While the recent pandemic has forced a number of rapid reforms in learning and teaching, the need to rethink how we learn and teach at the tertiary level began well before that. This has been exemplified by increasing interest in topics such as flipped classrooms, authentic assessments, and students as co-contributors. Although one might argue that the idea of flipped classroom is not new, there has been a growing push to create authentic learning experiences and authentic assessments to better prepare our graduates for the next stage of their careers – be it further professional education or employment. To work towards this goal our department recently restructured our final-year physiology courses to create an environment that empowers students to be agents of their own learning. We believe that over their lifetimes of their degrees, the students should transition from learning through knowledge transfer to self-guided agents in their own learning to promote lifelong learning. To achieve this aim, our assessments were restructured to shift the focus and emphasis from tests and exams, to more authentic assessment tasks. Here we will share an example of one such assessment and the guides we provide to help the students succeed.
In one subject Physiology: Adapting to Challenges, the students are required to work in a team on a project to be presented in a mini-student conference at the end of the semester, to mimic a scientific conference. While a team presentation might not be a truly novel idea, a few factors that we have included in the project design make it distinctive from other similar assessments.
In the early years we were concerned that students would shy away from the team project aspect of the subject. We, like many of our colleagues, thought that the students would detest the prospect of group work and thus be put off by a group project as was observed in a study at another Australian University (White et al. 2007). However, when we surveyed our second- and third-year Physiology students, it was interesting to find that approximately 75% of respondents in both second- and third-year preferred working in groups rather than individually, and the majority of the students understand the importance of acquiring teamwork skills. Many raised concerns about working in a group from prior negative experiences, similar to concerns raised in a previous blog post here. This led us to come up with ways to support the students’ success in this team project. Here we will share some of the lessons we have learned along the way.
1) Broad topics with multiple possible directions
The students were presented with a number of broad research topics or questions of physiology, examples of topics include “Tips and tricks to aging well.” Or “Stress: is it always bad?”. While at first these topics might seem like ‘bad’ topics as they do not appear to provide any research direction, this apparent flaw is also the beauty of this design, as the ‘vagueness’ of the topic gives the student groups flexibility and scope to develop and identify their own common interests within the broad field of physiology and is one of the unique aspects of this assessment. As the starting point covers a broad range of potential directions, the team must arrive at a consensus on the ultimate and final direction of the project. This freedom was an intentional design to give students agency and choice in their project. While some teams do find this lack of direction challenging, the majority of the feedback from the students was positive, with 85% of the respondents in an end of semester survey enjoying the flexibility this provides. In fact, some students stated that they have never experienced this type of freedom in taking their learning into their own hands in their university degree and felt empowered by this option. The feedback from academics who help review these presentations was overwhelmingly positive and we have been consistently impressed by the quality and depth of work produced by our undergraduate students.
The groups were created based on the student nominated projects and not randomly assigned. The students are asked to nominate and rank their top three picks of the projects, together with a short description of their reason for picking that project. The student groups are created from their nominations and the rationale for their interest in the project. This creates groups with a common goal and facilitates the group formation process. While diversity in groups is a well-recognized factor in strong groups, it is also important that groups have common goals. A fine balance must be struck between diverse groups and the common goal. Student feedback on this aspect of the assessment was positive as it gave them a choice on what to research on a topic of their choice. Something that they don’t often get a chance to do in other subjects.
3) Nominate a team mate – if you want
Our previous experience in group formation has shown us that being introduced to a group of unfamiliar people can be a stressful experience for some students, especially with the added stress of an associated assessment. We found that many students appreciated the option and opportunity to nominate a team mate. This reduced their social anxiety in the formation phase of the team. While some students did try to ‘cheat’ the system by either nominating multiple people, or in some cases nominating people in a chain, it is up to the academic to decide whether to allow or disallow these cases. It is important to keep in mind a number of other factors such as making sure that no single student in any group is the solo person without a nominated ‘buddy’ to minimize social exclusion, and still maintaining diversity in the group. The observation from the tutors and teaching staff was that this nominated ‘buddy’ system reduced the social anxiety in early group formation and allowed the groups to move forward to the next stage to discuss their direction sooner.
