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The Group, the Team and the Task Force: The enhancement of group work as a teaching methodology

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Author: Janey Gordon

Keywords: group work; media; employability; professional practice

Abstract:  “My brightest students will sometimes opt to do the referral assignment which is individual rather than do a piece of group work.”

This article summarises the results of a project, which examined group work activities undertaken within a selection of HE programmes, in particular the ways that lecturers can aid the enhancement of the work within that group. The results of this study showed that the development of the ‘group’ into a ‘team’ and from a ‘team’ into a ‘task force’ may be assisted by setting up suitable tasks with clear learning outcomes; giving some simple advice and guidelines; early lecturer intervention if necessary and repetition of a similar task with the same group. The study was undertaken under the auspices of the University of Bedfordshire’s ‘Bridges’ CETL, which is examining the links between further and higher education and from higher education into employment. The CETL has an overarching theme of enhancing employability amongst the student body.

Main text:
You are in a room with four strangers. One is falling asleep, he has come off a night shift at a local hotel; one keeps looking at their watch and needs to be elsewhere shortly; one is happily and heavily pregnant, her personal circumstances are foremost in her mind. There is also a vacant chair. Someone has not arrived. You are aware that this group of strangers are going to be dictating how you spend the next few weeks and how you spend those weeks may influence the coming years of your life.

You are a university Media student. Welcome to group work!

The above may be a worst-case scenario but for some students it is a familiar experience.

This article summarises the results of a project, which examined group work activities undertaken within a selection of HE programmes, in particular the ways that lecturers can aid the enhancement of the work within that group. Personal interviews were also conducted to explore practices in Media, Art and Design courses as well as other subject areas (2).

There is a great deal of literature surrounding this issue documenting a concurrence of its advantages and a recurrence of its problems. The literature also indicates wariness, a feeling that group work carries with it educational issues that are not encountered by individual work (3).

Two pieces of research specifically about Media courses indicated the importance of group work for students. The Media Employability Project (2002) is a detailed study examining whether Media graduates were in fact, as some areas of the press asserted, under a disadvantage when obtaining jobs. What the study discovered was that in fact the reverse was true. Media graduates obtain jobs more easily than students from all other areas. The study investigates why this is by speaking to employers. They found that media graduates “develop a unique package of skills, knowledge and experience which makes them highly employable”.

“Employers [reported that] …personal traits were seen as very important (such things as vivacity, appearance, reliability) as well as transferable skills, especially communication, teamwork, inter-personal skills, adaptability and flexibility.”
(Morey et al, 2002)

The second project is the Group Work and Assessment in Media Production, known by its acronym of GWAMP. In the report GWAMP summarized the main advantages and problems of group work and assessment.

The advantages are that group work:
•    Encourages high quality work
A group can take on a bigger task, process more information, achieve more professional results.
•    Encourages autonomy
The work is less likely to be teacher led. The product will belong to the students.
•    Encourages increased commitment
A group that is working effectively will encourage its members not to let the others down.
•    Encourages efficient use of time and resources
Groups working effectively learnt how to delegate and respect delegation. Technical and staffing resources are used for a group of students rather than individuals.

The problems with group work are:
•    Assessment
Individual students felt that they had done the most and so deserved a higher mark, or that other students were gaining marks from their work and had not done as much or as high quality themselves.
•    ‘Passengers’
Students were concerned that they had members of their group who were not making as much or any contribution to the group.
•    Parity of opportunity
Inevitably if work is delegated, not all students will get a chance to do all tasks.
•    Lack of shared expectations
Some group members may wish to aim for a very high standard of work, others may feel, that they simply need to complete the task (GWAMP, 2003).

The work of Tuckman (1965, pp. 384-399) and Belbin (1981) breaks down the phases that a group goes through and the individual types who might be found within a group. Their work is still very cogent and although based more on the workplace has relevance for HE. However in commercial arenas, ‘team work’, as it is commonly called, has been thoroughly detailed and explored, as the implications of poor or exemplary team activities can have extraordinary financial consequences for the organisation involved.  Other institutions such as the military have an even greater reason to ensure that they understand how people work together. In this case, military activities have been honed not so much by academic study as by trial and error, often of a life and death nature.  The term ‘task force’ is borrowed from this military context. The term is used to imply a clear and unequivocal hierarchy which is common to the military but also to many areas of the work place, where all members of the team are equal, but some much more equal than others!

The results of the interviews and workshops showed that lecturers regularly use group work activities but are aware that there are issues and difficulties that recur. What became apparent from the study is that when a group is only required to do one task, they encounter the problems of working in a group, but without the opportunity to put them right. But if allowed to repeat a similar task drawing on this experience they may overcome these problems and work as a ‘team’.  If allowed to develop further by repeating related tasks the teams began to allocate roles according skills and expertise in order to complete the task more effectively. They might also start to marginalize or even ‘sack’ members who are felt to be inadequate. It is suggested that they are performing now as a ‘task force’.

