Students learn via a range of different learning pathways. These can be usefully reduced to four key pathways.
The first is the formal curriculum (what we teach and the curriculum learning materials and learning support we provide), the second is students’ own independent study and background reading (i.e. what they learn outside the classroom in their own time, and often in informal settings such as the home), and the third is the learning they engage in via practical or clinical placements, internships and other work-related activity outside of the normal University environment. These provide crucial insights into the world of work and help students to gain experience of professional settings. The fourth of the pathways is what they learn from each other – i.e. peer learning. In order to engage in peer learning, students need to be given opportunities to work collaboratively either in forms of group-work, or via more structured forms of peer-to-peer mentoring. I will consider peer mentoring in my next blog, but in this one I’ll focus on assessment-based group-working.
Some years ago, I was involved in leading a 1st year module in which students were required to complete a group-based project on a topic of their choice, focusing on an aspect of the history of education. They had to give a group presentation based on their collective findings (using a maximum of five PowerPoint slides) as a formative exercise about three weeks prior to the end of the module and then submit the completed 3,000-word project as a summative submission in the final week.
The rationale underpinning this approach was that we wanted to ensure that the first years had opportunities to get to know each other, to develop strong bonds with each other, and to gain experience of peer learning early-on in their degree studies. The students received both peer feedback and tutor feedback on their formative presentation, and were able to draw on this over the next three weeks as they refined and finalised the draft of their projects. On the whole, this approach worked really well.
However, I still often reflect on an exchange I had with one of the students during a tutorial. The student was highly motivated, very bright and keen to do well. She was concerned that her mark for this module would be – as she saw it – unfairly impacted by the contributions of others. The student felt that her performance – and therefore the marks she received – should be driven by her own engagement with the course and by her own efforts and understanding of the course content. She was having to take out loans to pay for her course and didn’t want the outcome to influenced by the work (or lack of it) of other members of the group. Essays tested individuals so why not simply set an essay rather than a project as the primary assessment for the module? Her previous academic performance and her route to University were based on individual assignments and exams, so the shift to group-based assessment seemed to her to be a retrograde step and one that she felt depended far too much on the ‘luck of the draw’ in terms of which students ended-up being allocated to her project group.
I suspect that this exchange has been repeated on many, many occasions and in many different HE settings over the years. On the face of it, the student’s arguments are both rational and pertinent. Why should the classification of any student be influenced in any way at all by their peers? Considered in isolation it might seem unjust.
At the time, I responded to the students’ arguments by pointing out that five heads were better than one, and that the group could develop a broader insight into the topic collectively than one student could reasonably be expected to develop on their own. I also emphasised the opportunity it afforded to develop good working relationships and mutual trust with her fellow students, and to share her own strengths as a student with her peers, whilst also benefiting from the experience and strengths of the other members of her project group. The members of the group came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, so it was also a good opportunity, I argued, to gain insights into the life experiences of (and challenges faced by) other students. At the time, I didn’t labour the point about team-working skills being valued by employers because I’d mentioned this briefly in class and felt that it was so obvious that it needed little further emphasis. The student was not persuaded by my arguments and left, I suspect, still feeling that the assessment regime of the course disadvantaged her.
Looking back on this episode, some important learning lessons can be drawn from it. Hopefully, sharing these with colleagues will be useful.
Firstly, I should have spent far more time during the early stages of the module explaining the value and benefits to be gained from peer learning in the form of group-based project work. I should have emphasised, for example, the value of the group-working process as an opportunity to develop and apply emotional intelligence – an aspect of personal and professional development which we now know has a huge impact on the effectiveness of professionals in the workplace and as a factor in career progression and levels of professional achievement. I should also, arguably, have drawn the student’s attention to recent research in the sector (e.g. Freeman et al, 2014) demonstrating the positive impact of active and team-based learning on student outcomes.
I should also have drawn directly on research in the sector with employers that emphasised just how much value graduate recruiters in both public and private sector organisations place on effective team working skills. If faced with this problem today, I think I’d refer the student to the ‘10 skills students will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ published recently by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and referred to in one of my earlier blogs:
- Complex problem solving
- Critical thinking
- People management
- Coordinating with others
- Emotional intelligence
- Judgment and decision-making
- Service orientation
- Cognitive flexibility
Even a cursory examination of these would have succeeded in illustrating just how many of these crucial skills are both required for and developed effectively within the context of collaborative project work.
Many technical skills can be learned quite quickly and employers are often happy to allow time (and provide support) for new recruits to master key technical capacities, but the kind of ‘soft skills’ that ensure new graduate recruits can ‘hit the ground running’ by fitting into and performing well within pre-existing professional teams, are absolutely crucial from the outset, require longer to develop, and are therefore highly prized. Being able to exemplify the application of these soft skills by drawing on concrete examples of sophisticated team-working processes and the production of team ‘outputs’ is therefore often a vital factor in convincing recruiters that the applicant has the qualities and skills they are looking for.
I now recognise that I should also have prompted the student to reflect on her own career ambitions. The student in question wanted to become a primary school teacher. Given this, it would have helped to encourage the student to reflect on the environment she would be working in – namely, an organisation in which effective team-working was crucial both with regards to the management of the School, and to building effective student learning, with teachers – for example – working in close liaison with Teaching Assistants (often two or three) in the classroom. Driving change and enhancement would be dependent on effective team-working and the development of an ‘esprit de corps’ across the entire staff team, from the caretaker to the Head. Her effectiveness and her successes and achievements would be – to a large degree – dependent on the workings and effectiveness of the ‘team’. I should, perhaps, also have flagged the existence of research in the sector which, even then, was beginning to show that habits and attitudes (and ways of working) that students develop whilst at University they then take with them into the world of work following graduation. So, developing a positive attitude to collaborative learning and the achievement of team ‘goals’ would have a direct value in terms of transitioning into a professional team in that dream first job.
This episode also illustrates – at least for me – another important point: namely, that whilst we should work in a true spirit of collaborative partnership with student to develop and enhance courses in higher education, we should not allow assessment and our approach to it as academics to be determined solely by students. There are some kinds of assessment that many students don’t like particularly, but which we know are in their best interests and will help them to develop as effective future professionals.
Sources and links
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., Mcdonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordi, H., & Wenderoth, M.P., (2014) ‘Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering and mathematics’, Proceedings of the National Academic of the Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 111, No. 23. pp. 8410-8415. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4060654/
Alex Gray, ‘10 skills students will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, World Economic Forum, 19 January 2016. See: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
This blog was originally published on SEDA. Read the original.