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Promoting Student Engagement through Skill-Heterogeneous Peer Tutoring

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This article is concerned with the effects of a specialized setup for student group work in L3 teaching. It promotes grouping students according to their skills in various subjects into heterogeneous groups as a way for inducing peer tutoring and raising student's self-esteem. The motivation for this study sprang from an extra-curricular study project for subtitling German short films intended as a remedy for the widely observable study fatigue in Taiwanese German as a Foreign Language (GFL) majors. It turned out that combining students into workgroups couldn't just rely on personal preferences, because the work required skillsets from three distinct areas: Project Management, Language, and Technology. As a solution to this kind of settings, this article proposes the instructor-organized creation of skill-heterogeneous workgroups. As theoretical background, it relies on findings from the fields of cooperative group work (e.g. Slavin, 2014textbar Cohen & Lotan, 2014, et al.), ability grouping and skill grouping (e.g. Missett, Brunner, Callahan, Moon, & Azano, 2014textbar Kulik & Kulik, 1992, et al.) in combination with motivational theories (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 1990textbar Dornyei, 2008textbar Reeve, 2009, et al.). The results of this project seem to indicate that the best way of grouping students was to assign each group an expert from one of the three main fields involved in subtitling. This way, every group member has authority in one field and can accept tutoring in the two remaining fields without losing face. The participating students enjoyed highly efficient group work that produced lasting synergetic effects in all areas involved.
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Promoting Student Engagement through Skill-
Heterogeneous Peer Tutoring
wolfgang odendahl
National Taiwan University
Abstract
This article is concerned with the eects of a specialized setup for student group work in
L3 teaching. It promotes grouping students according to their skills in various subjects into
heterogeneous groups as a way for inducing peer tutoring and raising student’s self-esteem.
The motivation for this study sprang from an extra-curricular study project for subtitling
German short lms intended as a remedy for the widely observable study fatigue in Taiwanese
German as a Foreign Language (GFL) majors. It turned out that combining students into
workgroups couldn’t just rely on personal preferences, because the work required skillsets
from three distinct areas: Project Management, Language, and Technology. As a solution to this
kind of seings, this article proposes the instructor-organized creation of skill-heterogeneous
workgroups. As theoretical background, it relies on ndings from the elds of cooperative
group work (e.g. Slavin, 2014; Cohen & Lotan, 2014, et al.), ability grouping and skill grouping
(e.g. Misse, Brunner, Callahan, Moon, & Azano, 2014; Kulik & Kulik, 1992, et al.) in combination
with motivational theories (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Dörnyei, 2008; Reeve, 2009, et al.). The
results of this project seem to indicate that the best way of grouping students was to assign each
group an expert from one of the three main elds involved in subtitling. This way, every group
member has authority in one eld and can accept tutoring in the two remaining elds without
losing face. The participating students enjoyed highly ecient group work that produced
lasting synergetic eects in all areas involved.
Keywords: Group Work, Peer Tutoring, Student Engagement, Cooperative Lear ning, Placement
© 2016 Wolfgang Odendahl
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Aribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0
International License.
hp://interface.ntu.edu.tw/
Issue 1 (Autumn 2016), pp. 119-154
DOI: 10.6667/interface.1.2016.26
ISSN: 2519-1268
120
Promoting Student Engagement through Skill-
Heterogeneous Peer Tutoring
It is a commonplace observation in scholarly literature that Taiwanese
students majoring in GFL often lack enthusiasm for their studies (cf.
Lohmann, 1996, pp. 88–97; Plank, 1992; Chen, 2005, p. 29; Merkelbach,
2011, p. 130). This situation is linked to the fact that a substantial
number of Taiwanese students choose their major not out of interest
but because of their results in the centralized university entrance exam.
Once enrolled though, students are initially willing to participate in
classroom activities, often motivated by the impression that mastering a
reputedly difcult language will improve their career options. Typically
after three or four semesters, when they nd that progress is slow
and careers are not built on language skills alone, motivation drops.
Students who lack motivation often simultaneously experience a lack
of self-esteem with regard to their skills in German. This lack of self-
esteem hinders their ability to establish meaningful social contact with
their peers, which in turn leads to bad study habits and thus completes
a vicious cycle.
While the main pedagogical objective of the project underlying this
study was to raise study motivation,1 this article focuses on the design
of group work and its effects on student engagement. The project
consisted of subtitling German short lms and employing peer tutoring
in small, skill-heterogeneous study groups. Its design combined current
pedagogical psychology, such as internalization of motivation and Flow
theory, with established group work techniques. Voluntary participants
were 23 students majoring in German as a Foreign Language from
a national Taiwanese university. Their mother tongue was Mandarin
Chinese, with some using exclusively Taiwanese dialect at home; their
English as well as their German prociency level varied between
1 The issue of raising study motivation is being dealt with in full detail i n „CLlL-Projekt zur
chinesischen Untertitelung deutscher Kurzl me als Mittel zur Motivationsförderung“ (Odendahl, 2015).
