The session started with a recap about ethics which led into a discussion about group-work itself.
At each venue there followed a discussion about assessment and its place in education, particularly in Higher Education. Discussion was then focused on the assessment of groupwork and the problems this brings. Panitz’s (1996) ideas about “collaborative” and “cooperative” learning were introduced and it was stated that at least some evidence of collaborative working would be desirable. The group were encouraged to criticise constructively the teaching and assessment of the course so far and asked to make links between their criticisms of HE practice and their own experience as staff in schools. Students were asked not to mention any person by name but to generalise the points they were making.
The formative group-work task itself took over one hour and consisted of three related tasks (see appendix i- answer sheets etc): Task 1 – To collectively decide on the criteria to be used to mark the group presentations by agreeing a “diamond ranking” of suggested criteria (or write new criteria) and records the result Task 2 – To agree a topic or title for the presentation Task 3 – To agree an explanation, in writing, about how they had achieved the first two.
During the tasks I intervened in the group discussions and was not in any way passive. My aim was to open up discussion and to get students thinking about why they said what they did.
Finally, it was requested that each student write 200 words saying how he/she felt the group exercise had gone, but it was stated that this was voluntary.
Towards the end of the discussion, it was proposed that the marking of the presentations should be done by the student body itself. It was suggested that they were now fully conversant with the problems of assessment and understood the criteria and the mark sheet and so were equipped to do this task. This possibility was discussed at all venues and it was agreed that marking could be a joint effort between students and staff with everyone marking individually and anonymously and an either average result being taken or the students’ marks being used to moderate those given by staff.
Time for the students to work together This was timetabled but students did not use this time, preferring to make their own arrangements that fitted schedules better or to depend on e-mail contact. Nevertheless it was felt important that this time was scheduled into the course for this activity.
The assessed presentations and marking process The agreed marking criteria from the different groups were used to devise a single set of marking criteria which could be used at all venues. The ranking the groups gave the criteria was used to select the top nine.
Focus groups and interviews A focus group at each venue was conducted after the last session of the course and after all assignments had been handed in. The atmosphere was informal and discussion took place over lunch. The selection of students was pragmatic, consisting of those who turned up for a final celebratory lunch. This was far from ideal but was all that could be arranged given the constraints of time.
The students were asked about their opinions of the group-work exercise and if they felt group-work was valuable in a degree course. They were asked if they had learnt anything from it and if so what? They were also asked about the issues of “fairness” and for their views on the “group grade” being awarded irrespective of input.
The discussion then focussed on how they had felt about the process of marking their fellow students. Five individual students were also asked these questions in a situation where their responses could not be overheard by others. No recording or notes were taken because of the informality of the situations but key points were written down later.
Discussion This research sought to answer two key questions: • How can group-work on an academic course be constructed so that it has intrinsic value as a task and also be a useful teaching and learning tool? • How can the involvement of students in establishing marking criteria and in assessing their colleagues work as a teaching and learning tool?
Overall the experience of this case study would suggest that, with a robust process and clear outcomes, many aspects of team-working within a work environment can be replicated by group-work in an academic situation. However, it is challenging to get the process right and to enable meaningful development of key skills to take place, and may well involve taking risks in the involvement of students in the process of assessment which are only possible with some student groups.
In this case most students welcomed being involved in both the group-work and the process of selecting and using marking criteria. Nearly all found the process rewarding or beneficial in some way. 114
“the session was most useful, we got to know how difficult marking can be and we got to know each other far more- the session should have been scheduled for the start of the year.”- (student after the end of the course)
It should be acknowledged at this point that those who did not find it beneficial would probably have kept quiet!
Using group-work in an academic situation as a way to assess work-related learning requires the planning of group work tasks that develop key skills including, communication, negotiation and project management. It is difficult to devise a task which doesn’t feel contrived and, where there is the potential for learning to take place, students have to see and experience the learning that happens. This learning has to be seen as being relevant to the students’ own work situations rather than to just to doing well at the assessment. As one student said:
“I feel that this *course+ has made me look at things from different angles. I did not see the need for this before but now I do and am very glad about it. I am sure I’ll be a better teacher for being able to do this; maybe I am a better teaching assistant? I might even meet some more standards!”
