Monday, 16 February 2015

Student Led Learning Activities: the students' view

Scale Up classroom. Image: author's own

I asked students to complete a brief questionnaire about their experience of the recent student led learning activities.

Having watched and made an initial assessment of all the performances, my main focus was on the levels of learning engaged in by students through this process - and whether they felt they had acquired any transferable skills. I also wanted to find out whether age, confidence with written/spoken English or the way the groups had come together affected their experiences. Finally, I was interested in the link between group dynamics and experiences of learning.

Out of 59 respondents, 55 were female, 48 were aged 20-25, 3 were aged 25-35 and seven gave their age as over 35 (1 student did not give their age). Nine students said that English was a second or additional language.

Gender did not seem to significantly affect responses which were far more likely to be influenced by group dynamics. Three out of the four men were in "difficult" groups (two in the same one) which they admitted (in additional comments) had coloured their views of their own learning. The fourth was part of a fairly high-functioning group of friends who had worked together previously but he stated that he would prefer to be assessed as an individual and not in a group task. He went on to say that, nonetheless "my outlook on group working has improved as a result of this activity", indicating further that he had developed team working skills and admitting " may be that this has an impact in the future".

Most students reported having worked together with at least some of the other members before (47). The majority of these groups had formed spontaneously out of existing friendships (reported by 37). Ten students said that their choice of group had been dictated by other groups being already full (an upper limit of 7 and a lower limit of 4 members had been imposed when groups formed). Three students reported that they had been "put in a group by the tutor" - which is an impression they had formed, even though I quite consciously avoided trying to influence group membership. It may be that they had forgotten how they came to be members of a group, or perhaps equated the lack of choice with the tutor having put the group together.

Six students said they had taken some time to choose a group where they felt they would be happiest - all but one of these went on to have a very positive experience, the remaining student reported it was positive. One cited "convenience" but had a positive outcome despite some initially difficult dynamics. Another did not give a reason for how she ended up in her group (she simply wrote "other"), but nonetheless reported an overall positive experience.

When asked about the group dynamics, most said they had been "really positive, with everyone contributing equally" (30). For 17 students, the dynamics had been generally positive and nine said that they had been occasionally difficult. Of these six, four were in groups of friends and two had ended up in a group because others were full. One person said the dynamics had been often difficult and two people very difficult - each of whom also reported that they had joined a group of people they didn't know simply because the other groups were full. 

These results bear out my gut feeling that self-selecting groups tend to make for the most cooperative and positive of group dynamics, although clearly there are exceptions. Six students indicated that they had formed groups based on friendships but they had experienced occasional difficulties in the dynamics with some people not contributing. This in turn seems to have made the learning experience less positive, five saying they thought they would have learnt just as much on their own. In each case there were some group members they had not worked with previously, despite their being friends (or maybe friends of friends). The best experiences came when students had made a conscious decision about joining a specific group of people and the worst experiences when they felt they had been forced into a group because of lack of choice. These experiences could reflect a self fulfilling prophecy on the part of the student, with a sense of choice (or lack of one) influencing subsequent responses and reactions to group dynamics.

Group formation for learning in Higher Education can be a real mine field and generally it seems to be advocated that tutors do the choosing. To form cooperative learning groups, Johnson (1991) recommends deliberate mixing of abilities. Other writers (see Arkoudis et al 2010) advocate a little social engineering to ensure a mix of culture, linguistic ability and ethnicity. Still others warn that by allowing self selection, some group members may find themselves on the periphery, feeling excluded (Collins and Goyder, 2008) - or as happened here - forced into a group of "misfits" that couldn't join the group of their choice. Self selecting groups, it is warned, may tend to be homogeneous - all the stars in one and the lower ability students clinging together in another. This obviously has disadvantages - the low ability group may persist in their less than stellar performance and get poor grades whilst the higher ability group may not learn anything new about dynamics as they work within the same old comfort zone of their clever, like-minded friends. Nonetheless, I have persisted over the years in trusting the process and allowing students to form groups, being aware as Boud, Cohen and Sampson, (1999) note, that there are still difficulties in forcing together people from different cultures, age groups and backgrounds who are not used to collaborating.

(Interestingly, as an aside, none of the over 35s in my cohort worked together in the same group. One of these mature students told me that her confidence had increased enormously from working with younger people and they in return greatly valued her considerable experience of the health and social care sector which lent an edge of authenticity and relevance to their learning activity. However, in terms of ethnicity, most though not all groups were homogenous. Most of the EAL students, for example, came together in a single group).

97% of all students were positive about their learning from the process. 55% (n=33) felt that their knowledge of their chosen topic had improved "to some extent" whilst a further 42% (n=25) felt they had learnt "a great deal" about their chosen topic through the process of enquiry-based learning. Just one felt their understanding had not increased, although in all other respects this student had found the process very positive and reported that she had also found other groups' presentations interesting and informative. She further indicated that she had developed team working and communication skills.

In 39 instances, students felt that the process of collaborating had been very positive, greatly increasing their learning and a further 17 said this had been a positive experience which had increased their learning to some extent. These figures include every one of the over 35 and EAL students (who all went on to say, in addition, that the task had had a positive or very positive impact on their personal development). Two students responded that collaborative learning had been a distraction (and both had reported difficult dynamics in their groups) -  and one person did not answer this question. 