4) Effective ice breaker activities
Most of us would have experienced ice-breaker activities in a workshop or other types of settings and may have cringed at the idea of these activities. However, finding effective ice breaker activities can help overcome the initial social anxiety and allow the students to get to know each other. The key to effective ice breakers is to choose ones that require and assist their communication, whether it is discussing an idea that is not associated with the assessment (e.g. team name) to reduce the stress, or activities where the team members get to learn something about each other, or work towards a common goal that is not assessment associated. The ultimate aim is to get them to start conversing and help ease the more in depth and intense discussions that will follow. Indeed, in a survey of our students following the ice-breaker activity, the students noted that the ice-breaker activities were cliche but did benefit by increasing comfort with team members by the end of the activity and thus could see the benefit of the activity.
5) Team contract
Following the ice breaker activity, the student teams are asked to discuss and sign a team contract. The team contract provides a framework for the students to discuss and outline their expectations within the team. It includes basic information such as contact information. There are also general procedural discussions such as location for sharing documents, the best means of communication within the team, the preferred method for everyone. The students are advised to set up a team chat that everyone can access. This was an extra layer of challenge in the online learning space as some messaging tools may not be available in some geographical locations.
As the team progresses through the contract, the discussion topics get progressively deeper. The team is asked to discuss their goals and expectations of the project and of each other. They are encouraged to discuss the frequency and duration of meetings outside of scheduled class times; to include discussion of people work responsibilities so they can be considerate of others in setting alternative meeting times; preparation for meetings; note taking in meetings. Finally, the team is asked to discuss how they will deal with conflicts in their group, including topics such as assigning specific tasks, or unmet expectations. The students are provided with scenarios on potential conflicts that they might face and given the time to work through the scenarios as a team. Thus, the team contract guides the teams in a structured and scaffolded discussion about some of the challenging situations they may face.
For the majority of students, this is the first time they have encountered this type of document and it was a daunting task to begin with. However, many students also found the structure of the document with the guided discussion points helpful in navigating some of the more tricky questions.
The student teams undergo two rounds of peer review over the course of 8 weeks. The first peer-review is a required (hurdle) task but is not included in the assessment. This peer review takes place 3 weeks after the groups are formed. The first peer-review is entirely a formative feedback for each member so they have the opportunity for self-reflection and to receive anonymous feedback from their team. This feedback provides the students with an opportunity to adjust any problem behaviors before the final peer review at the end of the project. It also provides the academics with an opportunity to identify any group dynamic issues before it gets too late!
The second peer-review occurs after the final presentation and is counted towards the student grade. The average of the grade they receive from their team mates is used for the grade. In each peer review, the students are asked to assess their team members in a number of criteria:
- Initiative / self – motivation / motivates others
- Accountability & sense of responsibility
- Timeliness and preparation
- Contribution to the team work & Commitment to the team success
- Respect & Adaptability
Another key factor is that the peer-review score may be used to adjust the team presentation grade if the student receives a low grade from their team. This increases the student accountability to their team. This also provides the team members a means to hold their team mates to account and minimizes the impact of ‘freeloading’ in the team project. Student feedback on this aspect confirms that peer review is a good way to encourage individual accountability and contribution to the team project with 83% of the respondents in our end of semester survey agreeing to that statement.
We used the tool Feedback Fruit for the peer-review process and it has been a smooth process as this is integrated into our learning management system (Canvas) and the groups synch and import automatically. This reduces the workload tremendously! Before Feedback Fruit become available we tried the same process with Qualtrics. However, this required much more background work to set up the groups for the peer-review process.
We have now run this assessment or similar variations of it, for 5 years, over this time we have made a number of tweaks and adjustments to improve the student learning experiences. Here we have shared some of the lessons we have learned along our journey that we hope readers will find useful. We believe that with some careful sign posts and guard rails we have created a positive and enjoyable learning experience for the students. Not only has this made for an enjoyable learning experience and environment for the students, the workshops have become a highlight of our weeks as we watch the student projects develop and grow. This is reflected in the overall feedback from students, tutors, and assessing academics. Most pleasing is perhaps the student feedback that many found this to be an enjoyable and highly memorable experience and was a highlight of their university journey and they may have learned some interesting facts about physiology that they will take with them as they continue their life journeys.
White, F., Lloyd, H., & Goldfried, G. (2007). Evaluating student perceptions of group work and group assessment. Sydney University Press