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beginner and intermediate. Teacher-Student classroom interactions were
mostly in German, in-group interactions in Chinese. These Students
were placed in skill-heterogeneous2 groups and directed to perform
autonomous small-group peer tutoring, the results of which were
presented during regular classroom sessions. The project succeeded
in fullling the commission of subtitling 14 German short lms and
organizing a public viewing. Participating students learned the basics
of every skill involved in the process of subtitling, including (but not
limited to) the importance of translation adequacy3. By utilizing group
work concepts such as differentiation of tasks, co-constructive learning,
and cognitive elaboration, the project achieved a signicant rise in self-
esteem and in the engagement of participating students.
The ofcial goals set for the group work in the subtitling project were
not directly related to formal German language learning but originated
in a commission from Berlin short-lm festival organizer interlm
GmbH. They consisted in completing Chinese subtitles for 14 German
short lms, booking a venue, and creating enough media attention to
draw an audience to the event. Work groups were designed to include
at least one member procient in one of three skills necessary to
complete the assignment, namely German-Chinese translation, video
le manipulation, and event management. The educational goals
of this project included developing and then passing on these skills
but also aimed at increasing study motivation by providing students
with the hands-on experience of applying their special knowledge
to a marketable product. The project setting discussed in this article
combines an inherently attractive and clearly dened high–stakes task
with a skill-heterogeneous group design (cf. Wunsch, 2009, pp. 41–47)
to cultivate several peer tutoring effects.
This paper consists of two parts, the rst of which presents the
conceptual framework and reviews the principles of motivational
pedagogy underlying the project. Based on this theoretical framework,
2 The ter m is central to my thesis and will be discussed in detail t hroughout the later pa ragraphs. In
short, it denotes a tech nique for composing members into small work groups, which is based on acquired
skills r ather than other cr iteria.
3 This fundamental translation principle formally introduced by K. Reiß and H.J. Vermeer can be
summarized by “translating the meaning, not the word s”. A more in-depth discu ssion of the principle
follows in a later section.
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the second part discusses the practical application of these theories in
the setup of the subtitling project.
1. Grouping Students for Cooperative Group Work
1.1 Group–worthy Tasks
The simple denition of the term motivation, as used in this paper,
follows Reeve (2009), who describes motivation as the sum of all
processes that lend energy and direction to behavior. The term skill is
used in opposition to the term ability, skill being something that can
be acquired through training, whereas ability is seen as static, either
in the physical sense of being –for example– able to pronounce an s, or
in reference to a point in time, e.g. being able to converse uently in a
foreign language (cf. Fleishman, 1964).
Cooperation has been proven to have positive effects on higher–
level skills such as problem–solving and brainstorming, simply by
increasing the number and quality of ideas produced (Slavin, 1980, p.
335). Lower–level skills requiring a certain amount of rote repetition,
such as phonetic drills, are not likely to prot from group interaction.
Successful group interaction depends on choosing complex tasks that
require multiple skills to complete (Webb, 2008, p. 209). In order to get
students to engage in high–quality talk, Cohen & Lotan (2014, pos. 330)
stress the importance of the task’s inherent features: “the task needs to
pose complex problems or dilemmas, have different potential solutions,
and rely on students’ creativity and insights.” As a result, a well–
designed task that requires several students to contribute to its solution
enables their peers and teachers—but most importantly themselves—to
recognize each group member as intellectually competent (Lotan, 2003,
p. 73).
The key features of this particular group work design include interaction
of group members in planning and performing tasks and stimulating
interdependence with each other’s skill sets in heterogeneous groups.
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Short lm subtitling provided an ideal setting for this project, since the
medium is not only an important part of many students’ recreational
activities but is also an area of work with a certain glamorous distinction
from other jobs normally envisioned by graduates in the eld of foreign
languages (Odendahl, 2015, p. 138). The task of subtitling computerized
movies meets the requirements of a complex task for a group of
language students perfectly in that it consists in the combination of
language–related content with strong technical elements. The language
requirements for the technical parts are comparatively low, while
adequately translating spoken German into Chinese subtitles requires
a high degree of language competence (in both German and Chinese),
register sensibility, and translation skills. In order to produce meaningful
and adequate subtitles, translators not only have to thoroughly understa nd
a given message and its intention in the established context but also
think of an equivalent in their own language – especially since subtitles
need to deliver the original message inside the connes of one line of
text at a time. The translation task’s complexity makes the complete
decoding of the source text and subsequent re–coding of the message
in the target language an ideal environment for cooperative group work
in the sense that cooperation will almost certainly yield better results
than any individual effort (Slavin, 1980, p. 335). Although regarded
in its entirety formidably complex, the task still remains achievable
even for intermediate students, who may have to bolster their listening
comprehension by playing a passage multiple times and factoring in any
visual clues. Students can pause or manipulate the speed of a passage
at any time until they can extrapolate every facet of every word uttered
therein. Therefore the language skill requirements are high enough to
make the task attractive, but not so high as to make it daunting (cf.
Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 49), for students can condently commit
time to the solution of problematic passages in the certainty that these
problems will be solved.
1.2 Benets of Cooperative Group Work
The terms cooperative and collaborative are often used interchangeably
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for the same kind of group work; however, the denition of the term
collaborative learning is very vague and may refer to “any pedagogical
theory or method that advocates or involves using groups” (Smit, 1994,
p. 69). This article uses the term cooperative as opposed to competitive
and individualistic to refer to work that requires distinct efforts (Johnson
& Johnson, 1989, p. 1). This usage is partly informed by the theories
of the Russian psychologist Vygotskiĭ (1896-1934), which entered the
American academic scene in the 1970s. Vygotskiĭ’s position that the
benets of cooperation occur when a more expert person helps a less
expert person became mainstream consensus. Although Vygotskiĭan
approaches to instruction usually concentrate on the transmission of
skills from adult to child, as is the case in traditional classrooms, the
process of negotiation and transformation is not necessarily limited to
teacher-student interaction. The general principle of getting help from
more competent persons includes the concepts of guided participation or
scaffolding. Scaffolding enables any less competent person to carry out
a task that s/he could not perform without assistance (Vygotskiĭ, 1978).
For scaffolding to be effective, several conditions must be fullled.
The help provided must be relevant to the student’s need; it must be
correct, comprehensible, provided at the right time, and at the needed
level. A certain learner autonomy is helpful, because according to the
modern Vygotskiĭan school, learning is more than simply the transfer of
knowledge from expert to novice; positive learning outcomes are more
likely to occur if students use the help they receive to solve problems on
their own without further assistance. This concept of learner autonomy
after initial expert guidance was directly incorporated into designing the
group work for this project. Scaffolding played an important role, too,
but the concept had to be modied to t the idea of peer tutoring with
frequent tutor/tutee role switching, as discussed in the next paragraph.
The Vygotskiĭan conception is often contrasted to the Piagetian one,
which centers on the child’s acquisition of knowledge rather than its
unidirectional transfer from more competent members of society to less
competent ones. For Piaget and his followers the notion of cognitive
conict (Piaget, 1923) occupies a central position. Cognitive conict
arises when learners perceive a contradiction between their existing
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understanding and what they hear or see in the course of interacting
with others. Learning then occurs by reexamining their own ideas and
by seeking additional information in order to reconcile the conicting
viewpoints. According to Piaget’s ndings, children are more likely to
exchange ideas with their peers than with adults, because peers speak
at a level the others can understand and peers have no inhibitions of
challenging each other.
In trying to marry the Vygotskiĭan concept of passing knowledge
from a more competent person to another with the Piagetian insight
of peers being more likely to understand and therefore inuence each
other, Hatano (1993, p. 155) developed the idea of co-construction of
knowledge (cf. Webb, 2008, p. 204). Co-construction of knowledge
postulates that knowledge is acquired as a construction process that
occurs between learners. Hatano observes that one student can pick
up useful information from other students who are not generally more
capable. He also notes that some members involved in horizontal
interaction can be more capable than others at a certain moment in
time (Hatano, 1993, p. 157). This leads to the notion that the tutor/tutee
roles can switch frequentlya notion that served as the foundation in
designing the in-group interactions for the subtitling project.
Also crucial to the design of this peer tutoring setup was the concept
of cognitive elaboration. It was employed by asking students to keep
the small-group peer tutoring sessions short and to the point – the
reasoning being that having a tight time frame leads to much more
focused preparation work. Students would be limited to mere minutes
for presenting their ndings to their peers, who would then comment on
the presentation and ask questions (see detailed description in the peer–
tutoring section below). According to the theory, the very action of
explaining something to others promotes learning, which essentially is
the denition of cognitive elaboration. It should be noted that promoting
cognitive elaboration by means of time pressure is not to be seen as
separate from the Vygotskiĭan and Piagetian perspectives or the co–
construction of knowledge, but as an integral part of them (Webb, 2008,
p. 205). In order to make themselves understood, tutors need to rehearse
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their information and reorganize or clarify their presentation. Moreover,
while formulating an explanation and thinking about the underlying
problem, the dual process of generating inferences and repairing mental
models is triggered.
1.3 Raising Enthusiasm through Cooperative Group Work
The main pedagogical mission of the subtitling project was to raise
students’ enthusiasm for their GFL studies.4 This section will give a
brief summary of the motivational strategies fundamental to the project
as a whole–including the choice of task, the grouping of students,
peer tutoring, and the mix of autonomous work in small groups with
classroom sessions.