Just as in work situations students need some control over the group-work tasks and need to be able to challenge and question what they are being asked to do and why so that they can be active in their own learning:
“We ask students *at schools-the place of employment] to take an active part in their learning and peer assessment is part of that, so it is a positive thing that we experience this first-hand and use the process to inform our own practice.”
In the case of this research, the assessment was preceded by teaching and a formative groupwork session. The formative session was where most learning took place but even this had an obvious purpose to it (devising the criteria for marking) that was related to the curriculum and to the assessment of it rather than a purely abstract task such as “build the tallest tower you can, etc...”. All students therefore took both the preparation tasks and the final assessment task seriously. It would seem that tasks that are both instructive in their own 115
right and tasks that produce a useful out-come are needed to ensure that students take group-work seriously.
Any problems with the first group-task were not disastrous for the group mark because there was time for tutor involvement mediation and learning before the assessed task. Students’ comments would seem to suggest that students on this particular course started with good skills, but also learnt from the experience;
“Previous experience of working collaboratively enabled our group to gel and make swift progress.”
“I'm sure there is potential for argument at some point in the planning for the presentation, but I know the members of the group to be hard working and keen to succeed. This is key to this type of group work because you only need one member to fail to do their share and it can wreck the morale of the whole group................. This did not happen today and the group was well organised and in agreement with our approach to the task.”
“The session we had on assessment was good - to work in a group and collectively speak about what we thought was important and cemented our understanding and gave us a good base from which to work....”
That students were able to make the link between the individual skills they developed during the exercise and their employment situations was evidenced by several comments for example this one:
“....group-work is a good idea as group-work and team-work is part of being a professional. We as students need to understand the importance of collaboratively working together; as potential teachers this is a must- to benefit the children.”
Students were well aware of the problems but seemed able to accept any unfairness inherent in the situation:
“In life there will be people who don’t pull their weight and learning to deal with these people is a learning curve - they lose out.”
The second part of the research question involved looking at the extent to which it was possible and desirable to involve students in establishing marking criteria and in assessing their colleagues.
Linking the group-work activities to some form of assessment was needed in order to make the situation real and meaningful; “If group-work is [to be] seen as a valid learning experience then it should be assessed.” However as the same student went on to say “...but I am not really sure how it should be assessed!”
Assessment of the product (in this case the presentation) rather than the group-work process that led to the product was chosen for purely pragmatic reasons: no one other than the participants were present to observe the process. A system that allowed group members to give marks to one another for participation and team-work would have enabled the process to be assessed, but was rejected because of the potential for unfairness and abuse, and because of the possible detrimental impact on the learning experience.
However, the involvement of students in establishing marking criteria and assessing their colleagues did appear to work well:
“I understand my role as an assessor more … I realise how hard assessment can be…”
This may be because students were involved in the process from the start, with wide ranging discussion taking place about the role and aims of assessment. Potential problems and unfairness with the assessment of group work were deliberately highlighted and students were asked to consider their own solutions.
For most the solution was just to live with any unfairness but in the individual interviews one student did suggest that she would have felt aggrieved had her degree classification suffered as a result of a group-mark and suggested that the percentage of a module mark allocated to group-work be very limited. The open discussions during the course were potentially quite 117
risky, as they “opened-up” questions to do with the very purpose of assessment and the relative power relationships between staff and students. At times the processes of the University and validity of degrees were called into question.
Interestingly, when students were given some element of control over the marking process feedback showed that the majority really appreciated the experience:
“The fact that you value our contribution as moderators was rewarding”
“The session on assessment was very interesting as it gave me an insight into how you go about choosing assessment criteria. Also by choosing our own criteria it gives us a clearer idea into exactly what is expected of us...”
However, there is clearly a limit to the extent to which students would feel comfortable with the involvement of their colleagues in the marking process:
“... there is great value in group-work and a lot can be learned and achieved from working collaboratively…. Marking each other is questionable but with the weighting of this [task] being only 20% of the module I feel it will work well and address the ethical issues and dilemmas.”
