Case Study - Group work: flipping the focus

Dr Bjorn Lee Cleton, AACME


This case study describes a change in approach to group work within Part A students. The focus of the group work in Part A needs to change from teaching them about a topic using group work, to teaching them about group work by using a topic. If applied successfully this could influence the group work in Part B and C students in a positive manner.  

1. Background 

During academic and industrial careers working as a group is essential and most of the time a requirement to complete a project. To help prepare students for this lecturer incorporate group work within different modules as required by Learning objectives set out at Programme level and which is often also a requirement of accrediting bodies. Nevertheless, a lot of lecturers also think group work is a method to reduce their workload, the idea here is by using groupwork you could reduce the amount of grading that needs to be done and reduce the amount of time guiding the students. However, a substantial number of lecturers experience increased workload due to group work, this could have a multitude of reasons, one of which is that students are not always taught how to work as a group. They are expected to know this already when they start working as a group regardless of which academic year there are in. This has resulted in students having a growing negative view towards group work as the academic year’s progress. If one would ask students why this is, it tends to be that they feel their grade is too much influenced by their fellow peers and have difficulty holding fellow students accountable for their work. 

2. Methodology 

As stated above often the issue that lecturers find with groupwork is that students haven't been equipped with the skills to carry it out successfully, therefore the focus of the group work in Part A needs to change from teaching them about a topic using group work, to teaching them about group work by using a topic. 

These are the key principles that I implement: 

  • When creating group work in Part A the topic should of course be related to the module but is of less importance, the real focus should be on the group work skills. 

  • The lecturer should propose a general topic but should be open to allowing groups to change the topic (within the confines of the module). This encourages the group to be creative and agree on a more specific project title together. 

  • Part A should have random group allocation. 

  • Substantial time should be allowed for lectures or seminars focusing on how to work as a group and use project management methods and skills.

    - This should include topics like; Project management, how to break down objectives, how to manage time as a group (Gantt charts), how to hold team members accountable, how to conduct meetings, how to make meeting agendas and meeting minutes, learning structured methods on how to generate ideas and how to be inclusive in group work. 

  • Simulate line-manager meetings with the groups to imitate industrial situations (at least one time during a semester but preferably two).  

  • Monitor groups closely to prevent problems within groups at the end of the module (use technology for this like MS teams) 

  • Make sure the students are aware their contribution is monitored. 

  • Conduct 2 Two Peer Assessment activities (Web PA)

    - The first is formative with no grade attached but can be used as evidence of how well or not well the group is working together.

    - The second one will be at the end of the semester this will influence the individual grade. 

  • Intervene early when groups show problems (by requesting a meeting with the group or sending a general email to the group) 

  • When there is a problem with a member in the group the lecturer should not single out members to the whole group meetings but address the whole group about an issue. 

  • If members still do not contribute after meetings lecturers could approach them 1 to 1 to find out what the problem is. 

  • Allow for drop-in sessions for students to show up and ask questions they might not want to ask in front of the whole class or within the group setting. 

3. Issues 

Problems tend to arise in group work when the lecturer can't monitor the activity in the group. For example, students are using non-University systems to communicate or aren't recording their interactions and notes. I, therefore, recommend that students use MS Teams for all group communications outside of face-to-face and that they store files in Teams too. If students refuse to do this there is very little a lecturer can do if problems, then arise at the end of the module. However, by applying a second Peer Assessment activity in the middle of the module. One could try and pre-empt any problems that might have gone unnoticed before due to the students not using MS teams. Alternatively, one could require each student to fill in a contribution monitor form which states what they have done for the project each week and how many hours they spend on the project. This must then be stored on the MS teams group and every week the lecturer could then look at it, if a student did not fill it in they would get a warning, with the consequence of failure to fill it in multiple times would lead to point reduction at the end of the module. 

4. Benefits 

I think this approach is beneficial for the student as well as for the lectures in Part B and Part C as teaching the student the right etiquette for group work and how should work in Part A, this should reduce the problems in Part B and C. I would also recommend continuing with these methods of setting up and managing groupwork through Part B and C. This should also improve the student’s perspective on group work in later years as if it’s done successfully in earlier years, they will look more positively to applying the skills in later years. 

5. Evidence of Success  

The original group project was run during the start of COVID, and the alterations took place during the COVID period, however, no formal feedback was requested by the university during this time. When asking the students about this approach they seem to appreciate the information on how a group should work and how relevant it is for the industry. They also react positively to being allowed to choose a topic there keener on.  

When presenting this at the Learning and Teaching conference there was a lot of positive feedback from the audience. After the conference, there has been a multitude of lecturers as well as management that would like to introduce a similar approach to their group within their modules or as guidance for lectures. There is also a substantial amount of literature on how to manage a project a lot of the lecture topics that were presented to the student came from Project Management: A Practical Approach by Roel Grit. 

6. How Can Other Academics Reproduce This?  

I think this approach is applicable to any discipline. By following the above approach and reading the literature mentioned one should be able to reproduce this within their own module. 

7. Reflections 

One thing I think contributed to the success of this case was that the students were allowed to choose their own topic within the boundaries of the module. This had a massive positive impact as students chose topics, they themselves found interesting thus the amount of students enthusiastic about the groupwork increase compared to when it was a fixed topic the year before. Even with the new methods to monitor students, problems still arise but I do believe you can now intervene a lot sooner than normally would happen. I don’t think I would have done anything differently.  

8. References  

Grit, R. (2021). Project Management: A Practical Approach (5th ed.). Routledge.