A few things have prompted me to write this post. I’m putting together some new module outlines, and I’ve been thinking about how to assess these. I’ve also spoken to several students about their experiences of group work recently, both as part of the official feedback process and in general conversation. And I talk regularly with my colleagues about how teaching is going. These situations typically prompt me, and my colleagues, to reflect upon our practice, but also how we communicate that practice to our students – in other words, do we make it clear why we ask you to do the things we want you to do? Ideally we should, but there’s a big difference between listing some bullet points in a module template’s ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes) and really explaining to students how the different parts of their studies all fit together. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog – to de-mystify the process a bit.
What really got me to my computer though was finding out what students think about their studies when they’re talking to each other and not to a tutor. It’s Sabbatical Election time on campus at the moment – there are posters and slogans and people in colourful costumes all over the place! Over the weekend, I was reading about some of the policies suggested by candidates for the Vice President Education sabbatical post (their debate was helpfully recapped on Twitter and then written up by the Exeter student paper Exposé.) I have the utmost respect for students who are engaged and driven enough to stand for election to these demanding posts, they play a crucial role in shaping how universities work, and I think even more students should get engaged with the process – if only through the simple act of voting! And I was impressed with many of the ideas and policies proposed by the various candidates. Several of the candidates brought up group work when outlining their policies, in particular ensuring that the marks awarded for group work were fair. The general point being made was that students should be rewarded for the work they, individually, put in. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
It did get me thinking, however, about how tutors are explaining group work to students, if it is mainly seen as leading to a grade based on hours of work done individually. The balance between the individual and the group is a tricky one to navigate, but group work is about much more than grades, and if tutors are not getting that across, then that worries me a bit.
Divide and conquer?
Let’s start by thinking about the different kinds of group work you might be expected to do as a history undergrad. By now, you’ve probably experienced various kinds of group working during your seminars, and we’ve talked a bit about this in previous posts on this blog. Here are the kinds of work I ask groups to do in my seminars – your tutors might use these, or different tasks:
There are various reasons for using group work in seminars. There are the practical ones:
- usually it is a way of breaking big topics down into workable chunks
- seminar rooms are usually set up in a way that facilitates group work, whereas lecture theatres aren’t
- setting group discussion tasks, particularly snowball discussions (where you start talking to one other person, then your pair joins another pair, then that four joins another four, and so on and so on until you get back to the whole class talking) takes up time within the seminar – so the tutor isn’t left with a gaping hole of nothingness to fill!
Equally important are the pedagogic ones:
- it gives everyone a chance to speak – lots of students are reluctant to speak out in front of the whole group, but are more comfortable talking to one or two classmates
- it stops one or two confident students either dominating or being relied upon to drive discussion
- it forces people to listen to different interpretations of material they’ve covered
- the class can get through more material if different groups are set different tasks
- on a similar point, setting different discussion points can replicate wider historical debates
[One of my favourite group tasks is to get students to take opposing roles in a historical situation ( e.g. one half are Catholics in a sixteenth-century French town, the other half are Protestants), give them ten minutes to work out their key beliefs and attitudes, and then bring them back together and ask them to debate with the other group on a given topic. Students have the chance to demonstrate their knowledge of the topic, but they also have to think on their feet and react to other ideas coming in. This can also be done with differing sides of a historiographical debate – one side takes historian A’s side, the other argues for historian B, and then we come together to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments, as well as the other alternatives.]
All of this goes towards reinforcing the earlier point, that working with other people forces you to listen to what they have to say, compare it to your own interpretations, and reconsider what you first thought. It may be that your initial ideas are confirmed, or you might find your opinions totally changed. The point is you need to test your ideas against other people’s ideas to find their strengths and weaknesses. Put this way, group work can sound a bit intimidating, like some gladiatorial combat of student intellects – actually, in practice, it tends to be a lot more supportive. Remember, as you’re testing your hypotheses, everyone else around you is testing theirs. You might not come to a universal consensus by the end of your discussion, but you will have considered more aspects, and hopefully all the available angles on the topic, which is good historical practice.
