Improving group satisfaction: Making groups work in a first-year undergraduate course Helen Bonanno, Janet Jones, Linda

English. Teaching In Higher Education. Abingdon: 1998. Vol. 3, Iss. 3; pg. 365, 18 pgs

ABSTRACT The value of working in groups as a strategy for learning, and the development of communication and interpersonal skills is acknowledged in most tertiary institutions. Academic staff tend to avoid introducing groupwork into crowded first-year undergraduate curriculum, because of large student numbers and, in many cases, staffing constraints. This paper outlines the establishment of a groupwork component in a first-year undergraduate accounting tutorial programme. Although this component did not work well in the first year for about half the students involved, it proved a valuable social and academic support for the rest of the cohort, so was continued into a second year. To increase group satisfaction, structural and managerial changes were introduced, with positive results. Establishing groupwork early in an undergraduate course allows group skills to develop over time, encourages reflection on learning behaviour and can facilitate increasing expertise in the subject area. Introduction Australian universities, like higher education institutions in many countries, are operating under great pressure to deliver quality teaching and research with contracting resources of time, money and staff, and a wider diversity of students than ever before. In this context, the value of small group work for its positive effect on student learning, and on the development of their generic intellectual, communication and interpersonal skills has been widely acknowledged. The use of small group work has often been associated with more studentcentred approaches to teaching and learning, e.g. problem-based learning, co-operative learning, and experiential learning and enthusiastically adopted in many professionally based disciplines within the health sciences and management education. Research into learning in this context links the type of task demanded of students to the type of learning that takes place either a surface or deep approach to learning (Marton & Saljo, 1976; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Biggs, 1987). It is generally accepted that engagement in the learning process is encouraged by cooperation (Mills, 1991) and that the development of skills associated with deep learning is facilitated by group work (Gibbs, 1990; Tribe, 1994). At the same time, research into group-based learning has been from varying perspectives and sought to investigate the effectiveness of both the processes and outcomes of such learning. For much small group work in higher education it is the quality of the outcome rather than the quality of the process which has been often perceived as the main concern by group members and their tutors. Jacques (1984, p. 242) comments on the nature of task-based groups in education: '... rarely do either tutors or students reflect on their teamwork skills in their work together, or seek substantial improvement in their skills as the work progresses.' Explicit input on the nature of group processes and the encouragement of reflection on these processes are challenges to the course designer who seeks to incorporate group-based learning into the curriculum. Apart from its value in learning, there is widespread acknowledgement by educators and potential employers alike who see the development of the ability to work effectively in teams

The issues arising from the implementation and evaluation of the programme. and as a way to develop communication skills. Economics. Despite its obvious value. The purpose of this paper is to outline a case study involving groupwork within a tutorial program of a first-year undergraduate Accounting course at the University of Sydney. although the number of International students entering through other pathways is increasing. and the effect of these changes on the satisfaction of group members will also be discussed. teamwork skills are identified as one of the valued transferable skills components in undergraduate courses. The Context and Nature of the Groupwork Component The Students In the University of Sydney. many first-year undergraduate courses are composed of a high percentage of students who come from backgrounds where the first language is not English. the students taking the Accounting 1 course came from several degree courses. in the context of revision of the tutorial programme as a whole. 1994).. Including groupwork into any course presents many challenges for the designer. In addition. The . p. the quality of student learning. including Engineering. The groupwork assessment was initially established in response to constraints of time and student numbers. Another issue is efficient use of resources. student attitudes and perceptions towards groupwork. 1994. the paper will outline the course and the changes made and then describe the development of the groupwork component over a 2-year period (1994 and 1995). Closer analysis of cases involving group-based teaching can help to shed light on some of the issues and may provide answers to some of the challenges. Commerce/Law and Agriculture. Most of these students are Australian residents entering university as secondary school leavers who have attained an appropriate score in the year 12 university entrance examination. It became increasingly valued by staff and students both as strategy for the development of deep learning. the use of groupwork within courses raises many issues such as assessment. and staff training. The Course The Accounting 1 course is a two-semester course in financial accounting at the University of Sydney. but low academic literacy skills and oral communication skills.. but these are challenges which we found worthwhile. The Higher Education for Capability (HEC) movement in the UK sees the development of individual communicative skills as valid learning objectives in their own right: '(Group-based learning) . First. the changes made in the management and support of the groups. promotes the development of personal and team skills. Students in first-year undergraduate courses coming from an environment that has given them experience of groupwork of any kind are in the minority. In a recent government report (Candy et al. and an understanding of discipline-based subject matter' (Gregory & Thorley. In 1994 (total in cohort: 555) and 1995 (total in cohort: 490) the percentage of students in the first year Accounting who had a first language other than English was just over a desirable outcome of tertiary education. 23). Mature-age students and other nontraditional groupings have added to the diversity of the current first-year undergraduate cohorts. a workshop and a 1-hour tutorial per week. as many institutions suffer from a decrees in resources. Local students who are native speakers of languages other than English often have high numeracy skills. The course consists of two lectures. Australia.

