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Supporting effective collaboration and communication in project-based group work | Case of Utrecht University

Dan Hasan
September 10, 2021
Class Size
50
Instructor Workload
Learner Workload

Context

Course name:

BA level research course on pharmaceutical sciences, combined analytical methods and theory:

Course structure:

  • 10 weeks, split into two 5-week units. The first 5 weeks covered introduction to analytical tools, which was followed by in-depth discovery of specific analytical methods.
  • Full-time laboratory, presentation, discussion sessions
  • Main project: “CSI-style" forensic investigation project

How was Group Member Evaluation used?

  • Allow group members to evaluate each other's performance and teamwork
  • Encourage students to think critically
  • Provide more opportunity for collaborative learning

Constructive alignment

Learning objectives

  • Students can develop their teamwork and collaboration skills in an investigative group-work project



Note: 

This learning objective was not directly measured as part of the assessment.

Learning activities

Step 1: Introduction and guideline

  • Students are introduced to their research problem, which is the subject of each group's investigation
  • Lectures are given to outline the technology and devices that will be used for analysis

Step 2: Weekly presentation

  • Groups give weekly presentations detailing the process of approaching, structuring, and addressing their problem
  • In these presentations, groups also share their findings with each other over the course of their project

Step 3: Final presentation

  • Groups deliver final presentations, which are grades
  • A lab journal is kept by each student to track their process and progress

Note:

The second unit in this course followed a similar trajectory, with the focus this time being more analytical on a specific set of tools.

The use of Group Member Evaluation: 

The tool was used in the middle of the two courses to give students space to give feedback to their group relating to their experience of the teamwork process.

  • A rubric was used with 5 levels and criteria covering problem-solving, focus/dedication, attitude, and communication. Space was left for any further comments.
  • Team-member anonymity was also enabled in order to try to give students a safe space for voicing concerns and critical comments.
  • Finally, after completing the feedback exercise, students were able to write a self-reflection, where they detailed what they had learned from the overall process.



Learning activities based on the Bloom taxonomy are mainly at the level of:

Understanding

theories and practice of analytical methods and procedures

Applying

methods to the carrying out of lab analysis

Analyzing

data and results gathered from procedures

Evaluating

own performance and contribution to the project, and that of group members

Creating

own methods of analysis

Assessment of learning outcomes

In this iteration of the course, teamwork and collaboration did not directly contribute towards the overall grade. Instead, the feedback exercises were used formatively to gain more insight into the group dynamics.

Notable outcomes

  • Student progress oversight: Compared to the previously-used method of collecting feedback on paper, now the instructor could follow individual and group progress throughout the activity, as well as see all ratings and comments in one place. This made it easier to keep oversight on group dynamics as well as individual learners’ performance and contributions.
  • Subsequent attempts at creating activities were found to be much easier, in part thanks to the “copy from existing” feature, which allows previous templates to be re-used and modified.
  • The instructor chose to enable anonymity but as the teams were fairly small and working closely with each other, some students felt as though the process wasn’t entirely anonymous, which may have had an effect on the depth of feedback given.
Dr. Frits Flesch - Professor at Utrecht University: 
"After improvements were made, like the automatic synchronisation of groups, that was a real winner for me... in the end, [Group Member Evaluation] was a starting point for students to be able to improve their collaboration."
"After improvements were made, like the automatic synchronisation of groups, that was a real winner for me... in the end, [Group Member Evaluation] was a starting point for students to be able to improve their collaboration."

The role of the instructor

  • Provided instructions and guidance on how and when the Group Member Evaluation tool would be used.
  • Followed student progress throughout the course and offered timely support and reminder.

Added value of technology

Preparing students for their post-graduate careers involves more than teaching knowledge and skills. The social and collaborative aspects of learning activities have ubiquitous importance across all domains. With Group Member Evaluation, students working in teams get more insight into their own, and their group’s teamwork process. Providing this space for critical reflections to be made is often the first step towards improving these processes. 


Furthermore, the activity was valuable for students who would normally have had difficulty discussing their collaboration: “speaking up was made easy using the tool”.

Possible variations

Giving constructive critical feedback is not a skill inherent to all learners, or teachers. Consider preparing your students with the right information about how to give constructive and considerate feedback. This can help them to achieve deeper reflections about their own work, as well as that of their peers.

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