tisdag 2 oktober 2012

Student project groups - ambitions and grades

I recently wrote a blog post about putting together project groups in courses (in higher eduction). The two main criteria that I discussed (and that can easily come into conflict with each other) were choosing who/what to work with based on "friendship" vs "interest". Should a student be able to choose freely which group to join for a project? Or should I as a teacher encourage students to choose groups based on interests rather than on what your friends choose? My answer was that yes, I should.

There are however other criteria at play, for example educational background/specialization. If we assume that a successful project requires many different abilities, perhaps it's a good idea to form a group based on the complementary skills of the members? That might be the case, but I have a hard time imagining such criteria will have an impact. A student however reminded me about another criteria that was important for her, namely ambition. She wanted to join a group with ambitious, hard-working students who share the workload equitably - but finding and becoming a member of such a group becomes more difficult when a certain element of randomness and chance is introduced into the group formation process.

That's a valid point. So this year students will not only inform me about their 1st, 2nd and 3rd hand choices (as to what topics they would like to work with), but also which grade range they are aiming for in the course; A-B, B-C, C-D or D-E. Going for, say, C-D instead of A-B might not necessarily mean that you are a slacker - it might equally well signify that you have little time available as you study several other courses in parallel, that your partner/child/sport/start-up company/job on the side demands a lot of you, that the theme ("future of magazines") is not very exciting to you etc. While possible, I do believe only a brave as well as a brutally honest student would ever admit to aiming for the D-E grade range...?

If eight persons want to join a group but only five can, should I strive to put together a group of students with similar ambitions rather than letting the dice determine who will join the group and who won't? Perhaps, but I will not use the information for this purpose. It should instead be seen as a starting point for making personal goals and ambitions visible and possible to talk about within the project group. If levels of ambition differs within the group, this is probably something that group members should know about and talk about at an early stage (so that it doesn't later "explode" and create conflicts within the group).

This intervention of mine is in fact also very much in line with our guest lecturer Anna Swartling's advice from the lecture she gave last week about problems and pitfalls of student groups and project work in higher education.  Perhaps it's ok that everyone does not put exactly as much time into a student/course project? Perhaps it's ok that someone is very busy (or even away) during a period? Perhaps it's ok if someone who wants a higher grade works a little harder than someone who doesn't have exactly the same ambitions (even if every person in the group will get the same grade in the end)? It is anyway much better to talk about it at an early stage than to let it slide.

By stating your ambition and having an open discussion about it within the project group, groups members implicitly make promises to each other. If you state that you aim for the A-B range, but later don't work hard enough, other group members can point at this discrepancy and ask to to live up to the goals (or promises) you have previously stated.

Something that makes the issue slightly "delicate" (?) is that stating your goals (as a group) might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a group has stated that they aim for top grades but don't seem to perform in a way that is congruent with those goals, should I as a teacher make them pay attention to it? But is it then ok if a group with lower ambitions do not get that same early warning - and are thus more prone to end up with the (lower) grade that they stated they were aiming for? ...or was that in fact exactly the whole purpose of stating your goals in the first place - so it's all good...? That's a question I can't answer right now, but I still think it is an advantage to have this information out in the open with the option of me acting upon it (or not).

Another relevant question is what aiming for the A-B (or C-D) range actually means? Here are some thoughts based on how much time it is reasonable that a student should put into the project. Time is naturally something that relates to ambition and it might be easier to discusse time (i.e. to use time as a proxy for ambition/quality) in the project group early on. Here are two different ways to think about what constitutes a reasonable work load in the project phase of the course:

1) Being a full-time student implies a work load of 40 hours per week. This course corresponds to 1/3 of a full course load during the autumn term so 40/3 = 13 hours of work per person per week. This calculation does not take into account the fact that (due to popular vote) the course will end with a final presentation already on Friday December 9. If the course is "compressed" in such a manner, should not students be prepared to spend more than 13 hours per week on the course?

2) A 10-credit course corresponds to 6.67 weeks of full-time studies = 267 hours. Deducting time spent in the course before the project phase (24 lectures - 50 hours, other activities - a generous 37 hours) leaves 180 hours for the project phase. Since the project officially starts week 41 and ends week 50, that corresponds to nine weeks and a resulting course load of 180/9 = 20 (!) hours of work per person per week.

These are impressive numbers. If we form groups with 4-5 persons in each group, then a project group "should" spend between 50 and 100 hours on this project every week for nine weeks in row. That is a lot of time. But also note that putting 13 or 20 hours of work per person per week into the project in no way guarantees a top grade - but it does work well as a starting point for discussions within the project groups. Perhaps it is even reasonable to assume that such a work load corresponds to a grade right below a top grade range (i.e. B-C)? I know that this way of reasoning demands a whole lot from our very capable students. Does it demand too much? What do you think?

Finally, I have to make the point that it is very hard to gauge the amount of work that has actually been put into a project. Some groups might be lucky and strike upon and then refine a great concept from early on. Other groups might struggle and have to shelf several so-so ideas before they find the one idea they chose to hold on to and develop. But in the end, it is only possible and only relevant to judge the results, not the effort - grades are awarded according to results and not to effort. Spending fewer hours working effectively on a great idea beats spending many ineffective hours working on an average idea. We do on the other hand of course assume that there is a correlation between time spent in a project and the quality of the results - the more time you spend, the better the results (within reasonable limits). Going along with the very first idea that comes to mind - instead of spending a healthy amount of time getting to know each other and discussing different ideas - is a high-risk strategy!

How we actually go about to judge the quality of the results in project courses might be the topic for another blog post.

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