Becoming independent through collaboration – group work outside the seminar room
Going back to the various group tasks you might be faced with in the course of a seminar, some of these grow from group work you’ve been asked to undertake outside of the seminar, in your own ‘independent’ study time. Again, there are a variety of forms that this might take, and you may well have experienced other tasks:
Actually, I think that ‘independent’ word could do with a bit of finessing, to be honest. It covers a multitude of study tasks – reading, note taking, planning and writing, naturally, but also thinking, reflecting, making connections, and, yes, discussing ideas with other people. This is something that can get lost in the maelstrom of reading, class commitments and deadlines – you need to give yourself time to think upon the things we’re asking you to study. Giving yourself time to pause and reflect is really important to your development as a critical thinker, which is what we’re hopefully training you to become. And reflection doesn’t need to be done silently, in a library – it can be done whilst out for a walk, doing the dishes, or over a coffee (or a pint). Independent doesn’t mean alone.
- For example, when your tutors are undertaking their own research, they spend a good part of their time discussing their ideas with other people. They do this formally via research papers at seminars and conferences.
- Your university will probably have a number of research seminars, you can often find details on noticeboards and online. If something sounds interesting or someone whose work you’ve read is speaking, go along and find out what happens. It’s very different to the seminars you take part in as an undergrad. There will be a formal paper, often around 45 minutes long, and then a long discussion or Q&A session with members of the audience, and this can be really enlightening, perhaps just as much or even more so than the research paper itself!
- We also talk informally with our colleagues – if you see us in the local café, that’s often what we’re doing – and get people to read and comment on our work before publication. Check out the acknowledgements sections of books and any footnotes in articles thanking pre-publication readers to get a sense of how this is done. You might also discover some academic interactions you might not expect!
So interaction and collaboration is at the heart of good historical academic practice – as indeed it is in most professions. And this is really why we make you do group work – because whatever walk of life you come from, wherever you go after finishing your degree and whatever you end up doing as a career, you’re going to have to deal with other people, formally and informally. You will need to know how to be part of team, set goals and priorities, manage not just your own time but other people’s time and expectations, take account of multiple people’s strengths and weaknesses, and get the presentation/project done on time.
- Group work is one of the key areas where your history degree is training you in those all-important transferable skills, the ones that are recognised as employability aces, and the ones that are going to set you apart from all the other graduates on the hunt for the dream job. That’s why we make you do it – because we have a responsibility to you to give you as many opportunities to prepare for your post-university life as possible, and training you to work with other people is one of the most valuable skills we can give you. You might well pick these up outside the classroom, as part of a sports team or a society committee, but there, you’re setting the goalposts. Assessed group work on a module means you’re having to work to someone else’s specifications – as you will do if you go into many kinds of business. It’s not simply about the final grade, or having a variety of assessment – although we think about that too.
Leader of the pack vs. the invisible student
That all sounds great, but when you actually have to do group work, where do you start? That depends on what kind of task has been set – put on the spot in a seminar room with another person, most people just get on with it, and discuss the question at hand (NB we do hear when you’re not discussing the question at hand…). If you’re preparing an assessed presentation together or have been tasked with running a seminar, that’s a very different proposition, and there’s not really enough space to go into that in enough detail here – but it’s something we’ve looked at before and will come back to in the future.
What is always important is checking how you’re going to be marked and what criteria you’re going to be marked on. Are you all going to be marked collectively, and if so, what are you going to be marked on?
- For example, many modules I’ve taught have an assessed group presentation as a key component. The marking criteria make it clear that teamwork is a key element of assessment. Yet I have seen many ‘group’ presentations throughout my teaching career which are in fact a series of mini-individual presentations given one after the other, with limited interaction between the ‘co-presenters’. I’ve seen people repeat things their co-presenters have just said, seemingly oblivious. I’ve seen people put forward an entirely different argument to the rest of their group. I’ve seen people apparently gobsmacked at what their co-presenter has come out with, as if that’s the first time they’ve heard their co-presenter speak. And that’s even before we get onto inconsistent formatting of PowerPoint and handouts, or (my personal bugbear) people staring out of the window or slouching against the wall as their co-presenters speak!
