Groups pave the way to work

October 24, 1997

GETTING students to work together on group projects is gradually catching on as a way of preparing students for work. But assessing such assignments has been a major obstacle, writes Alison Utley.

Roger Lloyd-Jones, of Sheffield Hallam's school of cultural studies, is leader of a Higher Education Funding Council for England-backed project to understand the usefulness of group work and solve the assessment conundrum.

"Getting students to work together in groups requires the lecturer to shift roles from leader to facilitator of learning," he says.

This particular project is focused on history students. It is not a question of scholarship versus skills, Mr Lloyd-Jones stresses, but one of introducing flexibility into the curriculum without compromising the integrity of the subject. "What we all want is to turn out good history graduates who can get jobs," he says.

On investigating what employers, including the Ford Motor Company, wanted from graduates, the same qualities, such as problem-solving, effective communication and team-working, kept cropping up. More than two-thirds of employers mentioned team-working as a priority but many complained that it was a skill poorly developed in the education system.

Sheffield Hallam has been using group work across a range of learning programmes for some time. Mr Lloyd-Jones surveyed the responses of 66 students undertaking group assignments culminating in oral presentations of results. The students said they worked harder because everyone's mark depended on it. Nearly all said group presentations would not be taken seriously unless they were assessed.

Eighty per cent were very nervous about the presentation but afterwards 68 per cent said they had gained in confidence as a result. However, the results were not as positive when students were asked whether their group work deepened their subject understanding. Just 40 per cent said "yes", per cent "no" with the rest undecided. The project found that allocating an individual mark to a group assessment was perfectly reasonable.

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