g. contains a large groupwork component. e. . Generally. groups provided a place for discussion of tutorial readings and weekly exercises in the first year. students perceived members who did not contribute equally as a major problem. but that difficulties with teams hindered learning. 1991). For students.7% of students felt that the case studies helped them to relate the course material to the real world. Groups were focused on problem-solving of case studies involving increasingly complex real life situations in professional accounting. students' positive and negative comments reflected the broad experiences reported by teachers working in the field of problembased learning. A summary of this qualitative feedback on the success of study groups can be seen in Table I. particularly when it came to assessing their performance. By operating outside timetabled hours. reflection on interpersonal experience and management and completion of task.tutorial programme. and in an increased emphasis on the positive role played by groups in learning. 10 commented positively on study groups as helpful to learning and also beneficial as part of a social network. groupwork can be more fun than conventional task fulfilment. which focuses on theory and the application of theories to case studies. practical advantages emerged for both students and tutors. In the the groupwork component. and in both years provided practice in the production of both oral presentations and case study written reports through group problem-solving tasks.57. in the areas of gaining subject knowledge. There were accompanying disadvantages. The forum expressed strong agreement for the view that participating in a team that worked well was helpful for learning. in particular. It was therefore particularly important that students should see the groupwork component as valuable. Students were not individually assessed in these skills until after they had gone through the process of producing oral presentations and written reports as a group. groupwork provided a way of overcoming limits of time and large numbers because meetings took place outside timetabled sessions. and there is resentment if group members do not put in equal effort (Lovie-Kitchin. and ensourage a positive attitude to groupwork. For staff. and also indicated that about half the teams worked well together and half did not work effectively. it became apparent that knowledge of team skills and processes was necessary so that tutors could assist groups with conflict situations. 1991). groupwork put added stress on already crowded student timetables. This resulted in an increasing focus on training and development for staff. 32.5% of students reported that study groups helped them develop team skills. groupwork is time consuming (Cawley. Evaluation Semester 1 1994 Generally speaking. For tutors. and provided valuable experience in both written and oral communication for students without increasing their marking load to unreasonable levels. Of the 15 students interviewed.

organisational problems. e. . need for more planning time.TABLE I. group size. Most common suggestions from students concerned areas of dynamics.g. a perceived need for closer staff involvement and support. and fine tuning of assessment procedures. e.g. difficulties with equal contribution from group members.