Thirteen students felt that the task had had a very positive impact on their personal development (resulting in greatly increased skills and confidence) and a further 38 described it as positive. Seven students thought the impact neutral although all but two of these went on to indicate transferable skills they felt they had acquired.  Of the two who said they had developed no skills, one felt that overall her understanding of the topic had increased to some extent, and she found the other groups' presentations informative and interesting. In terms of her own group, she had never worked with any of the other group members previously, found the dynamics occasionally difficult but admitted they were all friends and had chosen to work together. The second student's responses were negative on every aspect of the activity, (including finding others' presentation neither interesting nor informative)  and she reported having ended up in a group that was not of her choosing because others were full.

One student said the experience had had a negative impact on her personal development and confidence. On the other hand she indicated that she had developed problem solving and IT skills. This same student said elsewhere in her responses that she had had a very negative experience of group dynamics and had not chosen the people with whom she had worked.

When asked about transferable skills developed, the top answer was Team Working which 48 students agreed they had developed during the project. Next was Communication (36), followed by IT skills (20), Problem Solving (18) and Leadership (15). Eleven students indicated "all of these". Amongst the over 35s, five (out of seven) said their IT Skills had increased. Although the numbers here are too small to draw any definite conclusions, this also tallies with anecdotal evidence from the over 35s (in individual discussions with me) that they found the technical aspects of the task fairly challenging, but also enjoyed learning about new technology in rising to meet that challenge.

In the "other" comments, students added: confidence (1) speaking in front of an audience (1) working with people who are different from me (1) and patience (2)  as additional skills acquired.

Out of the total of 59 students, 27 volunteered general closing comments in a free text box. Most of these (16) referred to the weighting of the assignment. Having initially voted by a majority to have this set at 20% of the module total, they now felt that this was too low and did not reflect the amount of hard work they had put into the development of the learning activities.

Other comments (2) referred to poor group dynamics having made the experience negative and a third spoke of wanting to be assessed individually rather than as part of a group (the male student whose response has already been discussed above).

Eight students recorded very positive final reflections on the process:

A: Though I encountered difficulty at the beginning, this task allowed me to see that barriers will arise but as professionals we must find ways to overcome this :)
B: Should have been 50%! Other than that the task was great and good experience for students to run a class. Learnt a lot from other groups :)
C: The group worked really well, but maybe if everyone had to speak in front of an audience the marking would be maybe a bit fair for these groups who all did contribute during the speaking
D: Enjoyed taking part - got out of the comfort zone and gained confidence
It was really enjoyable - think other modules ought to do a similar aspect (mature student over 35) 
E: It was interesting and had build students confidence of standing up and presenting their learning activities. (EAL student)
 F: I think the task was agreat idea especially for a new learning technique, however it was A LOT of work for 20% of the module
G: Overall enjoyed the presentation and what I learnt doing it.
H: I really enjoyed this task and learning from peers, however for future maybe two groups should not have the same theme as peers will already have the knowledge

The 59 questionnaire responses represent 63% of the cohort (n=93), it is a considerably better return than is usual in the module evaluation process for example (10-20%) and better than the percentage who voted for the group work weighting (48 returns out of 93 students) in an on line survey in October. Overall I feel this gives a snapshot which fairly reflects comments that students have made to me in passing and confirms my own observations. 

In terms of assessed outcomes, the student led learning activities were graded between 58% and 81% on the formative assessment of the performance element, although groups have the opportunity to improve these grades by submitting revised and additional documentation. They also received informal peer feedback (through surveys which they themselves designed, administered and analysed) which they will now use in a final reflective exercise. All students (but one) responding to the questionnaire said that they had learnt from others' presentations, 44 to some extent and 14 saying these had added greatly to their understanding of the module's themes. 

Compared with previous years when students were required to focus on a popular film and identify leadership characteristics in its protagonists, this year saw both a greater variety of themes (ranging from motivation, gender and emotional intelligence to job design and multi-agency working) as well as a greater application of theory to health and social care settings. Judging by the questionnaire responses, learning from one another played a significant part in the success of the module. 

In previous years, students produced web based artefacts and feedback from other groups was both sparse and generalised, indicating little inter group learning. In those cases most groups focused on the same narrow set of theories and models so there was little incentive to look closely at each others' work. This year students attendence at each others' presentations was mandatory and there was minimal duplication of topics. As can be seen from the free text comment (H) above, one or two groups did choose similar themes: notably motivation and gender, although each group took a different approach to the topic. This appears to have added to the breadth of learning.

Already through informal conversations with the students I am aware that the process has been a challenging but generally positive one. My next step is to follow up the questionnaire with some individual interviews where respondents have indicated their willingness to participate in these. In addition, the final task for the module will be an individual reflection on the learning process (in the form of a digital story) which should hopefully yield even richer qualitative data.

Arkoudis, S., Yu, X., Baik, C., Borland, H., Chang,S.,

Lang,I., Lang,J., Pearce, A., Watty,K. (2010) ‘Finding Common Ground: enhancing interaction between domestic and international students.’ In Report of project supported by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council Ltd, an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Available at 

Boud, D.; Cohen,R.;Sampson, J. (1999) ‘Peer Learning and Assessment.’ In Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp413-426

Collins, N.; Goyder, J. (2008) ‘Speed Dating: a Process of Forming Undergraduate Student Groups.’ In ECulture Vol.1

Johnson, David W. (1991) ‘Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity.’ In ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Available at: