Group work: horses for courses in first year biology


  • Gary Ellem


There are a number of student learning outcomes that are perhaps best achieved in a group approach and others where a group approach is a virtual guarantee that only a portion of the cohort will meaningfully engage in the learning task. We have taken the straight forward approach of ensuring that learning areas with a social interaction component such as ‘working in teams’, ‘team structure and function’, ‘hazard assessment’ and ‘peer review’ are delivered using group work in a way that allows a direct experience and deep learning of the processes. Other learning areas that focus on individual motor and organizational skills such as microscope usage or microbial plating are taught and assessed with students acting as individuals. Specific recognition that socially oriented tasks should be taught in a group environment suggests the obvious ideal that the group task be designed to make the most of the group environment. In this paper I examine two such group tasks that were run in first year biology at the University of Newcastle in 2006. The first of these ‘The Great Diversity Challenge’ was designed to engage students in a deep learning experience regarding their own approach to working in teams along with the basic theory of team structure and function and a team approach to hazard assessment. The second engaged students in the publication and peer review processes and provided personal experience in giving and receiving criticism professionally. Student attitudes to the effectiveness of the approach were assessed using an online survey tool in Blackboard that included both scale and written responses.