“I would be concerned if I felt that the group mark had reduced my chances of doing well overall. The group mark was my worst mark but it does not seem to have had an effect....”
One mature student on the course also highlighted whether student involvement in assessment would work for all student groups:
“I am worried that new young students who possibly do not work as hard as mature students come out with the same/similar grades to us....”
It is obvious that this group of mature students were willing to accept the “rough with the smooth” in a way that younger less mature students might not be.
As will be apparent from the comments reported above, a prevalent concern was the extent to which marks for group work contributed to overall marks for individual students. Individual interviews which took place at the end of the course students indicated a general feeling that 20% was too high for group tasks and it could be usefully reduced to perhaps 10% or 15%. This should be seen in the context of a question asked in the focus group about “what percentage is enough to make a task significant to you”; their answers were typified by the following comments;
“I always take all tasks seriously, but may be 5%.....”
“if I knew I had passed well then maybe I’d not put in as much effort if the percentage mark was very low”
Conclusion Overall the action research project proved a significant learning experience for myself as the researcher and the students who participated in it. It demonstrated that when students are given control and calculated risks are taken with the format and goals of a teaching session, the results can be rewarding for staff and students alike.
On a Learning and Teaching degree course, these risks can usefully be taken in group-work situations that give students a taste of working cooperatively. Group-work creates opportunities for learning about oneself through interaction with others, and it is this interaction, rather than any clumsy attempt at creating a realistic work environment, that is so useful in developing social knowledge linked to meaningful value systems.
But does group work need to be assessed to make it meaningful?
The experience of students during the research project would suggest that group-work does need to be assessed and marked to make it feel worthwhile. However, learning would appear to be further enhanced if at least some of the power for assessment is transferred from the lecturer to the students themselves, thereby allowing students an opportunity to evaluate their own group work experience.
It would seem that taking some risks with the assessment process gives students added control over their own learning, and encourages them to think about the values and ethics of what they are doing.
So, whilst it may not be desirable or practical to return to training “progressive” teachers, maybe group work and the involvement of students in the assessment process offers opportunities for the discussion of the “why” and “how” of what we do as teaching professionals, and in so doing enhances our classroom practice.
BERA (2004) British Educational Research Association (BERA) Ethical Guidelines http://www.bera.ac.uk/publications/pdfs/ETHICA PDF1 Blunkett D., 1999 “Moaners who are cheating your children” - Daily Mail 19th July 1999
Clarke S., (2001), Gillingham Partnership Formative Assessment Project (available from) http://www.aaia.org.uk/pdf/Gillingham1.pdf ) - (accessed 3/05/09 May)
Foundation Degree Forward (n.d.) www.fdf.ac.uk/home/information_for_employers/what_are_foundation_degrees/ (accessed 15/8/08)
Latham G. (1996) , Collaborative Theory-Building in Pre-service Teacher Education, Australian Journal Of Teacher Education Vol. 21, No. 2, 1996 (available from) http://ajte.education.ecu.edu.au/ISSUES/PDF/212/latham.pdf (accessed 9th Jan 2009)
Panitz T (1996) – A Definition of Collaborative vs Cooperative Learning, (available from) www.friendsofchalkbytes.org (accessed 12/08/08)
TDA 2007- Professional standards for HLTA status (available from) http://www.tda.gov.uk/upload/resources/pdf/t/tda0426_the%20standards.pdf
TDA 2009- Guidance to accompany the Professional Standards for Qualified Teacher Status and Requirements for Initial Teacher Training (Available from) http://www.tda.gov.uk/upload/resources/pdf/q/qts_itt__guidance_tda0497.pdf
Appendix (i) – Briefing Material Give to Group
Developing Group-work & Marking of Group Presentation on PDT 3003
In the BALT we have a group presentation which is the outcome of a process and this is assessed not the process itself. The process is practised today by doing the exercises in this session.
The group will prepare and give a presentation worth 20% of the module. Marking this is fraught with difficulty. For example, one might ask:
Should all members of the group get the same mark?