Check the criteria, and then check with your tutor as to what they’re expecting, and work from there. Always make the most of chances to practice working with your group – if you’re asked to do prepare particular items for seminars in the run up to your assessed work, or if you’re asked to produce handouts together or discuss things together in class. Managing everyone’s expectations and working styles can be tough, particularly when there’s a mark ‘that counts’ at stake, so give yourself time to get used to each other. Of course you will need to do some individual work – we don’t expect people to be reading the same book side by side in the library – but make sure you are all meeting frequently, not just to report back your own progress but to plan the format of your work, and, crucially, to discuss the ideas and arguments you will be presenting. Successful groups allow people to play to their individual strengths whilst keeping everyone on the same page. Tricky, but it is possible.
What happens outside the seminar room stays outside the seminar room – or does it?
Finally, let’s address the massive elephant in the room – what happens when you’re stuck with a dysfunctional group? For whatever reason, one or more members of your group are not pulling their weight, they’re not doing what you thought you’d all agreed, or they’ve just fallen off the face of the earth. There are a number of things to do:
- Do your best to find out what’s going on. Often, there’s a legitimate reason for their naffness, in which case see what you can do to help – by which I mean talking as a group, or collectively to a tutor, not doing the work yourself!
- Very very occasionally, they’re actually a feckless workshy git, in which case, there is also something you can do – you go and talk to your tutor. They might not be able to wave a magic wand, but they’re also not psychic and if you don’t tell them there is a problem, they will assume all is well. We realise it’s not easy to rat someone out, but sometimes, that is your only option.
- Have a bit of faith in your tutor – this one is really important. You need to trust in our ability to detect hard work and also to detect bullshit. We watch hundreds of presentations and group exercises over our teaching careers. We can tell when a group have worked together and when they’ve not, and we can differentiate between the various levels of contribution. We might not always have tons of leeway to play with marks, and we can’t totally ignore the confines of the format and give amazing marks when groups have been obviously dysfunctional. That said, most places I’ve worked prioritise fair reward for student input, and as long as tutors explain why people within a group have different marks, we’re not bound to give everyone the same – we want to reward those who’ve done the work. Again, check the exact criteria for your institution. Believe me; we will note who is pulling their weight and who is not.
- this is worth bearing in mind as you get further into your degree and need to start thinking about references, particularly for jobs – are we going to be able to talk positively about your team working and leadership skills? You might have got two marks lower than you wanted on that presentation, but if I am able to write in your reference about that presentation where you did the bulk of the heavy lifting in glowing terms to your future employer, giving a concrete example of your leadership skills, your focus and your organisational skills, that might be something of a payoff. I can’t guarantee it will work out that way, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
- Check if you have a chance to explain your process. Several modules I’ve come across and indeed taught include a reflective report. This is a chance for you to explain what you did and indicate what other people contributed. I’m not saying you get to slag off everyone who disagreed with you, but this is a way of balancing out the individual mark whilst making sure we’re still training you up in those all-important teamwork skills.
Let’s come together
So, how should students be rewarded for their work as part of a group, individually or collectively? If I were to be totally hard-nosed, following my “we’re training you for life” logic, I suppose I should say group work should be marked collectively. You won’t always be judged on your individual merits, you will sometimes have to take collective responsibility when things go wrong as well as when things go right – no man is an island etc. etc. I can also fully understand the opposite response – at the end of the day, quite literally, at Graduation, there will one name on the degree certificate, and the marks that go towards that degree should reflect that.
In reality, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that, because we’re committed to producing employable graduates, not little history-spouting automatons. If we’re going to prepare you for the real world, we need to get you used to working with other people. Marking that, marking your preparation from what we see in the seminar room, that’s not always going to be easy, but it should always be fair. What I hope you’ve taken from this post, however, is that the mark is only part of what you get from group work. The skills you learn and the examples of leadership and teamwork you gather for your CV are equally as important.
 In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit this did go spectacularly wrong once when I divided the class up into the Three Estates in 1788-9, only for the class to unilaterally decide to avoid the French Revolution.