The processes that give behavior its energy and its direction (and thereby
dene motivation) include the effects of increased self–esteem and
positive interdependence, which are two major benets of cooperative
group work. The popular dualistic notion of intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation does not fully do justice to the situation of Taiwanese GFL
students, who generally have no interest in German language or culture
before they enter university, but want to master the language once
they begin their studies (Odendahl, 2015, pp. 117–118). So, instead of
trying to raise levels of intrinsic motivation, a more tting term for
what this project tried to achieve would be the internalization of an
initially extrinsic motivation. This concept has come to the attention
of educational psychologists rather recently and lies at the foundation
of many of today’s didactical techniques for promoting motivation in
students.
Educational psychologists Ryan and Deci (2000, p. 54) observed
that motivation not only rarely exists in pure intrinsic or extrinsic
form but that it can also be created by outside inuences. If initially
extrinsic motivation undergoes the process of internalization, it will
over time become very similar to intrinsic motivation. Deci and Ryan
4 An in-depth description can be found in Odendahl’s (2015) discussion of the project.
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developed the Organismic Integration Theory—later merged into the
inuential Self Determination Theory—which postulates intrinsic
needs of humans for competence and self–determination (Deci &
Ryan, 1985, Chapter 5). In extension, Connell and Wellborn (1991, p.
51) state that any individual evaluates his or her status with respect
to three fundamental psychological needs: competence, autonomy,
and relatedness. Competence can be experienced when ones own
actions have positive outcomes and negative consequences are avoided.
Autonomy is used in reference to the determination of goals, contents,
and progress of their own learning activities. Additionally, the learner
should also have some degree of initial interest in or curiosity about
the task in order to be able to uphold a persistent autotelic occupation
with it. As a result, picking the task of subtitling German short lms for
a project aimed at promoting motivation in 20–year–olds came rather
naturally, since watching movies is one of the preferred pastimes of
many Taiwanese students.
One of the prerogatives Ryan and Deci postulated for the process of
internalization of motivation is that learners have to feel good about the
actual study experience. This corresponds well with Csikszentmihalyi’s
Flow theory, which denes Flow as an emotion that can be experienced
when one is completely involved in an activity for its own sake and
when one is using one’s skills to the utmost. The ow experience
leads to better and more sustained learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990,
p. 71) and is described by eight points (1990, p. 49), four of which
were actively incorporated into the task design for this project,
namely: clear goals that are challenging but attainable, the ability to
concentrate on the task at hand, immediate feedback, and promoting a
feeling of personal control over the situation and the outcome. Stoller
and Grabe (1997, p. 13) emphasize that especially the engagement in
challenging and increasingly complex tasks (which are still perceived
as attainable) augments intrinsic motivation. They strongly recommend
the combination of ow and Content-Based Instruction (CBI) – a
term they use synonymously with Content and Language Integrated
Learning (CLIL) – for heightening motivation. In summary, the above
paragraph established the principles of cooperative group work with
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Self Determination and Flow theories as building blocks for effective
group work. Finishing the theoretical framework of this article, the next
two paragraphs will discuss peer tutoring and how to distribute students
into groups for effectively making use of those components.
1.4 Peer Tutoring
Peer tutoring has several dimensions and may be evaluated with regard
to what knowledge or which skills are to be taught, the ability level
of tutors and tutees, role continuity (permanent or temporary), tutor
characteristics, objectives of the program, and others (Topping, 1996,
p. 322). It has been studied extensively and is proven to have signicant
benets for learning as well as for promoting motivation and empowering
students (Colvin, 2007, p. 3).
With regard to the literature which suggests that an increase in social
interaction is associated with correspondingly increased benets for
student’s self–esteem (Goodlad & Hirst, 1989, p. 16), this project was
designed to maximize social interaction as much as possible. The setup
of small–group meetings had very few rules, one of which required
physical meetings two times a week. Group members would work
individually on a sub–task and give a short presentation on their progress
for the benet of the other members of the group. Each presentation
should last ve minutes, after which each of the listeners/tutees was
required both to give positive feedback and ask one constructive
question. Taking turns and switching the role of tutor/tutee when
discussing different aspects or subtasks of the group’s common task
was designed to stimulate respect for each other’s skills.
1.4.1 Cognitive Elaboration
Annis (1983) and others demonstrated that the way people conceptualize
and organize things when they are learning something in order to teach
it later is markedly different from when they are learning for their own
use and the material is generally on a higher conceptual level. In other
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words, teaching what one has learned has a positive effect on one’s own
learning (Webb, 2008, p. 205). Moreover, teaching to one’s peers has a
better effect than summarizing for a teacher, as Durling and Schick’s
(1976) study shows. “We formulate meaning through the process of
conveying it. It is while we are speaking that we cognitively organize
and systematize the concepts and information we are discussing”
(Johnson & Johnson, 1989, p. 76). For their presentations, temporary
tutors quickly learned to summarize tedious details, to focus their
presentation on the more interesting problems they encountered, and to
involve others in nding the solutions they suggested applying.
