Success for All in Group Work

Alex Janes (Senior Lecturer in Strategy, and Exeter Education Incubator Fellow) explained his Education Incubator project into enhancing group work through coaching students in shared leadership and to run self-managing teams at the Academic

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Participants’ ideas on why students dislike group work, and what makes group work successful.

Practice Network on Friday 18 May.

Alex started by articulating the ‘shared leadership’ theoretical background of his project.  He articulated the difference between traditional focused leadership (where a group of followers look to one central leader) and distributed leadership (where several leaders share this role; perhaps with each leading the team in one area). Alex also provided models to explore different forms of leadership.

Alex also explained the group work context at Exeter.  He showed the results from a survey of over 100 final-year and postgraduate Exeter students.  Students reported undertaking a lot of group work (about 40% reported having done more than 7 group work activities during their studies), yet over 70% reported that they preferred individual assessment (in comparison to those based on group work).  Alex collected APN session participants’ reflection on why they thought students might hold this preference, and Alex noted these suggestions tallied with his survey.  Students stated they found group work frustrating, and more difficult and time-consuming than traditional individual assessment.  They complained of uneven contributions among group members, including both those who did not “pull their weight” and those who dominated.  Yet, even though students complained about group work, this survey also found that the same students regarded group work as very positive in other respects.  Most thought that group work offered a good learning experience, and the majority thought it offered an enjoyable learning experience (even if it was also frustrating at times).

Alex’s project intended to make group work a more positive experience.  He asked the APN session participants to work in groups to share experience of what makes group work successful.  He then shared student feedback on this issue.  They focused on practical and logistical issues: they wanted to choose their own groups, have some form of peer evaluation, have timetabled group working sessions, have progress meetings with tutors, and have formative assessments prior to the final summative group assessment.

Alex explained how in his recent pilot, he had supported group work by developing tutor and student knowledge and skills in leadership coaching through tools and resources which he had developed (Alex circulated draft copies for comment).  The idea behind his approach is that students would then have a greater understanding of the nature of effective group work, and the roles which other team members take in the group work process.  He had also responded to specific student suggestions, including incorporating peer evaluation as a percentage of the mark, and students having reviews with tutors.  Alex currently only has provisional feedback results, but they seem to indicate that after going through this pilot, a larger percentage of students prefer group work.  His next step is to roll out the resources more widely, and recruit further pilots of this approach.

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