Dr Stuart Durkin, School of Social Sciences, tells us about how he created two new Politics and International Relations undergraduate courses to enhance the student experience, which incorporated problem based learning and group work.

Below, read Dr Durkin's report on this project.

Underpinning Principles

The impetus behind the creation of these courses came both from personal experience and professional development.  During my undergraduate degree, I spent a semester at the University of Roskilde in Denmark and was thus exposed to the Roskilde method (Group-oriented Project-Based Learning).  At Aberdeen I completed the university’s PG CERT programme in Higher Education Learning & Teaching, which gave me the opportunity to engage with the theoretical literature underpinning principles of teaching and learning.  I suppose Roskilde was the inspiration but, exposure to some of the theories of teaching and learning during the PG CERT led me to question why we were assessing students in the way we were (predominantly by essay and exam).

Evidential Basis

Central to what I have tried to do subsequently has been Graham Gibbs’ (2010) report for the HEA, Dimensions of Quality.  The report is essentially a large literature review pertaining to quality and good outcomes in undergraduate education.  Gibbs’ report draws upon a couple of the classics of the pedagogic literature in particular: Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) ‘Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education’ and Biggs’ (1986) ‘Three P Model.’  Student engagement and groupwork (the extent of collaborative learning) are two of the key process variables drawn out in Gibbs’ report.

Putting the Principles and Evidence into Practice

Using these principles/evidence I subsequently created two new undergraduate courses at honours level: The Politics of Democratic Spain (Year 3) and Dirty War and its Aftermath (Year 4).  Both of these courses utilise the extended group work format.  That’s to say, group work is not a component of the course; rather, the course is experienced more or less in its entirety in a group. 

Problems with group work often stem from the method being poorly introduced or being treated as an add-on or an extra in a module where group working is not the norm.  Students in these courses are presented with the pedagogic rationale (from Gibbs et al) for why we are doing what we are doing; they are also provided with a pedagogic literature (more below).

Following an outline of the rationale for the teaching and learning methodology, students are provided with a one page problem/project-based learning scenario.  The aim here is to try to replicate as scenario the students may face in the future and to provide them with a supported environment within which to tackle the problem throughout the semester using all the attendant skills associated with group work – communication, problem-solving, negotiation, conflict resolution, organisation, time management, etc.

In terms of ‘product’, the Year 3 course requires that students work together to produce a sophisticated research poster to address the problem, while the Year 4 course requires the groups to produce a formal research report.  The Year 3 course also involves an exhibition of the posters at the end of the semester at which students are required to defend their design/argument during questioning by members of staff from PIR.  Alongside the group assessment component, the students are required to produce an individual reflective research diary, utilising the pedagogic literature, in which they record and reflect upon the individual research they conducted while also reflecting on the experience of the group work, the group dynamic and skill acquisition and personal development along the way. 

Free-loading is obviously one of the major potential pitfalls in group work, though it has not been a significant issue.  In order to allay the potential for free loading, I’ve now also introduced group work learning contracts and a small element (10%) of peer marking of group work performance.

Impact & Evaluation

There is a great consistency to what students report in their reflective research diaries: by Year 3 they are tired of the essay/exam format; they now feel more positive about group work having had negative experiences previously; students perceive working in a group as something they need to know how to do; the group can be really supportive and generates lasting friendships; students feel they are often unable to channel a desire to create through traditional assessment formats.  The products of the group work component of the course have been of a consistently high quality.  I have recently recommended that the group reports from three of the groups in the Year 4 course should be targeted at publication in the PIR Society’s in house journal. 

I have conducted some qualitative research with one of the cohorts from the Year 3 course via an LTEP grant and I’m now working with a colleague, Dr Malcolm Harvey, to work this into a broader article, targeted at the journal Politics, which showcases broader evidential developments within the Politics and International Relations.  The recommendations and testimonials from the students from The Politics of Democratic Spain also led to my receiving the Excellence in Teaching Award 2016-17 (undergraduate).