Group work: investigating the requirements of a student resource

Sonia Hood, Study Adviser, Library                                                             s.hood@reading.ac.uk                                                                                                                     Year of activity: 2015/16

Overview

The project explored both the challenges and solutions of assessed group work, from a staff and student perspective. Focus groups and in-depth interviews with undergraduates, postgraduates and staff revealed a number of key challenges such as: confronting ‘difficult’ group members; ensuring fairness; and dealing with varying priorities. A number of solutions were proposed including: careful consideration of the % mark allocated to group work; training on dealing with challenging individuals; more emphasis on self-awareness; and timetabled group work sessions. The project offers a number of recommendations to anyone wishing to improve their students’ ability to engage positively with group work.

Objectives

  • To explore the challenges and solutions to assessed group work, from a student and staff perspective
  • To offer recommendations that support students to independently solve some of the challenges they face with this form of assessment
  • To create a ‘student reviewed’ bank of group work resources

Context

Group work is an integral part of assessment at university but students rarely arrive equipped with the skills, experience and knowledge to deal with the challenges they face when working in groups. As a result this can be a cause of anxiety for students and also a time consuming intervention for lecturers. Henley Business School (HBS) approached Study Advice for help in supporting their students to deal with the group work challenges they face. Whilst it was accepted that a wide range of open access group work resources were already available, it was felt that students needed help navigating these. In addition, it was felt in order to truly support students with group work we first needed to understand the challenges they face, how they have/intend to overcome these and how best they would like to be supported in doing this. Real Estate and Planning (REP) students were chosen as the sample and focus groups and in-depth interviews were used to explore the perceptions, challenges and proposed solutions for assessed group work.

Implementation

A student researcher post was developed and an REP student was employed over the summer to evaluate the wealth of open access resources available on group work. This resulted in a folder of group work resources being created and uploaded onto Blackboard.  In addition a pack containing key resources was compiled and handed out to part 1 REP students when commencing their first group work project.

A staff focus group took place in June 2015, where 7 HBS staff members discussed the challenges and solutions to group work from their experience and perspective. Following this, in the autumn term part 1 students from REP were invited to a focus group to discuss their early perceptions of group work at university. In the spring term, 6 students following MSc planning courses contributed to a focus group, discussing the challenges they faced and their proposed solutions. Finally over the course of the spring and summer terms, 8 in-depth interviews were carried out with both undergraduates (UGs) and postgraduates (PGs) following Real Estate and Planning courses to explore their individual experiences with this form of assessment. These interviews and focus groups were then transcribed, analysed and themed into both challenges and solutions.

Impact

All three objectives of this study were reached. We now have a bank of resources to support students with group work, available on Blackboard, which can be copied into any course.

Group work student pack

Excerpt from Student Pack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The initial pack handed out to students proved to be useful for undergraduates, mainly as an aid to focus early group discussions. The research has helped to develop our understanding of the challenges students face and the solutions they feel could be implemented. These are being disseminated in the first instance to those in REP and then to the wider T&L community. It is hoped that these findings will help to improve the effectiveness and experience of group working for a wide variety of students.

Reflections

The interviews and focus groups revealed the complex challenges associated with group work: not least in dealing with conflict and difficult group members, managing different priorities within the group and the perception of fairness with regards the marking system. Solutions varied between the PG and UG students, though all recognised that effective teams take time to get to know each other informally. Students suggested that informal events could be organised as part of their course to help them through this ‘forming’ stage. PG students also asked for careful consideration of how the mark for group work is allocated (with a higher proportion allocated to individual work) and a penalty imposed as a last resort. More support was requested in dealing with conflict and difficult team members, and the need for more self-reflection from everyone within the group was identified. There are also some simple things we can do to help students with the practicalities of group work, like timetabling group work sessions and  booking rooms at set times for students to use. In terms of tutor support, it was recognized that their time was limited; when it comes to personal issues within a group, speaking to a mentor (like a part 2 student) who could offer confidential, impartial advice would be a preferable option for UGs.

Follow up

Overall, the majority of students recognised the importance and value of group work, not only for future careers but also in the depth and breadth of work they could produce. There are a complex set of challenges that students face in dealing with this form of assessment and this project reveals some solutions that students believe we could implement to help them to deal with issues independently.

Work continues on this project, as at present we are only just starting to disseminate the findings. Whilst the recommendations from this small scale study might not be relevant to all engaged in group work, it is felt that a number of themes and challenges are shared across a variety of disciplines. We would welcome speaking to anyone who is interested in finding out more about this project and how they might benefit from this research.

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