A substantial body of research exists showing that, when implemented correctly, the use of group work in a class can improve student learning outcomes. When implemented incorrectly, however, group-based assignments can lead to dysfunction and inter-personal conflicts that can hamper overall student success. This problem can be especially acute in first and second year engineering fundamentals courses where advanced students who learn the concepts faster may end up completing—and reaping the benefits of—a lions-share of the group work. As the course material starts to build on itself, those students who initially underperformed in their group may lack the understanding to keep up with new material, and find themselves falling ever further behind. To avoid this issue, my study looks to the use of informal collaborations—where students are encouraged to seek help from and work with their classmates on an assignment, but are ultimately responsible for their own submission—as potential alternative to formal group assignments.

I conducted my experiment in a sophomore-level Introductory Digital Design, a course that has traditionally required students to work in fixed pairs to complete a number of VHDL circuit modeling and design labs. For each lab, I required students to submit their own work, but I also encouraged students to seek help from and form informal collaborations with their classmates to model and verify their circuits. To further encourage students to form collaborations, I did not alter or reduce the scope of the lab assignments to account for the fact that students were no longer necessarily working in pairs. At the end of the course, I conducted an anonymous survey to measure student reactions to the use of informal collaborations versus traditional group work, and whether students still chose to work with their classmates to complete the labs. The survey also measured whether shifting from a group-submission model to an individual-assignment model produces undue strain on students.

Data collected from my pilot course shows promising results. All respondents agreed that being responsible for each lab helped them to learn the material better. Additionally, 77% of respondents reported that being responsible for the lab increased their confidence in their ability to learn the material. All but one respondent either agreed or strongly agreed that they often collaborated with classmates to complete the assignment, indicating that students are still developing some of the interpersonal skills and peer learning techniques provided by formal group work.


Computer Sciences

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URL: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/csse_fac/258