Linda takes teaching seriously, perhaps reflecting her 20 years’ experience as a secondary school teacher where she came to appreciate cooperative learning.
Linda co-lectures Educational Psychology in EPSY341 with Liz Jones at Victoria University of Wellington. The course takes an ecological approach to classrooms, student learning and behaviour. In preparation for group work, students are encouraged to interact. The course is delivered in 3-hour sessions once a week with no tutorials, and goes beyond the standard lecture model by emphasising active learning with interactive student discussions and reflections. It also has a group work assignment.
The 40 students in the class choose three literature review topics from a list of twelve, and Linda assigns them to groups of four based on their preferences. The students approach their individual literature review assignments from varying perspectives and enter their groups for the next assignment with differing levels of expertise. Their group assignment is to confer, design and deliver a seminar to teach their topic to the class.
Although Linda assigns students to groups that reflect student interests, she also has a “hidden agenda” to mix up gender and ethnicities. In 2012 almost half the students were Malaysian, and only three of the students were male. Linda says that ensuring a good mix can be challenging early in the course when lecturers do not know the students. But when student personalities and skills are not selection factors, the challenge is to strike a balance between respecting student topic preferences and ensuring a good mix of genders and nationalities.
Many of the secondary schools in which Linda taught had high Maori and Pasifika populations, and one of her “driving agendas” today is to help intercultural communication. The policy of selecting groups with a range of nationalities forces people to address issues. In 2012 Linda observed that the New Zealand-born students typically found it most challenging to interact across cultures, as some had prejudices toward the international students’ aptitude with English. Yet Linda found that many Malaysian students excelled in presenting their seminars due to previous training, whereas many New Zealand students were overly confident and casual in their presentation. During class discussions designed to encourage cultural sensitivity, it became apparent that many Kiwi students were unaware of their own culture and simply accepted it as the natural norm. Conversely, Linda feels that the Malaysian students face the question of culture on a daily basis. So the group work typically placed the Kiwi students out of their comfort zone the most. Breaking down cultural barriers was an assignment objective, and group members were encouraged to swap contact details and work closely together in preparing their presentation. Despite prior prejudices, many New Zealand students reflected that they enjoyed working with the Malaysian students and learned much from them.
Few students express anxiety about freeloading, partly because the group assignment is based on already completed individual literature reviews. Linda observes that most group work is invisible, and is conducted outside of class. Yet students are required to write a reflection on their group’s dynamics as two percent of their final grade. Honesty is emphasised as the means of achieving the full two percent, and is easily policed via comparisons with the reflections of other group members. Linda finds this an effective means of gaining a window into the group.
Student course evaluations are typically “really positive”. Students enjoy the “intercultural experiences”, the opportunities to be creative, and the “complexity in planning teaching”. They enjoy the content presented at the seminars, and they appreciate the instant feedback offered by the class. Others have stressed how the group assignment improved their communication and social skills.
Occasionally problems do occur. Students are encouraged to come forth with group problems, but most groups are very functional. In 2012 one group alerted Linda to an issue on the day of the presentation, in which it was confirmed that one group member was not engaged with the process. Linda later called a meeting with this student who failed to show and later failed term, which largely resolved the issue. In 2011 one group member was unintentionally freeloading due to a health issue, but was failing to keep other group members informed. Linda emailed the individual a reminder to this effect, but this caused offence and resulted in course evaluation complaints that the lecturer should get both sides of the story. But these were the only two instances in which Linda had to deal with group relationship issues, which she considers indicative of the course’s effectiveness in generating accountability.
The group work seminars considerably reduce the marking workload. Linda and Liz marked the seminars as they were being presented. They sat separately, followed a template and conferred after each seminar to agree upon a group mark. Given that there were nine seminars and not 40 individual assignments, Linda and Liz could offer in-depth feedback that the students really appreciated. Linda argues that this increased manageability did not come at the cost of rigour, as the content learned was really rich.
Linda’s overall group work experience has been really valuable. Looking to the future, Linda says I will definitely be continuing this.