Vicky Mabin

Vicky Mabin

Vicky used group work in several Master’s and Honours-level courses up until she stopped full-time teaching in 2008, to take up an Associate Dean role. Common to the MGMT401, MMBA508 and MMMS511 courses was the study of alternative models for managerial decision-making, to aid the framing and solving of managerial problems. With a systems thinking philosophy underpinning the course, group work was an important avenue for students to learn effectively, by sharing their diverse views and working together on difficult real-life problems.

Her group work assignment tasked students with choosing an organisation, and then applying the Theory of Constraints (TOC) to identify the constraints, devise solutions and plan implementation. Vicky had been inspired by a visiting professor who ran a similar group project, and she adapted it for her courses. Getting students to apply TOC to a real world problem, and in a group experience, integrates theory with practice in a way that can capture the depth of real world situations, providing an authentic learning experience for the students.

Due to the limitation on group assessment, the assignment was usually divided into three parts, the first and last being undertaken individually, and the middle by the group. Students individually sought a manager’s perspectives on the constraints facing their particular organisation, and analysed these using the TOC Evaporating Cloud process. Then as a group, students were required to combine and consolidate these disparate views into a common Evaporating Cloud, then identify conflicting managerial positions and devise workable win-win solutions through a further application of the Evaporating Cloud and other TOC thinking processes. This detailed, time-consuming process required an in-depth systemic view, which would not have been feasible without collaborative effort and multiple viewpoints. Given the time and complexity involved, a group project was the only sensible approach.

The assignment provided an incentive for students to form productive groups with a balance of skills and a shared interest in the organisation they chose. One group of Science majors chose their own School as their organisation of focus. Another group chose Wellington’s newly developed New World Metro, and another chose Wellington Hospital. Vicky estimates that over the four years, she taught up to 80 groups of students who have investigated a wide range of private, public and not-for-profit organisations. Only in one case did an individual student insist on “going it alone”, as he wanted to focus on the management of his local church. Vicky allowed the student to follow his passion for the topic, provided he worked in consultation with a group from the church. Given that the assignment’s workload was designed for a group, the student was forced to skim the surface of some aspects and was marked accordingly, but overall Vicky applauded him for his efforts.

Being 15 point courses, around 150 hours of work was expected from each student. Feeling that 15 hours would be sufficient for the individual Evaporating Cloud task (the interview), Vicky allocated 10% of the course grade, with 15% to the group tasks of gaining an organisational overview and finding a solution via in-depth analysis. As this was not a fair reflection of the student workload, some course exam questions were based on the group work content. In one course where there was no exam, the group diagrams were marked as a group project, and the write-ups were marked individually. However, Vicky felt it would have been much fairer and more authentic to treat the write-up as a joint exercise with more marks allocated.

Apart from these workarounds, Vicky found that students reacted positively to group work—“they caught my bug for it.” While many noted the heavy workload, she “never had any complaints.” They found the project worthwhile as it involved an organisation’s real problems and taught them useful tools. Student feedback was that it enabled group members to benefit from each other’s strengths.

Vicky reflects that if she were to change any aspect, she would have liked to have the students orally present their findings to their client organisations, as this typically makes them more careful and thorough, and better prepares them for the workplace. Yet she acknowledges that the workload was already high, relative to the available marks. Vicky also reflects on the fact that a few of the groups had a freeloader. While the exam offers a means of seeing how much the less active group members have learned, Vicky would like to explore ways of getting them to become more involved.

Vicky is confident that group work is a powerful learning method. First, her students have produced some “stunning pieces of work.” Second, their efforts have “changed behaviour in organisations.” Third, she has seen “the light in the students’ eyes”, noting that “when it clicked, we had some great moments.” She recalls an MBA group that focused on the hospital and its predilection for doctors to make patient care plans, without regard for managers’ resource allocation decisions. When the group found a hybrid solution that would get the best of both worlds and effectively reduce the strain on overworked nurses, Vicky remembers the “realisation” in the faces of the students—“it was an amazing moment.” The hospital has been using results from the group’s project with “amazing results.” As for Vicky’s personal experience of teaching group work, she finds seeing the students work well together to be “a real buzz!”.