Dr Chris Eichbaum
Chris has included group work in several of his courses over the past few years, principally in his third year papers on Cabinet Government, PUBL304 and POLS381. Chris chose these particular courses as his sites for experimentation, partly due to their manageable classroom sizes, believing that effective group work reaches a logistical ceiling at around 80 students. He has also offered group work in his Master’s course on Contemporary Issues in Policy and Governance. Chris uses web-based assignments, particularly wikis, which require a group work approach.
Although Chris recognises that social media can be antisocial, he accepts it as a reality, and is motivated to cultivate student skills in developing web-based resources. University assessments typically overlook a range of potential creative outlets and instead tend to focus on essays. In addition to wikis, Chris also sees posters as a promising visual medium for stimulating creativity. Although initially sceptical about poster assignments, Chris now sees the design, layout processes and assessment criteria as similar to other types of assessment.
In the early stages of a course, students typically display an awful lot of resistance to group work and only a minority are enthusiastic. To manage students’ resistance and passivity to group work Chris has, in the past, assigned students to groups himself, but allowed them to decide their topic. One motivation for including group work in the assessment mix is to prepare students for the workplace, where they will be expected to work effectively with people they do not know.
Chris has explored various means of assessing individual efforts within group grades. He used Blackboard to observe individual contributions to group wikis, but found this ineffective when groups assigned one individual to writing up the group’s wiki. Peer evaluations were effective in identifying freeloaders in some cases, but in others, only succeeded in encouraging students to collaborate in grading each other very highly. Dissatisfied with such methods, Chris now offers group work as an option, rather than a course requirement, but is open to the possibility of making it a required element in future courses.
Course evaluations where group work has been a component range from statements like innovative and thoroughly enjoyable and the best thing I’ve ever done, to I absolutely hated it and working with ‘x’ was a nightmare. While Chris takes account of student feedback, he also values group work as a means of achieving graduate-level learning objectives and indeed graduate attributes, which he deems of long-term importance beyond single course evaluations.
Chris has never had groups become so dysfunctional, that they broke down. Chris recalls a student who objected to group work as being a feminist plot on account of it requiring social skills. Chris responded by suggesting an individual assessment option. While Chris recognises that lecturers take a risk in teaching group work, his overall experience has been that students warm to the idea of group work once they see their wiki or other group project taking shape.
Chris has typically been very pleased with the high quality of the group assignments. Group work is positive overall for both the teaching experience and learning objectives. Given the investment that students make in their group work projects, Chris is firmly of the view students need to be given time to report their findings to class. While Chris concedes that lecturers are always hostage to the limited number of contact hours, reporting sessions are vital in closing the circle on group work course components. It also motivates students to finish their assessments in a timely manner to allow time for later discussion.
The implementation of group work has increased Chris’ workload, but this is partly because it has coincided with the introduction of new mediums of assessment like wikis and posters. Getting the new teaching methods sufficiently up to speed to make the course a safe and effective learning environment takes time.