One team, one dream? Case study: Embedding group work at Curtin College

As teachers, one of our many responsibilities is to develop our students’ readiness for work. How do we prepare students to not only have the knowledge to perform a role but also the skills to thrive in real-world professional environments that require them to work with others?

Group work can help students develop a range of life skills, including some that are increasingly valued in the professional world. It can also enhance their learning by being more active, student-centred and cooperative by design.

The traditional model of education, however, is based on individual success. Collaboration, while now taking on greater importance in schooling, has traditionally been eschewed in favour of working alone, shoulders hunched over papers to make sure no one can copy.

Once out in the real world, effective collaboration is an essential part of professional life, from the smallest tasks such as inter-departmental communication to playing a role in multi-million dollar projects.

Arguably, teaching students to work effectively together is as important to their future careers as any of the specialised knowledge educational institutions impart.

Looking to group work for professional, life and language skills

Students studying foundation maths at Curtin College are an eclectic group. Mainly speakers of English as a second language, their course is a pathway to a university degree. Having completed high school in various countries, their experiences of education are as varied as they are.

While the main focus of the course is mathematics, developing their English language and familiarity with Australian teaching conventions are also essential to their success in future studies. English language support is built into the courses, beginning with proficiency tests before they are accepted. However, the rigours of studying a non-language discipline in a foreign language can’t be underestimated.

Group work provides the opportunity for students to practise English with their peers while studying. This is particularly important for overseas students living with friends from their home country, for example, who may have fewer daily opportunities to practice speaking in English.

The pilot redesign

At Curtin College, lecturer Ali Golshani recently redesigned two basic maths units to place a greater emphasis on group work. Many of the students on these courses are hoping to study engineering or disciplines such as Information Technology that require effective collaboration, so it seemed a natural step to pilot embedded collaborative tasks.

Buy-in and engagement are obviously important for group work to be successful. In order to appeal to the, generally, younger student cohort, Facebook was used as a space for groups to meet, discuss the problem, plan their response and eventually present their results. The familiarity of Facebook and the fact that many, if not all of the students currently use the social media platform meant that very little time was required to explain the mechanics of the project.

Prezi and PowerPoint were used to create presentations on each group’s results, the visual structure helping students to move away from traditional written reports and focus on how to deliver their findings in an engaging way. Students were asked to provide written feedback on each other’s presentations and share their thoughts, anonymously, on how well each of their group members engaged with the task.

The results

Staff expect to be able to evaluate the effect of incorporating group work through feedback gathered by:

  1. Setting problems that have to be worked through in a group;
  2. Requiring teams to present their results to their peers, and;
  3. Asking participants to reflect on the experience.

Early responses to this pilot project have been positive. The majority of students enjoyed the group work, valued the experience of collaborating with their peers and relished the challenge of delivering their project results in a new format. Unsurprisingly, there has been a small amount of negative feedback, reflecting the fact that not all students are comfortable working in groups. However, even this provided a learning opportunity for those team members who had to address this dysfunction and manage the group dynamic in the face of negativity – valuable skills indeed for future study and employment.

Hungry for more on group work? Watch this video and have a look at this handy infographic by Christina Del Medico

You can also take a look at some of the resources below: