Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How do we introduce effective group learning into science-based curricula in higher education?

Associate Professor Elizabeth Deane and Dr Sharon Fraser
School of Science
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
This paper discusses the results of student surveys conducted prior to, and during the implementation of a student-centred approach to the study of Introductory Immunology in year 2 of the BSc degree program at UWS, Nepean. The new teaching and learning program seeks to produce learners who are more actively engaged in the process of learning and carry a greater load of responsibility for directing their own learning. It represents a move away from didactic controlled knowledge transmission towards a learning partnership between academic and student. The evaluation of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning strategy from the students' perspective, is vital to the finetuning of the methodology for trial in future years. Moreover, a comparison of quantitative assessment data and the recognition of the perceptions of the teaching staff of student skills and understanding, are also vital to the process of evaluation. This paper summarises the successes and weaknesses of the initial implementation of the teaching and learning strategy.


Immunology is a discipline whose knowledge base is expanding at a rapid pace. The subject Introductory Immunology aims to provide the student with an understanding of the development and functioning of the immune system, as well as expertise in a range of clinical assessment and research techniques involving immunological principles. Traditionally the subject's format consisted of 3 hours of lectures and 3 hours practical/tutorial classes per fortnight. However, it was believed that this structure provided little opportunity for students to develop as independent learners (Candy et al., 1995), nor did it help them to develop the skills and attitudes that are essential in graduates such as critical analysis, problem solving, communication and working in teams (B/HERT, 1992; NBEET, 1992). Typically, students enrolled in this subject were used to a teacher-led learning regime and not usually familiar with group learning as an educational technique. Additionally, although students worked in small groups (n=2 to 4) during laboratory sessions, the groups were often friendship partnerships and they gained little experience in cooperative learning, except almost by accident.

We adopted a phased-in approach over 2 years, to our restructuring of Introductory Immunology. Phase 1 consisted of an evaluation of the effectiveness of the existing delivery methodology, both from the viewpoint of the skills it aimed at developing and from the students' perspective. Phase 2 involved changes to the subject structure from its traditional presentation to group work, use of reflective journals and workshops. Student opinion was canvassed throughout its delivery. Initially, in Phase 1 of the project, students were canvassed for their expectations of the subject, their concerns and their preference for particular learning modes. At the end of semester they were asked to comment on proposed changes in delivery.

Phase 2

In Phase 2, Introductory Immunology, was modified so that content and concepts in the subject area were replaced by audio tapes, study guidelines and brief lecture notes. The time freed from compulsory lecture attendance, was used for a number of plenary presentations and student-led workshops and seminars. The latter were directed by short sets of quiz questions addressing both subject content and the development of a conceptual knowledge base. Reflective journals were used, in order for students to record their learning progress. Though the structure of the practical work remained unchanged, students were required to complete an experimental journal, which replaced the traditional practical report. This journal consisted of structured questions to be answered and acted as a chronology of their growth in competency in the subject area, and to chart their exploration of the knowledge base.

Research methodology

The students were surveyed three times during the semester to examine the attitudes to the new approach and their perceptions of its effectiveness in their learning.
  1. Entry Survey (n = 21): administered at the beginning of the semester,
  2. Progress Survey (n = 34): conducted at the conclusion of an early workshop session. This survey sought to explore the students' initial perceptions about the benefits and disadvantages of the newly implemented teaching and learning strategies.
  3. Exit survey (n = 22): administered at the end of the semester and sought tabulate student study behaviour throughout the semester and to identify areas of perceived benefit and/or weakness and opinions about the proposed changes.
Quantitative comparisons were also made between assessment results achieved via the traditional teaching approach, from the previous years' cohort of students, and the new methodology.


Survey 1: Entry survey - science and learning (n=21)

Opinions and expectations of the subject
If given the choice, 89% of students would have chosen to do immunology, either out of personal interest (44%), because it was good knowledge to have (28%) or a prerequisite for their chosen career path (39%), or simply because it was perceived to be enjoyable (11%). Expectations about the subject varied, the largest number of students (48%) expected to gain an understanding of how the immune system functions or be given a solid background in immunology (33%).

Survey 2: Progress survey (n=34)

The second survey was undertaken after students had been immersed in the new programme for 4 weeks. At this stage, student opinion about how well the combined strategies aided understanding ranged from poor (9%), through adequate (41%) and well (38%) whilst a small number thought the new strategies worked very well (12%).

