Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Facilitating the learning of group processes in management courses via a group-based, 'parcel-marking' student assessment approach: Experiences to date

Michael Thong
Graduate School of Business
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Many academics have used group-based student assessment (GBSA) in their respective programs at one time or another, for various reasons and presumably with varying degrees of success. Notwithstanding some caveats and shortcomings associated with this assessment mode, no discernible sign of a decline in its use is evident, either in its generic form or any one of several variations. This paper explains the rationale, identifies the objectives and describes the operations of a particular GBSA approach in management courses, where students, working in allocated study groups are handed back the percentage raw score for an assignment multiplied by the number of students comprising the particular group. Within a specified time period following this, the group is required to return a group-determined final distribution of individual scores to the lecturer after evaluating inter alia the extent to which each student has contributed to the overall assignment, and deciding on the level of reward to which each student is consequently entitled. Regardless of outcomes, students engage in debriefing sessions aimed at analysing their 'group processes', a topic with pivotal importance in organizational behaviour and other management-related courses. Learning is therefore grounded in the student's individual and collective experience.

The author's experience in using this approach to date will be discussed, including a summary of students' attitudes before and after the learning experience, their feedback on the process and lessons generally learned. The paper concludes with some suggestions for the more effective facilitation of student learning of group processes.


Background

The use of student groups in educational settings for assessment is not new (Boyer, Weiner and Diamond, 1985). One way of classifying student assessment is on the basis of individual versus group-based assignments. It is thought that most academics will have at one time or another tried different forms of assessment between and within each of these two broad approaches. The reasons for using a particular form and the quality of its outcome will undoubtedly vary from person to person, and presumably even within any given individual from time to time.

Implicit in group-based student assessment (hereafter GBSA) is the notion of a cooperative learning environment, where students learn to collaborate and work together in mutually supportive ways towards a common goal (Johnson and Johnson, 1975; Johnson, Marayama, Johnson, Nelson and Skon, 1983). Despite a relatively steady and widespread advocacy for such a pedagogical environment, the reported experience of teachers and students in terms of learning outcomes and personal satisfaction have not been invariably positive (Linden, Nagao and Parsons, 1986).

From the students' perspective, two main types of negative experiences have been frequently reported in relation to GBSA: assessment or grading inequities ("some group members did not contribute as much as I did") and group process problems ("my group had members with difficult personalities").

What is GBSA? It is a way of evaluating a student's assignment performance on a group basis, as opposed to an individual-based approach. As one of two general approaches, the relatively widespread use of GBSA in the field of business and management can be explained by at least two general groups of reasons. Firstly, as higher educational resources continue to be squeezed, the general message in academe is to 'do more with less'. Individual-based student assessment while having many hallmarks of good pedagogical practice, is simply no longer economically justifiable if used exclusively, especially in courses with large student enrolments. GBSA offers an alternative approach; it complements the individual approach. Secondly, GBSA provides a basis for the cooperative approach in higher education, and all the values that it implies. Many have argued the educational merits associated with this collaborative stance (Johnson and Johnson, 1983; Johnson, Johnson and Maruyama, 1983; Sharan, 1980). Using only individual-based student assessment therefore deprives students and teachers of a potentially rich source of learning experience.

In its generic form, GBSA basically requires a large class to be sub-divided into several smaller groups, with say five or six students in each. A pre-determined group assignment (typically a large case-study or group project) is then distributed, which in turn is submitted, assessed and returned with one grade applicable to all group members. Although some may be tempted to argue that such an approach is objective, impartial and expedient, others would equally argue that it is overly task oriented with little or no facilitated learning for students, based on their personal and collective experiences.

Most students who have endured GBSA report a range of negative personal experiences, centered around issues like their expectations or preferences regarding a modus operandi, inferior communications and dysfunctional conflict (Jalajas and Sutton, 1985). Although many can end up positively hating any form of GBSA, this is unfortunate because of the ubiquity of work groups in professional life. Learning how to work effectively in groups is an important and real need.

As a result of dissatisfactions with the generic model by the late 1980s, the author attempted variations on the theme. While the approach can be named differently, the suggested one is the group-based, 'parcel marking' scheme (or simply 'parcel marking'). The general schema and flowchart is shown in Attachment One.

A key feature of 'parcel marking' is the issue of control over the distribution of the 'loot'. In conventional approaches, the group's overall grade is common for all its members, which can cause varying degrees of personal dissatisfaction especially if one has 'put-in' more than others, commonly referred to as 'passengers'. In parcel marking the group is required to share its total results (that is raw score multiplied by number of members) among all members by making decisions about inter alia who has contributed what, how much and how well. In so doing, not only are members learning about how to get things done in group settings, they are importantly learning about how fair or unfair, ethical or unethical reward systems can be, and what may have to be done to change attitudes, behaviour, or systems.