The positive effects of cognitive elaboration through peer tutoring were
observed in regard of both the micro and the macro perspectives: In
preparing to teach a subject to their peers, students not only needed to
nd a way to re–organize information and vocalize concepts, but also to
reect on the purpose of the whole while organizing their thoughts for
teaching (cf. Goodlad & Hirst, 1989, p. 121).
1.4.2 Social Cohesion
Lotan (2003, p. 74) states that working on a tangible product—in our
case a lm with subtitles—helps create a positive interdependence
between group members. According to Johnson & Johnson (1989, p.
61), a positive goal and interdependence are not enough on their own,
and they insist that individual rewards are important if group work is to
be effective. However, the subtitling project seems to provide evidence
that this may not be as important as they believe: it did not offer any
extrinsic or individual rewards besides the goal achievement itself. All
members shared responsibility for the joint outcome, i.e., supplying
adequate subtitles for the lm they had chosen. They each took
personal responsibility for contributing to the joint outcome as well as
for teaching relevant skills to the other members (cf. Odendahl, 2015,
p. 113). The level of interdependency and shared responsibility “adds
the concept of ought to members’ motivation -- one ought to do one’s
part, pull one’s weight, contribute, and satisfy peer norms” (Johnson &
Johnson, 1989, p. 63).
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Through gaining respect for each other’s skills, peers can by extension
build respect for the person. Johnson & Johnson (1989, p. 113) use
the Freudian term “inducibility” for the receptiveness to each other’s
suggestions and for the interpersonal attractiveness that results from
frequent, accurate, and open communication. If group members
realize that their success is mutually caused and that it relies on the
contribution of each other’s efforts, they can build a shared group–
identity, which should result in mutual support. Working together on
a mutual goal results in an emotional bonding with collaborators, and,
as a consequence, external rewards may not be necessary to promote
motivation and achieve productivity, as long as group members provide
respect and appreciation (cf. Johnson & Johnson, 1989, p. 73; 114).
1.4.3 Self–Esteem through Group Work
Johnson & Johnson (1989, p. 154) state that numerous studies have
shown effective group work to increase self–esteem in participants. In
our subtitling project, it was assumed that group members specializing
in language would have higher group status and self–esteem than the
others. With respect to raising self–esteem through the subtitling project,
academic self–esteem was treated as being directly proportional to
competence self–esteem (Johnson & Johnson, 1989, p. 161). By raising
the latter, we hoped to simultaneously inuence the former. In order to
help students with comparatively lower selfesteem in regard to their
academic achievements, skills other than translation were emphasized
during the introduction and in classroom sessions. Especially in the
initial small–group sessions, when members with computer skills
were asked to help set up a foot pedal in combination with a special
computer macro for transliteration, they had the chance to demonstrate
their usefulness to peers with higher social status and subsequently
muster the condence to actively participate in discussions on other
subjects, such as adequate translations. The experience of contributing
to language tasks should lead to a virtuous cycle of boosting academic
self–esteem with regard to their GFL studies.
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Self–esteem is most eminently expressed while dealing with controversy.
Peer discussions in general consist of challenging each other in a
constructive but nevertheless controversial way. During the classroom
sessions of the subtitling project, lively discussions revolved around
different styles of translation for a given utterance in a certain situation.
During the translation sessions, students tended to have very strong,
but disparate, views of how to phrase a Chinese subtitle adequately.
The relevant scholarship on work–group discussions suggests that
friendly and constructive interaction is likely to result in interpersonal
attraction. Moreover, if the process of working together on solving
tasks is perceived as leading to either personal or mutual benet, the
readiness to comply with other peoples requests is increased (Johnson
& Johnson, 1989, p. 116).
1.4.4 Learner Autonomy and the Teacher’s Role
Bruffee states that successful group work “provides students with a poly–
centralized cooperative learning community which places faculty at the
edge of the action, once they have set the scene, a position from which
they may respond to needs which students discover for themselves”
(1972, p. 466). This concept of changing the traditional teacher role from
direct supervision to delegating authority has been widely accepted as a
key feature of properly designed group work and harmonizes well with
the notion of autonomy from motivational theories. For the subtitling
project, the teacher set up a general framework for heterogeneous
grouping and group interaction. After that, teacher interference was
kept to the minimum of moderating classroom sessions and keeping an
open door for student–initiated interaction. The actual work progress
relied on autonomous group work.