1994b.  supportive social/emotional aspects of the group ('I had a nice group and made friends'.  the positive assessment of the group product. This latter process is generally acknowledged as problematic (Gregory & Thorley. 1994). Gregory & Thorley (1994a. satisfaction could be generally identified with three components:  equal contribution of all members ('I liked my study group . For the taskorientated students in this tutorial programme. dividing a group total mark of 100 among group members in proportion to their contribution. Witteman. However. indeed. but the issue of staff development was never completely resolved. Main issues for students were those of time management-fitting in the groupwork around crowded timetables-and the peer assessment of individual members' contribution to the group product. 57) have pointed out that introducing groupwork is a staff development issue as well as an issue of developing student skills. and were thus very focused on assessment. 1991. Most course tutors had no experience in facilitation of groupwork or.Discussion Issues that emerged for both staff and students during the first year covered a wide range. despite a variety of innovative methods. as well as the group product was new to most students. `Interacting in a group is better than going home and trying to do it alone'. a special manual was designed and a weekly staff meeting was held. many of which are reflected in the literature. p. Peer assessment with the objective of increasing equal participation was tried in various ways in this tutorial component. . The weekly staff meetings were considered an essential form of staff development by the tutors themselves. students perceived this process of assessment as destructive of group dynamics. for example. Student interviews. p. 1994). training sessions were held. we all contributed equally and helped each other'. Lack of Experience of Student Groups Mcgrath-Champ and Baird (1995) found that lack of experience in working in groups was one of a number of challenges facing their students. in other aspects of classroom management. 1991).. In order to give tutors some support in 1994. The idea of taking responsibility for the effective functioning of group processes. This is even more of a challenge in a first-year undergraduate course. and the idea that the successful working of the group was itself an important learning outcome was also new. although complaints about laziness were the most common negative assessment of the effectiveness of groups in the qualitative evaluation interviews. Satisfaction with the Group Process Identification and categorisation of the components of 'satisfaction' relating to groups has a substantial place in the literature of groupwork (Keyton. Several tutors who lasted the first year of the programme and also stayed on staff for 1995 were a strong source of peer support to newer tutors. Lack of Experience of Staff This and the resulting need for support was one issue which had been generally anticipated from the outset.. 182). Student interview. The majority of the students were school leavers who had just gone through their university entrance examinations.

Most of our first year students have come direct from a public examination system that focuses on successful product. and demands much from staff who often lack training in facilitation and experience in groupwork. but in fact students found their choices restricted by timetabling and logistic problems. other than in discussions. and an explicit recognition of the type of learning that this involves. it was great' (Student interviews. Many students require a demonstration of the need for working in groups. groupwork can only be helpful to first-year undergraduate students after a change in focus has taken place. In the first year of the tutorial programme the students were encouraged to self-select.The fact that groupwork was a negative experience for approximately half the students in the first year ('I could have done it on my own just as well or better'. 1997). Group Formation The Accounting students were roughly divided between the desire for the tutors to take the responsibility of creating groups (and thus take the responsibility for non-functioning groups) and the desire to self-select. The controversy in the literature (Kirchmeyer. 1994) was of great concern to course designers. Students who had English as a first language tended to regard students who participated less actively in discussion as contributing less. `Group members should encourage members who don't feel confident to speak' (Student interviews.. Thus. Unfortunately. with these issues in mind.'. `It was very motivating.. The mix of language background in the tutorials. For the other half. In many cases. but it emerged very early with the formation of groups. 1996) concerning the comparative effectiveness of diverse and uniform groups was reflected in student qualitative comment: `Half my group was quiet Asian girls who worked with each other'. we assume that working in groups must be helpful for our students (Green. it is important to make groups work better for more students and making the dynamics of group processes more explicit. and the presence of a minority of older students in the cohort meant that diverse groups were more likely than not. and the value of the process for them as individuals. Student interview. Comments such as `My study group worked well-it became more social than task oriented. there was an unexpected bonus-the group provided a valuable network of social support that improved the quality of the first year experience. 1994). Groups were later encouraged to raise awareness of the different possible ways to contribute to a project. 1994) are very encouraging.. Many students are already efficient reproductive learners. Assessed tasks that . `Groups make you relate to others'. McLeod et al.. Effectiveness of Heterogeneous Groups The issue of effectiveness of diverse groups compared to homogeneous groups was not explicitly explored. Conclusions Using groupwork as a strategy for learning and skills development in large first-year undergraduate cohorts has many practical difficulties. 1993. As teachers who are aware of the emphasis put on communication skills in the workforce. this is not necessarily immediately true. but need to consciously change their focus to successful learning for understanding. who felt that groups were a positive learning experience. who acknowledged that groups would only be a useful learning tool if they were carefully managed and supported from the beginning. 'I changed my group to one that was more open'. In order to benefit from groupwork there must be an equal focus in the curriculum on successful process. with the tutor stepping in if there were any problems.

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