While convinced of the merits of a collaborative learning environment, an attempt was made to simultaneously address a key problem associated with the generic GBSA, and enhance the didactic aspects of the 'new' approach. Two primary reasons account for the interest in trying this approach, which in turn became its implicit objectives. Firstly, the felt need to counter the reported problem of grade inequity (Feichtner and Davis, 1985). In the parcel marking approach the locus of control resides with each group member. No longer need a member feel unfairly treated by 'the system' or powerless to influence a range of things that affect group performance. "What-you-get-will-depend-on-what-you-put-in-and-how-well-you-do-it" seems an appropriate catchphrase.

Secondly, a conviction that it is possible to facilitate the learning of 'group processes' via realtime personal experiences. This is a pivotal topic in courses like Organizational Behaviour and Management, which are normally mandatory in Business, Management, and Administration programs. The classroom assignment group becomes the working group, with real interpersonal dynamics and group processes. At a time when groups are increasingly becoming the norm in organizations, for example in the form of committees, project teams, quality circles, taskforces, work units, it is strongly argued that educators can make a contribution by facilitating students' learning of group skills. Examples of key learning areas covered are shown in Attachment Two. Thus it became not only possible but desirable for students to personally experience the range of emotions associated with working in groups to solve problems and make decisions (Fisher, 1981). This theory-praxis connection is considered to be educationally relevant.

While it is of course possible to incorporate similar learning in other GBSA, the parcel marking approach by its very nature extends the conventional boundaries by addressing potentially difficult but relevant issues like the relationship between personal effort, group performance, and influencing the reward system; communication styles, assertiveness and personality.

Experiences to date

Initial trials were carried out with two groups of Bachelor of Applied Science (Advanced Nursing) students (N=20 and 25), divided into five-member strong groups and using very large and elaborate case-studies and oral presentations as assignments.

These were subsequently followed by three other groups: a Graduate Diploma in IR and HRM (N=22); a Bachelor of Business (HRM and IR) (N=32); and a MBA (N=27). Similar case-studies and oral presentations were used for the first two, and an extensive group project for the third.

On the basis of the relatively modest sample size of 24 groups (with approximately five students in each) that have participated in the parcel marking approach over the last five-six years, the feedback collected via post-assessment focus group interviews have been generally positive and supportive of the overall idea underlying parcel marking. Positive student comments far outweigh negative ones. Examples of positive comments are:

Examples of negative comments are: Before and after comparison of students' attitudes towards parcel marking were likewise generally between neutral to defensive, and generally between positive in a guarded sense to actively supportive, respectively.

The author's initial hypothesis that all parcel marking groups will adopt the 'easy way' out by simply averaging out the raw score (that is the instructor's grade will apply to all group members) was not found to be so. Of the 24 participating groups, seven ended up with 'non-averaged' final distribution of students' marks. Also relevant are the following additional qualitative impressions gathered by the author over several iterations of the parcel marking approach.

Firstly, if sufficient care is taken before, during and after the formal assessment process, much quality learning of group processes can result for students and at the same time provide a GBSA experience that overcomes the grade inequity problem. The debriefing or 'after' phase is particularly prone to a superficial treatment, and the instructor should be skilled in group facilitation to be able to make relevant and meaningful connections between the disparate experiences and comments of students. Additionally, groups would benefit from an analysis of its stages of development in relation to its group assignment. Suitable models would include Tuckman, 1965; and Forsyth, 1983. Good inductive learning can occur during this debriefing phase if the psychological climate has been suitably orchestrated.

Secondly, a 'maturity factor' seems to be operating in this GBSA approach. Older, typically part-time, post-experience participants, but independent of student status (that is undergraduate or postgraduate), seem more willing and ready to participate in a prima facie more serious manner. This mindset has typically produced very useful awareness raising experiences, with students making powerful comparisons and drawing parallels between what has happened in their parcel marking groups and actual group situations in their respective organizations. In many cases it has been a confirmatory experience, in others a revelatory one. In all cases, a key question is what needs to be attempted in future to improve individual performance within a group setting; what has been learned?. Conversely, younger, less experienced and typically full-time students tend to go through the requirements of this approach in a more mechanistic fashion. The quality of the post-assessment learning is thought to be sub-optimal, and therefore more educationally challenging.