The Group

The interviewees reported that the most likely way that a group forms is by friendships. Students will even accept a known ‘passenger’ or weak group member if they are a friend, although this was less true in the higher levels of degree work. An identifiable cause of conflict was when a group was asked to take another member who arrived late into the class and then did not contribute fully. By the final undergraduate year, it was observed that students firmly decline to accept a group member they do not trust to work as an active member of the group.

The Team

Although the words ‘group’ and ‘team’ could be thought of as synonyms, nuances imply that a group is a more random selection of individuals, whereas a team may be thought of as a collection of individuals who will subsume their own desires for the benefit of the team as a whole. A team is more likely to have defined roles or functions within it. It is also likely to have a more positive interpretation of “people working together as a group in order to achieve something” (Cambridge, 2007).

Bruce W. Tuckman (1965, pp. 384-399) was one of the earliest commentators to examine group work and he identified the stages of a group’s development. These he called, 
•    Forming - The group comes together.
•    Storming - There will be a period of much discussion and ideas generation, but it may not be productive, until the group have settled down and found a way of working together. This may include nominating or accepting a leader.
•    Norming - The group enters a period of understanding and agreeing how it will work together.
•    Performing - The group is able to function effectively

It may be suggested that it is when the group leaves the period of ‘storming’ and settles into its ‘norming’ phase that it has become a ‘team’ that will more easily achieve its task.

For students Tuckman’s storming period may require intervention by the teacher, formative feedback or the opportunity to “have another go”. Lecturers who had set up activities where students were going to repeat a similar task several times saw a clear development of group work skills and increase in successful outcomes.

There was a consensus amongst the workshop participants about the need for basic advice for students undertaking group work which might encourage them to more rapidly progress to ‘team’ status. Much involved common courtesy such as punctuality; exchanging contact details; listening to others and taking responsibility for your own work but some other advice was more specific such as “Draw up your rules for the group”; “Choose a leader”. A number of lecturers insisted on an individual journal or log, suitable for the task. One lecturer has an optional essay at the end of the course where students can reflect on what they have learnt about the processes of working in a group. He is encouraged that most students undertake this and feels that the results are revealing.

“In the real world you get who you get and you’re stuck with them. You have to work as best you can. Designing it to go as smoothly as possible is too artificial.  Roles and functions develop, in particular that of ‘scribe’.  Some resent this, others feel they have lost control. The loss of control can be the greatest anxiety, where students work individually they have control of their work…But I feel it is beneficial because of the number of skills gained and developed and they use a wide range of skills… The essay can change their views of group work but also change their view of themselves.” (Psychology lecturer)

The extent to which lecturers should intervene in the team was discussed and experiences varied with some feeling that one of the learning outcomes of group work was the resolution of group dynamics and so intervention should be minimal. Other respondents felt they needed to intervene early on to ensure success, particularly where the learning outcomes were more focused on the completion of the task.  Some subject areas set up rooms and facilities specifically to undertake team activities to simulate a professional situation. For example in a business department it was felt that working in a business team should be an overt and explicit activity. ‘Pods’ have been built which replicate a modern office environment, such as an advertising agency. Students spend two days a week in the pods undertaking simulated tasks, which may change as new information is brought to them.

“Right from the first year we are saying, ‘We want you to behave in a professional way, work as a team, - be vocational’. We have a dress code of smart casual; we manage the environment to change their comfort zone… There is a behaviour code and they can be penalised in their grade if they break it”. (Business lecturer)

Within subject areas such as Media, Art and Design, students are often working in a professional environment such as a studio and may be asked to behave appropriately. However not all professional or industry practice is of a standard that a university would wish to emulate. One lecturer who teaches computer gaming development says that his industry has its own unique quirks.

“When you talk to ‘Games’ industry recruiters they say that if they have two equally competent candidates the tie breaker will be the one who will gel best in the team. That means they will have to work stupidly long hours; dress as if they’re 17; like inflatable cartoon characters; eat a lot of pizza and don’t write anything down! (The golden rules of software development about documenting everything are abandoned!) So whether that’s something you want to develop…? Probably not!  Part of it though, is a culture of taking responsibility and attention to detail. Not having other people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. ‘Here’s a job, make sure you do it right’. It’s taking initiative.” (Games lecturer)

The Task Force


The results of GWAMP suggested that group work encouraged initiative and independent project management. These are qualities that are particularly stressed during the final degree year or at postgraduate level. Within the teams the roles and functions become distinct and several lecturers described how they rotated these to ensure a parity of opportunity and students being able to achieve the full range of learning outcomes.

