Thursday, 29 January 2015

learning-by-doing : some feedback

D. Sharon Pruitt - FlickrHappy Girl Hopscotch in Strawberry Free CC BY 2.0

I ran a small focus group discussion yesterday with my final year students to get their views about the student led learning activities.

They all agreed they had suffered from nerves before standing up to speak in front of the whole class (the first time many of them had presented to an audience of this size) but they were even more anxious about the interactive elements of the activities - what if their fellow students refused to participate?

For this particular group of students (none of whom had worked together on the task) issues of group cohesion were not highlighted, although I am aware (through other discussions) of three somewhat dysfunctional teams (out of 15).

In two cases the problems revolved around a single member who had never shown up to meetings and who contributed little and late. Other group members were angry that this "loafer" was able to get the same marks as the rest of them with minimal contribution. In situations like this a process of peer evaluation is sometimes used but this cohort voted against such a process at the outset, preferring to deal with things informally. I have mixed views about peer evaluation as I have seen groups where individuals are deliberately marginalised or excluded from a team and I dislike the competitiveness and devisiveness it can encourage. In the real world, teams don't get to vote on the performance related pay of their colleagues ("more's the pity" did I hear you say?) - difficulties have to be dealt with or tolerated in the interests of completing the task - and in some ways I think it is right that these student teams (on a module dedicated to teamwork and leadership) learn how to deal with differences.

The third "dysfunctional" group did just that. The group effectively split into two at one point and discussions became heated - one student left the session and another was in tears. When I inquired if I could help, the unofficial leader said they were planning a final group meeting to sort things out. The following week, they seemed to be back on track and this week they have just emailed me their session plan (the only group to have done so) which looks remarkably well organised and thought through.

I also asked my small focus group about the value of the feedback they had received. They were all immensely glad I had given them a provisional grade and regarded this as useful formative feedback indicating where they could improve. They also valued the feedback they had had from their peers, most of which was generally positive and in some cases very constructive. One or two students had complained to me in class about particularly rude, negative and unconstructive comments they had received, but that was a useful opportunity to talk about how best to receive - and use - feedback (in short - ignore what isn't useful to you!) In a fortnight I'll be facilitating a session about feedback and reflection, so I may just need to go over best practice in GIVING feedback too.

The $64,000 question is: did they think the activity gave them a good understanding of their chosen topics?  All said they thought they had had to work harder and get a deeper understanding of their topics than was normally the case (in writing an essay for example) because they didn't want to be caught out by a question from other students that they couldn't answer.

They also said that they had found other students' sessions very interesting and informative and that they had learned a lot through those too.

OK- so this is just one informal discussion and other students may have different views - something I hope will emerge through their self evaluations and final reflections on the module - but I did find their views very encouraging.

For myself, I also really enjoyed week 3 of the sessions and again found much to admire in the creative learning activities students had devised for their peers - as well as noting the confidence displayed by some in the way they facilitated group discussions. One or two had decided on a formal presentation plus quiz (I am wondering here if this is a delivery model they have become familiar with during their studies?) but one had developed really interesting, health and social care based scenarios and asked groups to decide on an approach to the problem based on one of two specific managerial philosophies. I admit I picked up a couple of tips myself on how to facilitate learning around some quite dry subjects!

So, overall I do feel this has been a  positive learning experience for us all and the students' enthusiasm is still palpable, which is quite something in these cold winter days. It's the final set of sessions next Monday and I will definitely feel some regret to be returning to the more "normal" teaching mode after that. Or maybe, things will never be quite "normal" again.....

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