Thirdly, attention needs to be given to the way individuals are allocated into groups. Although the choice is basically between three generic methods: self-selection, random, or systematic, it is possible to create hybrids (Linden, Nagao and Parsons, 1986).

Fourthly, the instructor needs to ensure against blatant victimisation of any individual student. Should this occur there is a real need to intervene and help the group make its decision.

Although this has been a fruitful attempt at facilitating the learning group processes and at overcoming the GBSA grade inequity problem, the author's cumulative experience has raised additional questions with implications for future research.

Firstly, at a time when the number of full-fee paying foreign students in local universities, and the number of off-shore programs of Australian universities appear to be increasing steadily, what are the cross-cultural implications, if any, of the parcel marking approach? What meaning does a cooperative learning environment have for students from cultures quite different from Australia? From the author's experience, many students from some overseas countries manifest the discrepancy between what is said, what is felt and what is overtly displayed in ways not all of which are congruent or functional.

Secondly, are there any, and if so what, differences between male and female students in handling group processes in parcel marking assignments? What lessons can males and females learn from such gender differences?

Thirdly, with more work on the maturity factor, how can the less experienced, typically full-time students be better helped to optimise learning of group processes?

Clearly more work needs to be done if this approach is to continue to realise its twin objectives of addressing the grade inequity problem commonly associated with GBSA and facilitating students' learning of group processes.

References

Boyer, E., Weiner, J. and Diamond, M. (1985). Why groups? The Organizational Behaviour Teaching Review, Vol IX, No 4, 3-7.

Feichtner, S. and Davis, E. (1985). Why some groups fail: a survey of students' experiences with learning groups. The Organizational Behaviour Teaching Review. Vol IX, No 4, 58-73.

Fisher, B. (1981). Small group decision making: communication and group process, (2nd ed). Tokyo: McGraw-Hill.

Forsyth, D. (1983). An introduction to group dynamics. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.

Johnson, D. and Johnson, R. (1975). The use of cooperative, competitive and individualistic goal structures within the classroom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Johnson, D., Maruyama, G., Johnson, R., Nelson, D. and Skon, L. (1981). The effects of cooperative, competitive and individualistic goal structures on achievement: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 89(1), 47-62.

Johnson, D. and johnson, R. (1983). The socialization and achievement crisis: Are cooperative learning experiences the solution? In Bickman, L. (ed), Applied Social Psychology Annual, Vol 4. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R. and Maruyama, G. (1983). Interdependence and interpersonal attraction among heterogenous and homogeneous individuals: A theoretical formulation and meta analysis of the research. Review of Educational Research, 53, 5-54.

Linden, R., Nagao, D. and Parsons, C. (1986). Student and faculty attitudes concerning the use of group projects. The Organizational Behaviour Teaching Review, Vol X, No 4, 32-38.

Sharan, S. (1980). Cooperative learning in small groups: Recent methods and effects on achievement, attitudes and ethnic relations. Review of Educational Research, 50, 241-271.

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.


Attachment One

A group-based, 'parcel marking' approach: The general schema and flowchart

(1) instructor decides on a suitable group assignment (eg case-study, group project)

(2) allocation of students into groups (allocation method to be carefully selected)

(2a - optional) lecture on working in groups; group development stages; group dynamics and processes

(3) assignment distributed; groups commence work

(4) groups submit assignment on due date

(5) instructor assesses and grades group assignment

(6) instructor returns graded assignment to each group with a 'parcel mark' (which is the raw score multiplied by number of group members)

(7) group has up to 48 hours to decide on the final distribution of marks for all group members

(8) instructor receives final distribution from all groups

(9) instructor convenes a debriefing session for each group to facilitate learning conversations on group processes: what worked and what didn't?; What went wrong?; How can we improve in future?; What have we learned about ourselves, others and group processes?

(10) an attempt at internalising the experience for all parties (inductive learning)

(11) start of next cycle (if appropriate)



Attachment Two

Some examples of major learning areas (viz knowledge, skills, attitudes) considered relevant in the group-based, 'parcel-marking' approach*:

Communication

Task (including problem-solving and decision-making),
maintenance, and dysfunctional behaviours

Content vs process

Group facilitation

Meeting management

Conflict management and resolution

Negotiations

Political processes

Influence

Leadership

Delegation

Assertiveness

Performance management

Reward systems

Operant conditioning

Collaboration vs competition

Learning-to-learn

* These subsume intra-personal (eg perception, motivation, stress and other
personality-related variables) and inter-personal processes (eg communications).

Please cite as: Thong, M. (1995). Facilitating the learning of group processes in management courses via a group-based, 'parcel-marking' student assessment approach: Experiences to date. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p257-261. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/thong.html


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