Should the most hard-working members get better marks?
What if one member of the group “sabotages” the task for the other members; dose everyone fail?
These are the issues we will be looking at in this session.
I’ll be asking you, the members of the course, to get involved with setting the marking criteria. You will do this in groups of 3 to 6, ideally 4 or 5*. You already know a lot about assessment from two years of study but you also need to be aware of the practical difficulties that arise from requirements to make assessments that are not straight forward. Doing this exercise will help you to reflect on the process of group assessment; I hope that you will share some of these reflections with me.
We will be attempting to arrive at some marking criteria which can be used to assign marks to the presentation. It has already been decided that half the marks for the presentation will go to the individual’s performance and presentation skills (each member of the team has to do at least some presenting) and half the marks to the team effort. This split, or the notion of any split, may be challenged but only by good clear and convincing argument.
This exercise (producing criteria for the marking) is a practical example of group work and will give you a chance to develop your own group-working skills and assess yourself (and your *
The choice and composition of groups can be a problem. See additional document on this. Groups will be given. 122
group) in a group task. You will have time from the time-table to prepare as a group: this will be after the exemplar sessions given by D. M. (maths) and J. (music), both due at the start of term 3 but you can, of course do additional work.
Your brief for the group presentation is on page 5 of the module booklet. As a group you can choose one of two options: 1. Justify an area of the school curriculum (not maths or music) 2. Take a current issue relevant to education or social policy and explore it
But no two groups may choose the same subject/issue. So, today you will indicate preferred choices (1st and 2nd choice) of topic only and they will be confirmed after discussion with the group as a whole
We need to decide on criteria for marking the presentations.
To help us do this below is a list of possible criteria which your group needs to rank as a diamond (1 on the top row as most important, two on the second, 3 on the third row, 2 on the fourth row and one on the fifth- use the cards provided). You may add additional criteria and/or change the ones on the cards. You need to work as a group and will need to discuss issues and be prepared to compromise in order to come to an agreed solution. You then do the following:
Write the solution to the diamond ranking exercise on the record card (group)
Fill-in the criteria on your copy of the presentation mark sheet (group)
Write some comments about the process your group went through and/or the discussion you had in the space provided (group-brief notes, say no more than 100 words)
Write an individual comment about how you felt the exercise went, say 100 or 200 words - (private between you and I)- in which you reflect on your part in the team. This is to help your own development in meeting the outcome above as well as providing me with data for possible analysis.
The criteria from all the groups will be collated and a set of criteria will be decided upon across all groups and the three venues. I’ll have to do this but may ask for additional input if there is little or no agreement. 123
Marking Criteria To Be Ranked (you may eventually choose to suggest totally different criteria)
1. Explain the question/ problem/ issue/subject chosen to the audience 2. Background information/rational for presentation 3. Reference to a range of literature (not just government sources) 4. Identification of key ideas in debates 5. Level of discussion- was it HE level 3? 6. Quality and accuracy of information given 7. Evidence of research backing for presentation 8. Accuracy and of information given 9. Range of techniques /styles used 10. Supporting material 11. Balance of session and timing 12. Good use of time in session 13. Quality of slides produced 14. Clear links to professional practice 15. Clarity about who from the team contributed what 16. Evidence of team-work 17. An understanding of differing roles within a team 18. Engaging the audience 19. Interesting tasks given to audience 20. Thought provoking/ challenging to received wisdom 21. Overall impression 22. Entertainment value 23. Others of your choice
Appendix ii Record Sheet To Be Given In. Venue
Group Ranking (Diamond) Individual Names 1 2 Write the number of each statement (as above) in the box- or, if you added to the list, write the new statement next to the diamond , or give a separate list.
3 4 5 6
Write an agreed comment about the process your group went through in the box belownotes or bullet points- keep it short, say 100 words, 10 lines.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Now as a group fill in the criteria on the mark sheet provided. As an individual write a short (one side max.) reflection on how you felt you contributed to the group, any issues/problems you encountered and how they were solved. Please keep this private. You may do this anonymously or put your name on it as you feel fit. Topic Choices These may change- see module booklet for assignment details.
