Building learning communities through formative group work

Dr Zahid Pranjol

Dr Zahid Pranjol, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences and Deputy Head of School for Life Sciences, explains how a formative project-based learning (PBL) group work assessment helps develop his Foundation, first and second year students’ belonging and team work skills.  

What I do: 

I use a problem-based learning approach to formatively assess my students’ knowledge and understanding of their learning from lectures. I give each group of 4-5 students a disease and task them with planning how to diagnose and treat it. The format of the submission is up to the group (e.g. a mini poster, a video, mind map, PowerPoint, Prezi or a text document) so they also need to decide together how to present their response so that it meets the learning outcomes and marking criteria, which includes some credit for the creativity and accessibility of the submission. I provide guidance on the length of their submission (e.g.  max 4 slides or a 2-minute video or audio piece), project planning, inclusive teamwork and how to run meetings, but the rest is up to them. 

The submissions are double marked (which is manageable for around 16 groups) and the feedback we provide comments on the scientific content but focuses more on their presentation and communication. 

Finally, as the project is formative, I also offer a prize for the best submission. Also, (with consent) the top ten submissions are shared with the wider cohort who often refer to them when revising for lab practicals and exams.   

Why I do it: 

The assessment provides a valuable means for students to reflect on and apply their learning and develop their analytical, critical thinking and communication skills. I’ve also co-authored a paper on the wider transferrable skills developed by these students.  However, the social and peer learning aspect of the task is just as important. I leave it up to the groups to arrange meetings, which happen outside of teaching time. This demands they agree ways to communicate with one another and facilitates the creation of peer support networks and, over the years, quite a few friendships. Students also learn team working, leadership and influencing and communication skills along the way.  

Last, but not least, this approach also builds in flexibility, which also supports inclusive teaching and learning.  For example, giving student groups a choice over their format enables them to draw on pre-existing skills and interests within the group.  

Impact and student feedback: 

When surveyed, the majority of students agreed that the project helped them better understand content from the lectures. While students sometimes complain about the group work aspect, requiring them to work in groups means they meet new people and (hopefully) develop informal peer support networks. In fact, some students reported having kept in touch with their groups beyond the end of the project and throughout their degree and others have commented on the fact the project helped them understand their strengths and weaknesses when working with others.  

Future plans 

I’ll continue with using this task with students and sharing it with colleagues from all schools. My long-term plan is to turn this activity into a summative assessment and, perhaps, apply this approach to designing lab experiments via co-creation! Watch this space. 

Top 3 tips: 

  1. Make it clear to the students the purpose and value of the assessment, e.g. how the task will help them bring together different strands of their disciplinary learning and see how they interconnect.  
  1. Also explain how the format of the assessment will help them develop transferrable skills and learn more about the process of learning.  
  1. Give students the freedom to choose what they want to do and space to think and make that decision with others (but be ready to support and advise if need be!). 

Find out more: 

To learn more about this assessment approach see my workshop presentation to the 2021 Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference.  

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