Learner autonomy, important for Flow as well as for Self Determination
(Ryan & Deci, 2000, pp. 59–60) is closely connected to splitting the
goal into subtasks. Participants were free to choose their own time and
method for solving whatever subtask was at hand at any one time, to
experiment, play, discover, and learn while still having the reassuring
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presence of an overlying framework from project management. Even if
a group would not meet the expectations for nishing a subtask by the
next classroom attendance period, this would not jeopardize the project
as a whole. True learner autonomy with a genuine feeling of control and
self–determination includes the freedom to fail. In this setting, failing
at a subtask meant spending time in the next classroom session on a
discussion of the problems encountered and accepting solutions from
the assembled peers. In other words, the stakes were low enough to
permit experimenting, but participants would still strive to avoid the
mild humiliation from having to expose one’s (perceived) shortcomings
to the peer group.
1.5 Ability Grouping vs. Skill Grouping
1.5.1 Ability Grouping
Ability Grouping refers to the grouping of students homogeneously
according to their demonstrated current performance level in the
subject they are going to pursue (Missett et al., 2014, p. 248). It is used
in tracking systems, a predominantly North American practice where
stronger students are grouped together and receive different instruction
than weaker students. By way of testing, the starting point and progress
pacing for the students’ further studies are determined, and students
are grouped accordingly. Research into the question of whether or not
to group students by ability started in the early 20th century (Kulik &
Kulik, 1992, p. 73). It mostly focuses on the impact of the practice on
academic performance (effectiveness), equity, self–concept or self–
esteem of students, as well as students’ or teachers’ attitudes toward
the practice. Although there have been hundreds of studies and reviews
on the topic of ability grouping, the discussion is ongoing, and ndings
are not universally conclusive (Kulik, 1992, p. viii; Hoffer, 1992, pp.
206–207). Major debates revolve around the questions whether teaching
is more effective with homogeneously grouped students and whether all
students (instead of just a certain group of students) benet from the
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ability grouping arrangement, especially since in terms of equity, lower
achievers in homogeneous groups may be deprived of the example and
stimulation provided by high achievers.
It is an established fact that teachers’ expectations and preconceptions
about their students’ performance inuence the quality of instruction
(Liu, 2014, p. 196; Missett et al., 2014, p. 256; Bernhardt, 2014, p. 38).
Therefore, one major concern about ability grouping is that teachers who
teach lower ability students are more likely to have lower expectations
for them, which in turn might lead to lower–quality instruction. There
seems to be a consensus that ability grouping generally helps academic
achievement; provided that the course progression is adjusted to
the requirements of each group and the teacher has adequately high
expectations of the group. The greatest gains in student achievement
from personalized pacing are noted when the curriculum is differentiated
(Missett et al., 2014, p. 250; Brulles, Saunders, & Cohn, 2010, p. 346;
Neihart, 2007, p. 336). These ndings are true for all kinds of grouping,
but Kulik & Kulik (1992, p. 76) especially stress the positive effects of
differentiated education for within–class grouping of students.
1.5.2 Skill Grouping
Because ability grouping is very common and literature on skill
grouping scarce, I had to rely on ndings from studies on the former
to assess the feasibility of the latter with respect to the goal of raising
students’ self–esteem and study motivation. The major difference
between the grouping used in the subtitling project and ability grouping
is that of homogeneity versus heterogeneity in group composition.
Ability grouping aims at assembling members with similar abilities into
homogeneous groups in order to further the very ability that served
as the selection criterion. In contrast, what I call skill–heterogeneous
grouping matches students with different skill sets in order to exchange
those skills via peer tutoring, so that in the end all participants will be
able to master all skills involved. In the setting of the subtitling project,
skill–heterogeneous grouping was designed to cultivate co–constructive
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134
learning and cognitive elaboration, as well as social cohesion and self–
esteem. There is strong evidence that the positive effects of peer tutoring
in heterogeneous groups are reciprocal for tutors and tutees, since
students gain signicantly from peer teaching by preparing elaborated
explanations for other students and thus creating the effects linked to
cognitive elaboration (Webb, 2008, p. 205).
Differences aside, there are some major proven benets of ability
grouping that can safely be assumed to be valid for skill grouping also.
These include the inuence of teachers’ expectations for students’
success, the importance of differentiating tasks in order to match
each student’s personal skills and abilities, as well as the adequacy of
the task in regard to both each student’s needs and the achievement
of the task’s goal. According to the above theories, differentiated and
adequate tasks combined with high teacher expectation should lead to
improved learning. The presence of high achievers should positively
inuence lower achievers in the right setting, and peer tutoring effects
in heterogeneous groups should benet both tutor and tutee. Overall, it
was expected that the cooperative work would have positive effects on
the participant’s self–esteem, motivation, and study habits.