First choice of subject/issue
Second Choice of subject/issue 125
Conclusions: An analytic survey across the studies: values, ethical issues and aims Lorraine Foreman-Peck and Liz McDowell
From the cases studies a number of common themes and issues have emerged. There was no doubt from any of the lecturers that group work is valuable and necessary. Vinkenoog and Vernon argued that, in the businesses associated with their courses (biotechnology and computing) team working and communication skills were more relevant and essential, than in the past. In the cases of Sedgwick and Jones and Smiths’ research on degrees for teaching assistants, it was also seen as an essential skill, and Foreman-Peck claimed that, even though her course was not associated with a specific occupation, the group working skills it encouraged were essential for active citizenship. Mellor and Entwistle found value for team working within the course and university ethos. They believed that it promoted student engagement with their learning, enabled social integration with the additional beneficial effects of increased student retention and enhanced employability. Working in groups meant that students in several of the examples could work on realistic tasks giving them access to experiences and learning opportunities that could not have been provided in other ways.
All lecturers also argued that students needed to see that group working was an appropriate way of working for their subject discipline as well as a preparation for their future, postuniversity lives. In Vinkenoog and Vernon’s studies the tasks were respectively to design a new crop, and to build a web site for a specific client. In Foreman-Peck’s case study the task was a role play presentation of a choice of philosophical issues, such as the rights and wrongs of home schooling. Jones and Smith’s teaching assistants investigated an aspect of inclusion, and through that investigation were expected to relate their findings to their work based practice. Mellor and Entwistles’ tasks were concerned with soil conservation strategies. In most cases students did seem to accept the appropriateness of the group work assessment to their present learning and their possible job futures. A notable exception occurred in Foreman-Peck’s study. Her 2nd year group, studying the Philosophy of Education, contained two outspoken mature students, who had previous experience of industry, were adamant that group work in industry was nothing like that which occurred on their degree (B.A Hons Educational Studies) and one went further claiming that group work was ‘irrelevant’, 126
presumably to his learning. These two students threatened ‘action’ if they were put into groups containing certain students in the class who had gained a reputation in the first year, for being poor students who depressed their groups’ grades.
More generally speaking, although the majority of students in the case studies, welcomed group working, the composition of groups is a major concern for both lecturers and students. Students in their second and third years are generally very anxious to work with people they know and can rely on. This presents a problem for dealing fairly with those who are not ‘friends’. Vinkenoog described the ‘non-friends’ as a ‘left over group’; Foreman-Peck was faced with known disorganised and persistently absentee students, whom no group wanted; Mellor and Entwistle identified the yearly appearance of the ‘marginalised’ student within their groups and Vernon the effect of individuals’ differential statuses, due to their superior technical knowledge, on the self esteem of less knowledgeable group members. Jones and Smith, whose students are mature people, experienced at working with others, also had a group who faced challenges when working with a group member who had learning difficulties. Clearly, if we take Elliott’s maxim to heart, that we can only be professionally responsible for what we can predict then we have made an advance in that it is very probable that problems with the composition of groups will occur on a regular basis. The variety of group difficulty is exemplified in the case studies. It is worth noting that Jones and Smith, working with mature students, did not experience major difficulties as these students were grouped according to their interest in the topic, rather than friendship. In ForemanPeck’s experience, the majority of the students privileged friendship over interest in the topic: the minority who wished for a topic based organisation were those without friends.
Clearly there are ethical issues here: how should group composition be decided when it is obvious that certain group members are isolated, marginalised, unreliable or perceived to be deficient in other ways? How should lecturers deal with the anxieties that, as Jones and Smith’s study shows, even mature and experienced students feel when they realise the interdependent nature of group working and the fact that their grades depend, to a large extent on others’ efforts and talents.
Alongside this main ethical concern were practical issues which also had an ethical dimension. How could groups be best supported during their group work and how influential should the supporting tutor be? How should marginalised or isolated students be supported, 127
and would it be equitable to offer them special support not available to the others? How was the problem of persistent absenteeism to be dealt with?
A further common theme was the quality of group working. Many students paid lip service to the ideal of collaboration which we saw as supporting each person’s particular allotted work tasks. In Foreman-Peck’s study, initial meetings served to ‘dole’ out the jobs, but after that, for at least some of the groups, there would be no meetings until just before the role play or presentation.
What was learnt from the interventions? Action research is a powerful form of research for lecturers and other professionals because it involves taking informed action and learning from it. This does not necessarily mean that the action taken turns out to have been the most optimal, or that the methods used to research the consequences of the action could not have been improved. Action research is a learning process and as such we learn from what went right and what went wrong.
In the case studies lecturers attempted to further their learning through a variety of actions. Vinkenoog, for instance introduce two extra miles stones to help his students in their journey over perilous ‘ravines’ and arduous ‘peaks’. He introduced two required and assessed progress reports.
Each progress report was to contain among other things, minutes of meetings so far, the distribution of work in the group and reports by individuals of their contributions. The first progress report meeting set aims for the next and gave a structure to the project. The individual reports allowed Vinkenoog to assess the amount of work each student was doing they functioned not only as a ‘parasite detector’ but also a way of each member in the group telling each other the importance of the work they were contributing to the group. Vinkenoog also argued that this new requirement would be helpful in preventing some students seeing themselves as ‘second rate’ members (the problem also identified by Vernon), since the decisions about who would do what were made by the group and minuted. It also gave him a chance to intervene if any group member was given work that was non-biotechnical. In the second progress meeting, students were asked to identify how they had supported the work of other members of the group. This, he guessed, might stop the situation identified also by Foreman-Peck, where some groups’ members worked 128
separately and individually and came together at the last minute to throw a presentation together. This intervention made each contribution and group processes more transparent. Unfortunately the system was not immune to ‘moral hazard’. One group member falsified the minutes to cover up for another’s absences and no contribution. An advantage of Vinkenoog’s new structure was however that what was invisible before was now visible and problems of group working processes can be unearthed and discussed. Vinkenoog comments that in industry there would not be this amount of support/surveillance. However, he concludes that there are limits to the possibility of full simulation: universities are not industries, and tutors have an obligation to teach and support.
Foreman-Peck intervened by setting a small formative group presentation assignment which mirrored the assessed assignment. Students were happy to do this, seeing it as a practice run. Students were asked to write a paragraph on their experiences of doing the group work. What became apparent was that two out of the five groups did not function as groups, although this could not have been detected in their presentations! Problems also occurred in the other groups of a less disastrous but still troubling kind. The intervention was useful in that it made her aware of the range of practical problems that our students faced: incompatible timetables, clashing assessment deadlines, poor attendance from some students, language difficulties (one student was not resident in the UK). Reflecting on this she reduced the work burden for the next assessment by providing source material and allowing class time for group working. She designed the presentation so that each person was required to contribute 5 minutes. She asked for minutes of meetings to be kept and signed as a true record by all. She spent some time in discussing what to do with non attending or poorly attending students. It was decided to introduce a requirement that non attending students would not be allowed to take part in the presentation unless they had submitted a 500 word contribution to the Chair of the group in advance and that they would have to present last, in effect summing up and commenting on the other students work. Without the written work however they would fail the presentation component. The students argued for a general attendance regulation for the whole degree, as attendance was a problem in other modules. Students were still unsatisfied by being allocated ‘weak students’. A proposed future solution is that students be allocated randomly.