“We wanted to go for a deeper project and to develop communication skills. We avoid giving marks to five if only three did the work. They are given mandates and at some point each student will act as project manager….I thought by rotating things and by getting people to submit different things and defining who was doing what element, everyone could see that everyone was involved.  They submit ‘Highlight’ reports every Friday electronically and the staff get feedback to them on Monday. Feedback is the key. They need to get it quickly and act upon it.”  (Computing lecturer)

Rapid formative feedback, leading to a revision of work and higher grades is very important for students. Lecturers saw a value in allowing the same teams to continue on to another task, encouraging them to replicate their activities and improve upon how they functioned. The teams may become very focussed and competitive and develop strategic plans for their work. An example was found in a class of third year radio production teams. They hear each other’s work fortnightly and this playback session sets competitive standards. At the session the students are polite to each other, but afterwards it is noticeable how much they have learnt by listening to the other teams. They find it much easier to identify a problem in another team’s work and this leads to them ensuring they don’t make the same mistake. (Gordon 2004, pp. 61-72)

At this stage of the team’s development, an individual member, who shows themselves to have an area of expertise will tend to be asked to contribute in that role.  The team has become a task force, with a hierarchy and delegated functions.  At postgraduate and final year undergraduate level, this may simulate professional practice and ensure a high standard of work, but it does mean that the lecturer loses control of the learning outcomes for the cohort as a whole. Individual students may not be able to extend their own mastery of technical or subject skills, although they will be reinforcing their own areas of expertise and abilities.

Belbin’s work found that individuals showed particular aptitudes when acting as part of a group, such as ‘leader’, ‘shaper,’ or ‘resource investigator’. However just because a student feels at ease as one of Belbin’s types is no reason for them to only take on that function. It is surely appropriate for an HE student to progress outside of their comfort area. Some of Belbin’s roles may be down to temperament but there is no reason why others may not be developed.

Conclusion

The results of this study showed that the development of the Group into a Team and from a Team into a Task Force may be assisted by:
 
•    setting up suitable tasks with clear learning outcomes;
•    giving some simple advice and guidelines;
•    early lecturer intervention if necessary
•    repetition of a similar task with the same group.

Group work can play a key role in the curriculum. With consideration and planning it can emulate the professional environment, leading to the acquisition of skills needed by employers and an understanding of professional practices. The learning outcomes can be both vocational and transferable generic skills. In subject areas such as Media, Art and Design, students will gain a actual portfolio of examples of work they have undertaken as a part of a team to show and discuss with potential employers, in addition to a virtual portfolio of ‘soft skills’ that will aid them in many differing areas of their future life.



1) This paper is the report of a study undertaken under the auspices of the University of Bedfordshire’s CETL.  The ‘Bridges’ CETL is examining the links or bridges between further and higher education and from higher education into employment.  The CETL has an overarching theme of enhancing employability amongst the student body.

2) Workshops and interviews were conducted with lecturers from the University of Bedfordshire, Plymouth College of Art and Design and delegates at the ISSOTL conference, Sydney 2007.

3) For a wide range of texts these are very useful web sites from The Higher Education Academy http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/learning/assessment/links and The Higher Education Academy Economics Network http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/groupwork/refs.htm

Bibliography:
Belbin, R. M. (1981) Management Teams, Heinemann, London.

Cambridge Dictionary available online at http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=81592&dict=CALD accessed 13th Nov 2007.

Gordon J. (2004) “The ‘Wow’ factors, - The Assessment of Practical Media and Creative Arts Subjects”, Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education Journal, Volume 3, Number 1, Summer 2004 pp. 61-72, Intellect.

Group Work Assessment in Media Production (GWAMP) Bournemouth University, 2003.

Morey, Alistair; Lambert, Emma; Harvey, Lee; Scarles, Caroline; Marlow-Hayne, Nicola and Blakeman, Andrea (May 2002) Perceptions of the Media Studies Curriculum and Employability, Published by the Centre for Research into Quality, The University of Central England in Birmingham, Perry Barr, Birmingham, UK.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965) 'Developmental sequences in small groups', Psychological Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 6, pp. 384-99.

Biography: 
Janey Gordon is a Principal Lecturer and Associate CETL Fellow, in the School of Media, Art and Design at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. She teaches radio broadcasting and her research interests are in the areas of community radio, mobile phones and media pedagogy.  Her recent radio research comparing Australian and UK community radio stations was funded by the British Academy and her subsequent report, commissioned by the BBC World Service Trust, aided the implementation of community radio in Georgia. Her publications include ‘The ‘Wow’ factors, - The Assessment of Practical Media and Creative Arts Subjects’, Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education Journal, Summer 2004 and most recently, Notions of Community, A collection of Community Media Debates and Dilemmas (editor, 2008) Peter Lang. Janey is a member of the Radio Studies Network steering group and is Vice Chair of the Media and Communications Reference Group of the ADM-HEA.

Contact information:
Janey Gordon, University of Bedfordshire

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