Many universities assess undergraduates’ contributions to seminars, but one is taking a different approach: marking students on how they encourage others to participate.
The initiative on several modules at the University of Hertfordshire is designed to deal with the familiar problem of one or two students dominating debate and excluding others.
Undergraduates on courses including history, literature and business take part in a filmed seminar in which 10 per cent of the mark is based on how “appropriately inclusive” their eye contact and body language is.
A further 10 per cent assesses language, and another 10 per cent focuses on group management strategies, with marks being awarded for use of respectful language, listening to and responding relevantly to others, and supporting the efforts of others to contribute.
Marks are deducted if students tend to monopolise discussion or speak over others, with the remaining 70 per cent of the mark based on the research and critical perspectives that a student brings to the group.
At the start of their modules, students have “speed meetings” designed to prevent the formation of cliques and receive training in positive group behaviour.
The approach was developed by Theo Gilbert, Hertfordshire’s academic skills tutor for the humanities, as part of his PhD at the institution.
He said that assessing students only on their own contribution tended to push some students towards monopolising the conversation and others towards a state of anxiety that made them contribute less.
In contrast, while a few students thought it was “all kumbaya nonsense” at first, the collaborative approach had in general resulted in seminars that were of higher quality and reflected a wider spectrum of views than students said they were used to.
Students from ethnic minorities appeared to be particular beneficiaries, since they gained similar marks to their white classmates compared with the significant attainment gap in written work.
Dr Gilbert now hopes that the approach will be adopted more widely at Hertfordshire and other institutions.
“It releases the cognitive thinking processes of students who are locked into an individualistically competitive paradigm that is not always good for academic achievement,” Dr Gilbert said. “Collaborative and collective thinking has never been more valuable or more needed than it is now.”