Vernon’s intervention consisted of a Meta Plan (Schnelle 2000) session carried out by a member of the Academic Practice Centre who was very supportive of our project. Her 129
concern was with those members of the group who appeared to be ‘free riders’ but were in fact students who had lost self esteem and confidence as more technically competent students came to dominate. This was carried out at a time when Vernon knew from experience that the original momentum for the project would be waning. The technique allowed students to reflect on their group work experience and to vote for the issue that was of most concern. The students chose the issue of unequal commitment and unequal workload. Students were then asked to suggest strategies to overcome the issues. As one might expect they ranged from ‘carry each other along’ to ‘replace slacking team members’. Vernon also asked students to give an individual presentation to their own group about how they had fulfilled their role. This served to adjust roles and workload in some cases. Vernon noted that a structured discussion about group work was far more effective after the students had experienced working together than it had been at the start of the module, and that awareness of group dynamics had increased. In follow up interviews those students who came (50%) expressed enthusiasm for the interventions. Those engaged in non technical work had the importance of their role endorsed, and the intervention served as a correction to some individuals dominating. One group asked to have individual marks rather than a group mark, suggesting that they were unable to achieve a satisfactory working relationship. This option recognises and deals with the fact that however much tutors try to create conditions for harmonious team working, contextual factors are too complex to guarantee successful outcomes for all. Vernon’s solution has the merit of allowing students to decide for themselves.
Jones and Smith’s study started with changing the assessment gradings to more precisely reflect individual contributions. In the previous year the group mark had concealed differential input with an 80% weighting for the group mark and a 20% weighting for the individual diary and reflective statement. In the case study reported here the authors altered the weightings to 60% and 40% respectively. The authors were interested in whether students would perceive the weightings as fair and whether the role of the supporting tutor was perceived as a fair one. Although the initial interest was in the weightings, the authors’ interest expanded to include the students’ experience of group working. The authors found that the earlier cohort accepted the fairness of the weightings, but were possibly unaware of their significance. The majority of the students were committed to the group outcome and were supportive of one another. The 07-08 group experienced the altered weightings but this did not appear to ‘create any difficulties’. Indeed the main lesson the authors point to is 130
that students do not really understand the relevance of weightings and that this is something that should be explained and discussed with students, if assessment systems are to be seen to be fair and transparent.
Mellor and Entwistle, whose main concern was with marginalised students, introduced four interventions, which were intended to provide additional support without identifying those in need of extra support. They introduced compulsory timetabled meetings with the tutor, a discussion of their individual strengths and possible contributions to the group, formative feedback on written reports, and the requirement for an individual written critical reflection. These measures were ineffective for two of the three identified marginalised students, since they were absent for most of the time; however the critical reflection raised the issue of other marginalised students and students facing difficulties. The reports showed that even in friendship groups, group dynamics could undermine educational purposes. Reflecting on group composition the authors comment that tutor directed selection might be preferable but with the proviso that the early part of the course habituated the students to working in non self selected groups.
Sedgwick’s students were geographically dispersed for four days a week. In class time his interventions consisted of a discussion of research ethics, particularly the ethics of action research, and a three hour formative group exercise of designing the assessment criteria for assessing the presentation task that they had been set, and some meeting time timetabled into class time. These activities served to introduce and explore his research interests, but also to introduce his students to issues of professional interest. Sedgwick’s activities were therefore intended to provide an authentic learning experience. For studying at a distance students had on line documents and resources about group work, and an on-line virtual learning facility for group interaction. There were also opportunities for on line discussions. Sedgwick found that the design of the intervention was acceptable to the students and that they had learnt from it. As with the other case studies, other issues arose which need further thought and investigation. One question that was foregrounded was whether it was appropriate for group work marks to count towards degree classification.
What is to be learnt from these forays into group work assignments and assessment? Lessons that seem ‘portable’ include the following:
Structures should be put in place that make group processes visible and allow for corrections or adjustments to be made. This strengthens the validity of the assessment, since tutors are in a better position to make judgments about relative contributions (for e.g.see Vinkenoog, Vernon, Mellor and Entwistle).
Rubrics that ensure fair, transparent and acceptable assessment in students’ eyes, should be devised, if necessary with the students (see for e.g. Foreman-Peck, Vernon, Jones and Smith).
A policy for the allocation of students to groups where there are ‘problem’ or marginalised students should be explicitly formulated and defensible as being fair and appropriately educational (see for e.g. Mellor and Entwistle).
Group work tasks should be authentic to succeed (e.g. Vinkenoog, Vernon, Sedgwick).