Opinions varied about the effectiveness of the tapes as a source of information, though 50% thought they were either effective or very effective, and a further 35% perceived them to be adequate. At this stage in the semester, 71% were using their textbook as a resource, but of these only 52% believed it to be effective or better. Students also varied greatly in their opinion of how well the group discussion/workshop format helped understanding, the majority (88%) were positive, thinking they worked adequately (24%), well (44%) or very well (20%). A large majority (91%), were impressed with how well their groups had functioned thus far.

However, when asked what parts have proved most difficult, 32% had complaints about the audio tapes, specifically the length of time required to listen and take notes, the lack of interaction with the lecturer and the quality of the tape itself. A small number (18%) experienced difficulties due to a perceived lack of time in which to do the work.

Survey 3: Exit survey (n=22)

When asked how effective each of the delivery strategies used during the semester had been in aiding learning in immunology, students felt that the regular quizzes were the most effective learning strategy with 86% ranking them good to very good. Over half the students were supportive of both the audio tapes and assignments (59% good or very good).

It was evident from student feedback that the reflective journal was not favoured. Only one student always used it, with 68% either only using it sometimes (50%) or never at all. Student attendance at the workshop session was not officially recorded, but student feedback indicated that little more than half (59%) always attended, with a further 32% attending most of the time. Of those who participated in the workshop sessions, 86% stated that they always (41%) or mostly (45%) engaged in the discussions.

Group work was only popular with a few students (18%). The workshop sessions requiring group work were found difficult by some (32%) as:

Suggestions for change included the reintroduction of lectures (27%), the introduction of a tape/lecture combination (9%), summary/plenary lectures (9%) or increased lecturer input during workshops (9%). Other suggestions included a finetuning of the workshop and group work format (14%).

Comparisons of quantitative data

The spread of student grades from the Phase 2 students showed a typical spread as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Grades received by students (%) in the cohorts of students in Phase 1 and 2.

Student Cohort HDDCPF IW
Phase 1 03244528 --
Phase 2 212211835 75


Content complexity and delivery strategies
Much of the negativity or dissatisfaction expressed by the students about their study of immunology, either by way of the traditional or the new approach, may in part, have been due to the level of complexity of the material covered. Almost 60% of students felt that audio taping of lecture material was effective, many appreciating the ability to refer to tapes again when studying for exams. Though the most favoured approach was the workshop quizzes, probably because they allowed students to get regular feedback about their level understanding and to gauge what aspects of immunology the lecturer deems most important. This is also indicative of the weight many science students place on summative assessment. Student preference for delivery strategies was quite divergent, indicating the variation in individual learning styles and preferences that can exist in one class.

Reflective journals
As so few students completed the reflective journal assiduously, it is impossible to comment about the effectiveness of such a learning strategy. Journal writing as a learning strategy is not common in the sciences, though it is being used more frequently in the humanities and with a degree of success. Future implementation of such a learning tool in science will need to be carefully planned, taking into account student resistance, ignorance of the issues and their workload, if its benefits are to be realised.

Experimental journals
The experimental journals enabled students to practice the skills of documenting scientific procedures, and the thought processes that a scientist must cultivate. However students were concerned that they were repeating themselves by using both the practical book and the experimental journal for the documentation of their work. Due to lack of time, both the practical book and experimental journal were not collected regularly, thus students did not get rapid, relevant feedback about their recent work.

The workshop sessions, experienced by the Phase 2 cohort of students, were not as successful as anticipated. There were three major reasons for this:


The restructuring of Introductory Immunology discussed in this paper, involved a more student-centred and resource-based learning regime which incorporated audio-taped lectures, student-led workshops and journal writing. It was anticipated that this approach would produce learners who were more actively engaged in the process of learning, carrying a greater load of responsibility for directing their own learning. It represented a move away from didactic controlled knowledge transmission towards a learning partnership between academic and student. Such expectations were realised.

It was also anticipated that the proposed changes would prepare students for the independent learning, critical analysis, problem-solving and group learning essential to their functioning effectively in the workplace. These skills, acquired during their study of immunology, would be applicable to their learning of other science subjects throughout the remainder of their undergraduate career. A fine-tuning of the workshop format and the resources used in these sessions, along with more focussed training of students in group learning skills, should enable students to more effectively develop the other generic skills.


B/HERT (Business/Higher Education Round Table) (1992). Promoting partnerships enhancing interaction between business and higher education. Task Force Report No.2. Melbourne: B/HERT.

Candy, P.C., Crebert, G. & O'Leary, J. (1994). Developing lifelong learners though undergraduate education. NBEET Commissioned Report No. 28. August, 1994. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1992). Skills sought by employers of graduates. Commissioned Report No. 20, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Please cite as: Deane, E. and Fraser, S. (1999). How do we introduce effective group learning into science-based curricula in higher education? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 103-107. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/deane.html

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