2. Setting of the Subtitling Project
The subtitling project involved several layers of groups, including
informal ad hoc groups during preparation, skill–heterogeneous small
work groups, and the plenary meeting of all participants. The concepts
of a) co–construction of knowledge, b) cognitive elaboration, and c) peer
tutoring with tutor/tutee role–switching were the core components for
the group work design in the subtitling project. This setup could be
expected to trigger the benecial effect of group cohesion, which occurs
when students want to help each other because they care about the group
and its members (cf. Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994, p. 424). In order
to enable group cohesion, cooperative learning methods should include
the development of interpersonal skills, in particular, active listening,
stating ideas freely, as well as social small–group skills (Webb, 2008,
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135
p. 205). Accordingly, weekly classroom sessions were set up to promote
brainstorming and mind–mapping, hoping that the spirit of uninhibited
discussion would spread to the autonomously acting small groups.
Three outcomes of cooperative learning were emphasized in this
project: academic motivation, group cohesion, and self–esteem. These
outcomes are interconnected and will only be marginally approached
in this paper, which focuses on group design. The following section
describes the general setup designed to enhance the rst two of the
above outcomes, and reasons why a boost in self–esteem should follow.
2.1 Effective Cooperation through Group Work and Task Design
Group cohesion should lead to increased self–esteem; therefore, the
group work in this project was designed to promote group cohesion inside
small workgroups as well as in the larger group of all project participants.
Properly designed group work veriably produces positive results,
with high–, medium–, and low–achieving individuals all beneting
academically from participating in heterogeneous cooperative learning
groups (Johnson & Johnson, 1989, p. 47; Goodlad & Hirst, 1989, p. 84).
Nevertheless, not every task and not every teaching goal are suited
for group work. The Johnsons’ model of cooperative learning states
that ve criteria must be satised for instruction to qualify: positive
interdependence, individual accountability, face–to–face promotive
interaction, teamwork skills, and group processing (Johnson & Johnson,
1999, pp. 82–83). The main question discussed in this section is the
setup of group work with tasks that make use of cognitive elaboration
and that allow co–construction of knowledge as well as frequent role
switching between tutors and tutees.
There are differences between learning groups and work groups with
different goals being attached to group work. However, there are
some common design factors that inuence the chance of group work
being successful. In order to create an environment in which effective
cooperation can occur, three areas must be addressed: group creation
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136
(including size and homogeneity), the design and implementation of
structured activities, and appropriate facilitation of group interaction
(Graham & Misanchuk, 2004, pp. 190–196). It seems to be crucial to
carefully evaluate teaching goals for suitability and pay minute attention
to the design of tasks that can be deemed group–worthy by the amount
of work involved and by the tasks’ inherent complexity.
In order to incorporate these theories into the subtitling project, the
main task had to be split into smaller subtasks (see below). Group
interactions consisted in a mix of individual work and peer tutoring.
Subtasks were set up to be worked on individually by mastering the
appropriate skills and then passing on those newly acquired skills to
peers in small tutoring groups (cf. Büttner, Warwas, & Adl-Amini,
2012, pp. 2–3). In the past, peer tutoring as a form of cooperation has
most often been associated with written composition. Generalizing from
current denitions of cooperative writing, cooperative group work may
be described as situations in which members of small groups engage
in a common task, cooperate intensively, make all process decisions
collectively, and where the group as a whole takes responsibility for the
outcome (cf. Bosley, 1989, p. 6; Ede & Lunsford, 1990, p. 15).
The method employed here could be described as a variety of the jigsaw
method. Each group member is assigned a part of the project which is
essential to the nishing of the project (Slavin, 1980, p. 320). While
constructively challenging another person’s view leads to more active
participation and to greater identication with the outcome (Johnson
& Johnson, 1989, p. 70), destructive controversy might jeopardize all
benecial effects of peer tutoring and effectively poison the interpersonal
relationships of group members, especially so, as members with stronger
self–esteem might try to use coercive means to achieve their goals. It
was therefore crucial to have an effective set of rules for interaction
during peer discussions and to establish a climate of respectfulness
and reciprocal support. For small–group discussions, the rules were
established as follows:
1. Small–group meetings are twice a week; every member presents
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137
every time.
2. Allocate exactly ve minutes for each presentation and moderated
discussion.
3. Tutors present clearly, to the point, and use at least two adequate
visual aids.
4. Tutees must pay respectful attention and take notes.
5. Tutees must give at least one positive comment and ask one
constructive question concerning the contents of the presentation
before criticizing.
After one such round of presentations, groups were free to continue
discussing, socialize, or do whatever they wanted. For the classroom
sessions, where mostly the teacher played the role of moderator and the
presenting groups acted as single entities, rules had to be more exible,
while still upholding the principle of constructive and respectful
criticism. This specic group work mode—combining individual effort
with group sessions—represents a new combination of established
practices.
2.1.1 Splitting the Task
Fearing that the ultimate goal of presenting 14 German short lms
with Chinese subtitles to a Taiwanese audience might seem too broad
and intimidating, and in order to prevent the demotivating effect of a
looming deadline for a large and unfamiliar task, the process had to
be broken into smaller, more specic subtasks that presented short–
term objectives (see Odendahl, 2015, p. 129). These were designed to
correspond to one of the three skill–sets represented by at least one
member in each group.
