UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

Improving student learning

Barbara Kennedy, Department of Psychology & Sociology, James Cook University.

"From the session I realise that everybody is different and will react differently to different situations. Therefore to have an effective group everyone must realise that everyone reacts and thinks differently this is why group work produces better results provided everyone cooperates."

Student comment

This CAUT funded project focuses on `interpersonal' rather than computer-based technology, and aims to develop science student's skills for working in teams. The ability to work effectively in a team has been identified as one of the most important transferable skills sought by employers, and one for which most university graduates are poorly prepared, especially in the sciences. At university, students primarily work individually in a competitive academic culture and often when group projects are assigned, students are given no guidance to facilitate effective team work. To draw a comparison with other skills-teaching, since we do not simply let students loose in a lab and hope they will eventually learn to use the equipment, we should also explicitly teach team skills, provide opportunities for practice, and give students constructive feedback on their performance. This project was embedded in the development of a third year research methodology subject in Environmental Studies which draws students from a variety of core science disciplines and in which students work in teams to conduct applied research projects.

A teaching-design problem is to provide sufficient information and structure in a very short period, to students who predominantly lack a relevant knowledge-base. The next problem is to convince students, enculturated into particular ways of learning, that it is valid to learn through structured social interaction. Students who have a perception of university learning as acquiring facts in order to gain marks are reluctant to `waste' time on learning team skills. Experience in group work at school also appears to be largely counterproductive.

Given the inappropriateness of lectures as a teaching strategy for skill development, a `workshop' approach, supported by a student resource booklet was adopted. Students participate in activities exploring: meeting procedures, the superiority of group over individual product, individual differences and their impact on group functioning, two-way communication and the establishment of ground-rules and goals for group operation. Students are inclined to focus on the task itself, but are alerted to the need to simultaneously manage interpersonal (e.g. tolerance of others) and group-process issues (e.g. problem solving). Allocation of students to groups has proved more effective than self-selection and each group is allocated a mentor whose main role is to oversee the research process. Assessment combines individual marks for reflective note-book, literature review, and final examination with an individually-moderated group-mark for the project, thus integrating teaching aims and assessment format.

Substantial evaluative data have been collected. The most marked outcome of this project has been students' more comprehensive grasp of the research process. Student reaction has been mixed with most negative comments relating to the amount of time taken up by the research project and most positive comments relating to perceived relevance of the team skills to work. Some interesting findings relate to the learning strategies used by science students and an apparently greater reluctance by Australian (than European or American) students to recognise the need for leadership/co-ordination in group functioning.

Barbara Kennedy
Barbara.Kennedy@jcu.edu.au

A full CAUT report and teaching pack for interdisciplinary application will be available toward the end of this year.