Striving for excellence in large group teaching

Here at the University of Edinburgh we’re always keen to learn about what works well in teaching and to use this knowledge and understanding to inform our own practice.  Increasingly, the Schools are opening up new spaces to discuss teaching and to provide opportunities to learn from leaders in the field.  One such initiative is the new Teaching in Practice series organised by the Business School.  Their first event focused on large group teaching and was led by Professor Kevin Morrell (Warwick Business School) who spoke about his experiences of designing and delivering a core second year course with an intake of over 400 students.

Kevin’s starting point was that the reality of large group teaching opens up a whole set of interesting questions.  Some of these are about handling student diversity.  What are the best ways to work constructively with students who come from a range of cultural backgrounds?  Do we need to think about the different learning styles of the students?  How do we handle the very diverse expectations that students have of their learning with us?  And some of these questions are about assessment.  What’s the best way to assess a large group of students if we want to break the essay/exam format?  How do we make the assessment meaningful and relevant?  And how do we make sure that group work is fair and equitable?

These questions framed the way in which Kevin shaped the learning environment for his students.  In particular he was keen to use the assessment to drive the students’ learning and to include group assessments as well as an element of peer marking.  In practice the assessment was comprised of an individual essay (70%), a group project (20%) and a group presentation (10%).   So what can we learn from Kevin’s experiences?

First Kevin set an ‘authentic’ group project.  Students were briefed to develop a single country investment fund.  This involved them in problem-based learning and appealed to their work-related aspirations.  And he described it as a vehicle through which to ‘smuggle in’ the academic content of the course.  The authenticity of the project was further enhanced by offering a prize, or what he termed an ‘elite award’ for the best presentation.  Again, he argued that this simulated the kinds of practices that are used in the business world and that he wanted the students to aspire to.  And he argued that the language we use, and how we frame the assessment, is an important part of this process.  Students were told to form ‘syndicates’ (as opposed to groups) and to work to a ‘brief’, again speaking to their aspirations as future executives.

Secondly, Kevin stressed that it’s important to recognise the anxieties that students face around group work.  In this course the anxiety was sharpened because it was the students’ first experience of getting marks which counted towards their degree classification.  Many of these anxieties centred on perceived fairness, how to get groups with members from very different backgrounds to work together, and how to manage peer assessment.  So how best to deal with these thorny questions?  Kevin was very clear that academic staff should not have to deal with questions about procedural fairness, but should be free to focus on academic matters.  He outlined two ways of dealing with procedural fairness:

  1. Students were allocated to groups of 8 using an algorithm.  This is a university-wide mechanism that is used to allocate all students on all group projects and takes into account a range of factors such as nationality and gender.  This process is sufficiently well understood by the students that it irons out many of the concerns that they might otherwise have arisen about the process of group allocation.
  2. Each group had to write a team charter. Kevin stressed the importance of this in devolving ownership and responsibility to the students which, again, is a key business skill.  But it also provided a platform from which the students themselves could deal themselves with difficult group members.  When problems arose it was their responsibility to refer back to the charter to ascertain how best to proceed.

Thirdly, Kevin ‘strongly recommends’ introducing peer assessment for group work.  Part of this is about the symbolic value that attaches to the awarding of marks and part of it is about the power that is associated with the process of marking.  For Kevin, it’s important that we share some of that power with students, and show them that we value and respect their judgements.  In this case, students were asked to grade the contributions of everyone in the group (themselves included) on a scale of 0 to 5, and to provide a comment to explain the mark.  As well as trusting the students to become partners in the marking process, Kevin argued that this helped them to understand issues of due process and equity.

Teaching a large group of students is a demanding process.  For Kevin it takes ‘stamina, self-belief and resilience’, and he suggested that having another colleague to share some of the responsibility for the course is a great psychological help.

Kevin is clearly doing a good job with a complex and demanding course.   He very generously shared his experiences at the Teaching in Practice session and provided a  welcome space for dialogue about how we create excellence in teaching.

About the author

Hazel-ChristieHazel Christie is lecturer in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh.

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