Author: Dr Libby Orme is the Deputy Head of the Psychology Department, and an Associate Professor of Learning and Teaching

Teaching in higher education during a global pandemic has been a huge change for academics. The move from traditional teaching in a classroom, to almost exclusively online teaching has involved a shift in both theoretically and practically for staff and students. However, in the Psychology Department at Northumbria, we have been using blended approaches to learning for some time. In this post, I wanted to share some of the findings of my own research into the benefits of using Microsoft Teams when teaching research methods

This work is also presented as a case study in the Psychology Teaching Review, and was the reason I was shortlisted for Psychology Higher Education Teacher of the Year by the British Psychological Society in 2020.

Why do we need group work?

As an empirical discipline, psychology courses have a strong focus on research methods. However, it is well documented that psychology students often lack confidence in relation to research methods. To support students’ learning and motivation in research methods, we usually get students to design and conduct their own research projects working in small groups. When I was an undergraduate nearly 20 years ago, we adopted the same approach, because we know this problem-based approach to teaching research methods work.  

However, in my own modules I get the same feedback from students that I gave to my tutors 20 years ago.

“the other members of my group aren’t pulling their weight”

“the mark I received doesn’t reflect the effort I put into the process”

“we can’t arrange a time to meet as a group”

“we agreed we’d share the results by X date, and X didn’t send their data”

“why do I have to negotiate workload with my group”

These kind of issues are really common, and work has even been published around issues in group work saying the same thing. What students are saying here is that there is a lack of transparency, accountability and support in what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ when students are asked to work in groups.

So, in 2019, I read some of the research literature and spoke to different people from IT support, to experts in education and other people teaching similar modules elsewhere. I then changed our approach to teaching research methods via group work. There were a few key things we changed

Flipped Classroom: Rather than having me stand at the front of a class and taking up a quarter of the session telling groups what we’ll be doing that week, I moved to posting a recorded ‘briefing’ for the activity. We stopped teaching new content in the practical programme, and drew on what students were learning in other parts of the course to create a set of constraints in which students had to design a research project.

Tutorials: Rather than having 10 – 15 groups working in the same room at the same time. Each group has a weekly tutorial with a staff member where the group presents their work and actions for the next week are agreed. Here, the onus is on the group to move the project forward, and the staff member just facilitates their group work.

The use of Virtual Learning Environments: As well as tutorials, the groupwork is based around the use of Microsoft Teams. Students can work off campus, tag me as the module tutor or their lab tutor to ask questions, and have us review documents and give feedback. Groups can also meet virtually. Crucially, everything is transparent. We can see how each member has contributed to the project.  

So does this approach work?

Yes! We saw a few key improvements

  • Tutors ratings of student engagement increased between the old and new method
  • Marks for the group work assessments increased by about 5 marks
  • Marks for individually produced final reports increased by about 5 marks

What did the students think?

In the case study, I talk about all the data we collected. We surveyed students about their experience and looked at how this related to their marks.  We found a few key things

  • satisfaction with the outputs of the group is a significant predictor of both subjective (students ratings of how well they learnt) and objective indices in learning (i.e. grades!)
  • the sociability of the systems used to support learning were important for enhancing subjective experiences of learning – that is – students felt they had learnt more, if they used the virtual environment as a means to interact with their group rather than just relying on in class, and in-person interactions
  • The positive social environment is linked to module performance – so those who felt the virtual environment was a positive social environment, got better grades

Student feedback reflected these changes

“the lab classes are well structured. It’s nice to have tutorials with the lab tutor at the beginning, it’s really informative. The use of teams is excellent. It’s good to have the tutors available to help in the larger lab”

On the module evaluation survey, we saw huge improvemnts in the percentage of students who responded positively about every aspect of the module

Percentage of students responding positively (Agree or Strongly Agree) with satisfaction in each domain

My own reflection

That year was the most positive experience of teaching research methods that I have had in the 14 years I’ve been teaching it. For me, it was a huge shift in how I teach, not standing up in front of a class, and not having scheduled formal ‘classes’ with big groups. But I was so impressed at how well students engaged.

I’ve highlighted the changes in student performance on the module above, for me, the biggest improvement was a qualitative change in students’ work. We saw much more creative ideas and challenging projects, and students really taking ownership of their learning. I was particularly pleased to see that the increase in report marks within the module was far greater in the new method – so students improved from one project to the next within the module, much more than they did in the old method. Suggesting learning within the module was very much linked to the new approach.

Little did I know that the next semester we would be in a global pandemic that is still ongoing. However, having implemented blended approaches to learning, we were in a much better position to make the change to teaching online, and whilst it’s been a challenging year for everyone Its been great to see that students have still been able to engage in practical, experimental, group-based research projects over the last year.

You can read more about our Learning and Teaching by heading over to our blog

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