The significant expansion of student numbers across Higher Education (e.g. numbers doubling between 1992 and 2016, ONS, 2016) led to a corresponding increase in the use of student groupwork. While some of this expansion was inevitably prompted by resource constraints, there were also powerful and longstanding educational arguments in favour of developing teamwork skills (e.g. Hartley, 1997; Jaques 1991). This was not just to placate the repeated demands from employers for HE to produce more ‘work-ready’ graduates (which usually highlighted areas such as communication and teamwork) but also an acknowledgment of the value of social and active learning practices in education (Hoidn & Reusser, 2020).
A range of teaching resources helped lecturers to emphasise the importance of collaboration and cooperation, including collections of group exercises and problem-solving tasks, games and simulations (e.g. Race, 2000), and guides/handbooks on small group teaching (e.g. Exley and Dennick, 2004). Several courses/modules experimented with self-analysis tools such as Belbin’s Team Roles Inventory (e.g. Macdonnell, 2012, using the approach from Belbin, 2010).
Innovations have included new teaching methods such as Team-Based Learning (Team-Based Learning Collaborative, nd) and SCALE-UP [Student Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies] (Nottingham Trent University, nd). The HEFCE-funded project investigating how these methods could be scaled up across institutions demonstrated significant impact on student learning (see at https://aclproject.org.uk/the-project/ ). Innovations in assessed project work across the sector often involved external ‘clients’ and applied learning to simulate the demands from possible future employers.
The majority of innovations have focused on groups and teams which worked predominantly face-to-face. That focus is also obvious in guidance for students (e.g. Hartley and Dawson, 2010), and even in texts published more recently (Hopkins and Reid, 2018). The online pivot caused by the pandemic moved us all online. As a result, we all now have some experience of online collaboration and we also have technologies available, such as MS Teams / Zoom, which enable both staff and students to collaborate and share work online relatively easily. At the same time, and given extra impetus by recent events, there has been a push in many Universities to provide their students with opportunities to network and learn online using international groupwork through innovative education practices such as virtual exchange and collaborative online international learning [COIL] (Leask, 2020).
We argue that teamwork skills are equally if not more important than they have been in the past for all students regardless of discipline – Matthew Syed provides data from both academia and commerce to suggest that “pretty much all the most challenging work today is undertaken in groups for a simple reason: problems are too complex for any one person to tackle alone” (Syed, 2019, p.14). Teamwork and interpersonal skills remain highly valued graduate skills (Prospects, 2021).
An increasing number of studies reflect upon our pandemic experience and suggest lessons to be carried forward (e.g. Specht et al, 2021, and the other articles in this special edition of JPAAP). ‘Next Steps for Teaching and Learning’, the report from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (2021) published last week, highlights opportunities to develop “new models … for the delivery of teaching, learning and assessment”. Ensuring we consider equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in groupwork, and ways this can contribute to developing inclusivity and a sense of belonging for all students is vital.
Given this new context, isn’t this the right time to re-evaluate our aims and assumptions regarding the ways that we support and assess students’ teamwork?
To support both their work at university and in whatever career they choose to pursue afterwards, we believe that all students need to develop a flexible approach to teamwork which integrates online and face-to-face practices. This is a major theme of our revised handbook (Hartley, Dawson and Beckingham, in press). But does this require any fundamental shifts in the ways that we support and assess student groupwork or are the underlying issues and concerns unchanging? We look forward to discussing this.
Belbin, R. M. (2010) Team Roles at Work 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
Exley, K. and Dennick, R. (2004) Small Group Teaching: Tutorials, Seminars and Beyond (Key Guides for Effective Teaching in Higher Education). London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Hartley, P (1997) Group Communication. London: Routledge.
Hartley, P. and Dawson, M. (2010) Success in Groupwork. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hoidn, S. & Reusser, K. (2020) Foundations of Student-Centered Learning and Teaching in Hoidn, S. & Klemencic, M. (Eds) The Routledge International Handbook of Student-Centered Learning & Teaching in Higher Education. Abingdon: Routledge. P. 17-46.
Hopkins and Reid (2018) The Academic Skills Handbook: Your Guide to Success in Writing, Thinking and Communicating at University (Student Success). London: Sage.
Jaques, D. (1991) Learning in Groups. London: Kogan Page
Leask, B. (2020). Embracing the possibilities of disruption. Higher Education Research and Development, 39(7), 1388–1391. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1824211
Macdonnell, J. (2012). Using the Belbin Team-Role Self Perception-Inventory to Form Groups and Assign Roles for Media Production Assessment. Media Education Research Journal, 3(1), 50-62.
National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. (2021) Next Steps for Teaching and Learning. https://www.teachingandlearning.ie/vital/nextsteps/
Nottingham Trent University (nd) SCALE-UP. https://www.ntu.ac.uk/about-us/academic-development-and-quality/innovations-in-learning-and-teaching/scale-up
ONS (Office for National Statistics) (2016) How has the student population changed? https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/articles/howhasthestudentpopulationchanged/2016-09-20
Prospects (2021) What skills do employers want? https://www.prospects.ac.uk/careers-advice/applying-for-jobs/what-skills-do-employers-want
Race, P. (2000) 500 Tips on Group Learning. London: Kogan Page.
Specht, D., Chatterton, P., Hartley, P., and Saunders, P. (2021) Developing Belief in Online Teaching: Efficacy and digital transformation. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Vol 9, 2, p. 68-76
Syed, M. (2019) Rebel Ideas: The power of thinking differently. London: John Murray Press
Team-Based Learning Collaborative (nd) TBL Published Papers. https://www.teambasedlearning.org/recent-papers/
Peter Hartley @profpeterbradPeter Hartley is now freelance Higher Education Consultant, and Visiting Professor at Edge Hill University, following previous roles as Professor of Education Development at Bradford and Professor of Communication at Sheffield Hallam. National Teaching Fellow since 2000, he has promoted new technology in education. Recent/ongoing consultancy includes work on institutional strategies for learning spaces, mentoring candidates for NTF/CATE, and assessment (usually involving concepts and approaches from the PASS project: https://www.bradford.ac.uk/pass/ Current interests also include concept mapping and visual thinking (project led by Dawne Irving-Bell from Edge Hill), and developments in human communication and online interaction.
Mark Dawson @Mark_g_dawson
Mark is currently a full-time research student at Coventry University investigating how Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) can enhance higher education practice. He previously held roles in student pastoral support, learning development and widening participation/outreach at Leeds Beckett, the University of Bradford and the University of Cambridge respectively. In addition to his higher education experience/qualifications, Mark also holds teaching/assessment qualifications for secondary and further education.
Sue Beckingham @suebecks
Sue is a National Teaching Fellow, Principal Lecturer in Digital Analytics and Technologies in the Department of Computing at Sheffield Hallam University with a lead role in Learning Teaching and Assessment. She is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association, a Certified Management and Business Educator and a Visiting Fellow at Edge Hill University.
Q1. What student groupwork do you support and/or assess and what are the current challenges you face?
Q2. Has the pandemic changed the way that students work in groups – do these changes have long-term implications?
Q3. How do you expect student groupwork to change over the next few years and what does this mean for your role?
Q4. What technologies do your student groups use now and how do you support them with these?
Q5. What are the best ways to assess the student groups you are involved with that address inclusivity?
Q6. What is the best advice you can offer to staff who want to offer the most effective support to student groups as we (hopefully) make an effective transformation into the ‘new normal’?
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