Discussion Group work assessments differ substantially from others that students will experience at University because of their interdependent nature. Most students will have been socialised into expecting that individual effort and achievement will be graded, and indeed their final degree grade will be an individual one. A radical implication of group work assignments is that knowledge is a ‘shared good’, i.e. it is developed in discussion and collaboration with others. Tutors have no difficulty with this idea. The fact that one may be the main contributor in one group situation is balanced by the fact that in another situation one may benefit from others ideas. There is an element of give and take and altruism involved in group work and the development of knowledge. However students may not appreciate this interpersonal dynamic, since grades are involved, and for students in ‘left over groups’ or those that are not functioning well, this line of argument would probably not cut any ice. To be in a dysfunctional group is not in their immediate self interest. This consideration suggests that we re-think the wisdom of the summative assessment of group work assessments. Because they are valuable, for all the reasons given in the case studies, it would be a pity to lose them. One possibility is to keep them as formative assignments and assessments, thus alleviating the assessment anxiety felt by many students. Motivation to take part in such assignments can be maintained by designing the assessment system so that formative projects foreshadow the requirements of summative assessments.
This has implications for teaching group work as well. To skills, rules and procedures should be added the relational virtues, such as trust, respect, openness, appreciation for the efforts of others and mutual responsibility for the maintenance of a working relationship, with others who are, perhaps, less competent, experienced or challenged in other ways.
Conclusion The conclusions reached here are abstracted from the narratives of the case studies. A deeper understanding of the conclusions requires an appreciation of the contextual background and the particular dilemmas faced by each lecturer. It is hoped that other interested lecturers, facing similar dilemmas, will be able to use them as starting points for their own reflections and possible action research projects.
About the authors Julia Vernon Julia is part Senior lecturer in the Business School and part Associate Head of Framework at the University of Northampton. Before entering higher education Julia worked in the IT department of a manufacturing company.
Paul Sedgwick Paul’s university teaching at Northampton, has been with the degree level education of inservice school support staff. Before that he worked for 17 years as a special needs support teacher in primary, secondary and special schools and as a local authority advisory teacher.
Lorraine Foreman-Peck Lorraine is currently a Research Fellow at Oxford University Department of Educational Studies and Visiting Professor of Education at Northumbria University. Before joining Oxford, she was a Reader in Education and the Research Leader in the University of Northampton’s Education School.
Julie Jones Julie is a Senior Lecturer and programme Leader for the Foundation degree in Learning and Teaching, at the University of Northampton. Her previous experience was as a primary school teacher and Curriculum Adviser for primary English with the Northamptonshire Local Authority.
Andy Smith Andy is a Senior Lecturer in Special and Inclusive Education in the Centre for Special Needs Education and Research at the University of Northampton. Before that Andy taught for over twenty five years in schools and colleges of further education, as a subject teacher, head of department, Special needs Co-ordinator, Senior Teacher and Faculty Leader.
Antony Mellor Dr Tony Mellor is a Principal Lecturer in Physical Geography and a University Teaching Fellow. His pedagogic research interests include group work assessment, use of e-learning and learning technologies to enhance field work teaching, and e-assessment. His subject specific 134
research interests focus on soil, sediment and water pollution dynamics in urban and industrialised catchment systems.
Jane Entwistle Dr. Jane Entwistle is a Soil Scientist and head of Geography in the School of Applied Sciences. Her subject specific research interests are in the areas of soil geoarchaeology and bioavailability and bioaccessibility of metals in environmental media. Pedagogic interests include student group work, peer facilitation of learning and the use of digital technologies to enhance fieldwork teaching.
Rinke Vinkenoog Rinke is a Biologist from the low lands around Amsterdam, who is currently lost in the North East of England. After researching the cell cycle in malaria parasites in Leiden and the genetics of seed development in Bath, he is now mainly focussing on opening the magical world of biology to undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Liz McDowell Liz McDowell is Head of the Learning & Teaching Academy at Northumbria University and Director of the CETL in Assessment for Learning. As an Academic Developer she works with academics in a range of ways to enhance learning and teaching. Her main research interests are in assessment and student learning.