Group working – observation by peer 4/6

Having observed David Kreps’ teaching earlier in the course, it seemed appropriate that he should return the favour and observe mine.  He observed part of a three hour session with first year radio news students in which we were discussing newsworthiness and how to find news stories.

Shortly after the observation, David and I had a face-to-face discussion.

The first interesting comment was that my students were “quiet, compliant and attentive.”  I  felt proud to hear him say that.  What did that reveal about my relationship with my students? I think it shows that I care about them and I care what other people think about them.  I want them to shine!  I hope it also suggests that, between us, we’ve created a comfortable learning environment where people want to participate in activities that are meaningful to them.  This would comply with UKPSF A4:-

“Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance.”

The session consisted mainly of group work then coming together to share thoughts.  I wanted to find out David’s thoughts about how I handled this and whether this was an appropriate way to help the students achieve the intended learning outcomes I’d set out.

When we discussed the session, David said he felt I’d given clear instructions about the task the students were required to carry out and that I’d mingled to make sure everyone was happy doing what they were doing.  There was a “good mix between being present and leaving them to it.”

I find myself including more and more group work in my sessions.  By group work I mean tasks which rely on student-student interaction with minimal input from the teacher other than to outline the task.  Just from observation, I can see that my (quiet and compliant!) students engage really well with these kinds of tasks and their energy levels are much higher than if they’re simply sitting listening to me talking.  Abercrombie (1969) writes (cited in Biggs and Tang 2011) that, “students readily identify with each other’s learning in a way they do not do with top-down teacher-directed learning.”

I certainly enjoy setting group work and hearing the students’ discussions and conclusions.  However, the success of this approach does depend on the dynamic of the group.  My current group of students (the groups are selected purely on alphabetic order) is very engaged so the peer-to-peer learning works well.  They know each other well and are happy to work together towards a common goal.  With other groups, it can be harder to generate the right enthusiasm and focus; the size of the class is also significant.  I’ve taught  much smaller groups of students where there didn’t seem to be the same kind of willingness to cooperate.  Perhaps the students didn’t know each other so well.  Faced with a group of individual learners, it feels easier to adopt the “top-down techer-directed” approach.  So perhaps the first task of the teacher in these situations is to find ways to transform a group of individual learners into a co-operative!  I would like to think more about how I might achieve this.

Even when group work is going well, I do still struggle to determine what my role should be when students are engaged in the actual group work.  David said he liked the way I’d “dived in” to correct a student who’d made an incorrect assumption during the group discussion.  But I’m not so sure I should have done that.  If I’d left them to it, would the group dynamic, the student interaction have led them to that conclusion anyway as Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest?

“Some teachers find it hard not to correct a student, not to be seen as the expert or to arbitrate in disputes between students.  But to become the expert arbitrator kills the point of the exercise, as students then tend to sit back and wait to be told what to think.”  (Biggs, and Tang 2011, p165)

So I need to bite my tongue and hold back.  I know I’m very impatient.  It’s something I will try to observe in myself as I continue teaching and see if I can stand back more and let the peer-to-peer interactions work.  (Please see post 6/6 where I look at this specific point)

Jackson and Prosser (1989) observed in their study into introducing group work into a first year politics course that the teacher does need to yield some control in order for the students to benefit from the group work.

..that is precisely what some students need in order to be active. Since the prior education of both students and teachers has been that monitoring and correcting by the teacher are the only means of learning, small group activity can be confusing and distressing for both parties. At the very least students will be confronted by the variegated interpretations of their peers and they will have the responsibility of comparing, contrasting and criticising these interpretations for themselves. They cannot sit back and wait to be told the right answer, as they invariably are in conventional lectures and tutorials. Active learning in small groups is much more like life after graduation than lecture learning is. 

Group work is very well suited to journalism studies.  Indeed, a project to determine and share best practice was set up 2000-2004 called Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice (GWAMP).  The lead coordinator was the University of Bournemouth.  GWAMP includes a number of case studies and resources which I’m exploring with a view to picking out the elements most applicable to my students and my teaching aims.

But I also need to think about issues which could affect the functioning of group work.  Moon (2009) has looked at this primarily from the students’ viewpoint, providing tools for “academic assertiveness” to enable all students to benefit from collaborative work.  I am concerned that an over-reliance on group work and presenting back to the group could disenfranchise quieter students who may find it difficult to speak up.  Moon lists many factors that can be obstacles to group work so this is another area I need to explore so that I can find ways to allow all of my students to benefit from our teaching sessions in keeping with UKPSF V1, V2, V3.  In a session with a small group of international MA students, I experimented with writing rather than speaking their answers in one exercise.  It was interesting to see that the quietest student in the class who perhaps struggles to express herself clearly in English seemed much more comfortable with this.  She needed  a bit more time than the other students, but produced interesting answers.

In our conversation, David pointed out that not only the dynamic of the class but the environment could be a factor in successful group work.  He wondered if I’d tried using the communal facilities in mediaCity to create “breakout zones” where students could leave the confines of the classroom to work on an exercise in a different area.  This is definitely something I’m going to try and bring into my sessions.  I think it would work particularly well with my MA International Journalism group which consists of only 6 students.  We could go anywhere!  Biggs & Tang (2011) suggest “outside under the trees is preferable, weather permitting.”  There aren’t many trees in MediaCity and the weather rarely permits but the comfy sofas would be the next best thing.  This is something I need to reflect on more.

The discussion with David has made me think about how I can use more peer-to-peer interaction in my journalism teaching.  I think there’s scope to extend it further to get students to assess and feedback on each other’s work.  Certainly, this would align very well with professional industry practice where every piece of a journalist’s writing will be seen by a “second pair of eyes” and commented on.

In 2009, Rachel Matthews, a Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Coventry University wrote a paper for the Higher Education Academy about a trial she conducted with her journalism students.  Her students needed to be able to write court reports to a professional standard.  This required a lot of feedback to help them improve their writing style.  The problem was there wasn’t enough time to provide feedback in the traditional way – the teacher reading all the written work and providing feedback on it.  Plus, she wasn’t altogether convinced that kind of feedback was really having the desired effect.

So, she decided to get the students to assess each other’s writing and provide feedback “as a way of increasing opportunities for formative assessment in a way which actively engages students in the process and which is also practicable in terms of staff time.” (Matthews, 2009)

Significantly, she involved the students in setting the criteria by which their written work would be assessed.  Matthews reported that the final work submitted to staff at the end of the module was “very good.”

She concludes that, “peer-assessment is a valuable tool in explicating the standards required of journalism students and one which can be used in all spheres of journalism practice teaching.”  (Matthews, R. 2009)

I think there are potential problems with this approach.  It requires the students to be comfortable enough with each other to accept scrutiny from peers, something which Matthews acknowledges.  But more importantly, it relies on an assumption Matthews makes that students, as consumers of journalism, recognise good writing when they see it. I’m not convinced this is a safe assumption to make with first years.  They don’t listen to enough radio news yet to be familiar with the style of writing required.

Engaging with and assessing the value of existing subject-specific research is an important element of UKPSF A5 and will help with my continuing professional development.

I would still like to experiment with peer feedback in class, however.  I share Matthews’ problem that it is too time-consuming to read and provide feedback on a whole class’ writing exercises. I did get them to email me their work in the early stages of the module and I did spend a great deal of time providing feedback which was fine at that stage.  It’s not practical on a weekly basis so the next time I’ll provide full feedback will be on their actual assessments.

So in the meantime, getting their peers to look at their work might be a useful alternative.  It would certainly be another way to assess their levels of understanding because the feedback they give to peers would be as revealing as the written work they produce themselves.

In conclusion, the post-observation discussion with my peer, David Kreps, has set me on a new path which I hadn’t considered before.  I’m now going to take group work and student-student interaction much more seriously, monitor my own approach in facilitating these exercises and look for ways to extend it to peer assessment and feedback.


Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed).  Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for research into higher Education/Open University

Group Work and Assessment in Media Practice.  Retrieved 07.11.12.

Moon, J. ESCalate (Education Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy), corp creator. (2009) Making groups work : improving group work through the principles of academic assertiveness in higher education and professional development.

Jackson, M. W., Prosser, M.T. (1989) Less lecturing, more learning.  Studies in higher Education,  Vol 14, Issue 1, pp. 55-68. doi:10.1080/03075078912331377612

Matthews, R (2009). The use of peer assessment to improve student journalists’ court reporting skills [electronic version] Higher Education Academy.  Retrieved from


2 thoughts on “Group working – observation by peer 4/6

  1. Hi Liz,

    Very rich and dialogic reflective account. The conversation you had with your peer definitely made you think and carry out some further investigations. This is wonderful. YOu have underpinned your perspectives with relevant literature too and ask your self some important questions. In future accounts it might also be useful to think about options and strategies to try and resolve some of the issues. For example you refer to ‘biting your tongue’ and how difficult you feel this might be for you. Why is this so important? And how could you try to achieve this metaphorically? Also, linked to this, what about Socratic questionning?

    Pleased to see that you are making links to the UK PSF as well. Remember to use the Harvard Referencing System thoughtout. There are some inconsistencies at the moment.

    In order to achieve critical reflection, it will be vital to engage in a more critical exploration and reasoning of practice in a wider context, link theory and thinking about the effects on others of your own actions.

    Looking forward to finding out about your next observations. Very well done so far Liz!


    • Thanks for the super quick response, Chrissi.
      I’m unclear about this suggestion, which probably reflects my lack of academic experience:-
      “In order to achieve critical reflection, it will be vital to engage in a more critical exploration and reasoning of practice in a wider context, link theory and thinking about the effects on others of your own actions.”
      I also thought I was following the Harvard Referencing guide on Blackboard so I’m concerned I’m getting that wrong.
      I’d appreciate more guidance on these points when you have time.

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