The public screening of German short lms with Chinese subtitles
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138
involves three major elds of preparatory work. The most visible
part consists in adequately translating the spoken originals into short
written passages. The second part involves a considerable number of
technical aspects, which are all crucial for the successful completion
of the task. These include FTP le transfers, le format conversions,
mastering unfamiliar software, and building an educated opinion of
using softcoded versus hardcoded subtitles. The third part of the project
was the event management, which included negotiating contract terms
and keeping track of the progress of the project as a whole.
Figure 1: Task Explanation Chart (For ease of reference, the following
explanatory text uses capitalization to indicate the corresponding nodes.)
ODENDAHL
139
The main goal, Presentation of 14 Subtitled Short Films, is achieved by
the cooperation of group members specializing in Project Management,
Language & Culture, and Media Technology. The tasks in the eld of
Project Management are twofold, concerning the Public Viewing as
well as the Contract. Subtasks for the Public Viewing include securing
a Location and organizing Transport. The terms of the Contract have
to specify Remuneration and Obligations. Members specializing
in Language & Culture will have to compose a Transcript of every
word uttered in the lms, which would subsequently have to undergo
Translation. Team members specializing in Media Technology arrange
the File Transfer via FTP and administer Conversion so that the les
can be manipulated with the specialized subtitling software. During
Spotting, appropriate time points for the beginning and end of showing
each subtitle on screen are determined. The Subtitling process involves
breaking the translation into parts that t on the screen and writing
those in a le with time stamps next to each subtitle. In a nal step,
Hardcoding combines the subtitles and the lm into a single computer
le in order to make sure the lm can be played from any device.
Knowing my students and their study background intimately, I decided
to employ some tweaks in order to prevent students with good language
skills from dominating the group work. In order to make the technical
aspects appear more attractive and challenging, special attention was
drawn to every step of computer le manipulation. Furthermore, only
freeware or open source software programs were to be used during the
project. The reasoning for this requirement was that in order to build
a real–life skill which any participant could readily offer to potential
customers, students should not be forced to invest money in specialized
software programs before their business has even started.
As discussed in the theoretical framework, the internalization of external
motivation requires the task to make the learner think of it as challenging
but attainable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 49). Dividing the assignment
into more manageable subtasks and assigning these to designated roles
inside the work groups provided students with weaker language skills
the opportunity to play an equally integral and meaningful part in the
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140
project.
Most of the subtasks have their own intricacies to be explored and
subsequently shared by the group member acting as moderator for that
skill area. After having participated in the project, every student could
expect to have sufcient expertise in all steps necessary to independently
and professionally offer subtitling services to customers. The following
sections will deal with the organizational aspects of the group work
from a didactical point of view, with special attention to facilitating
in–group peer tutoring.
2.1.2 Selection and Placement of the Participants
In order to nd students who were genuinely interested in the project,
a two–stage online application form in combination with an online
language test was used. At the end of the rst page of the online application
form, candidates were asked to enter their score from a separate online
language test. Only participants who lled in a minimum score from
the language test were taken to the second stage of the application and
issued an invitation to the initial information meeting. Although a show
was made of checking attendance at the beginning of the meeting, the
main purpose of this arrangement was to either attract participants
whose language competency was above a certain level, or at least such
students motivated enough to cheat on their score. From the 40 students
who came to the initial information session, 23 stayed after the short
break that was purposely arranged between project explanation and the
forming of work groups. Three more participants left before the project
was nished. None of the participating students had prior experience
with the processes involved in subtitling. The participants who professed
themselves as technically inclined mostly knew how to edit videos on
their computers, but none of them had ever even thought of subtitling.
Similarly, students who thought of themselves as more procient in
German than their peers had some experience with translating short text
passages during German class, but never formally thought of translation
as a service to readers who do not understand the original.
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141
The grouping aimed at creating small skill–heterogeneous groups
with three distinct areas of expertise (cf. Fig. 1) as discussed in the last
paragraph. In the introductory session, after having been informed
of the nature of the task and given the chance to use a short break to
leave without losing face, participants were asked to physically move
to one of the areas in the room labeled German, Computer, or Project
Management. During task explanation, they had learned that the nature
of their group work would be to assume responsibility for one area,
doing individual work on the parts manageable by one person alone,
identifying difculties, exploring solutions, and preparing a report on
that subtask for the other members. An appointed moderator would
streamline the efforts of the whole group for those parts of the task
which required cooperation with the other members of the group.
In the group-formation process, I could observe that participants
condent enough to choose translation aimed to put their skills to work
in a challenging, interesting, and GFL–related way. Students who chose
to be technical experts of their groups mostly did not feel comfortable
with their German prociency but had some condence in their computer
skills. Those who chose to be in project management often did not feel
condent enough in either one of the other two areas. In some cases,
they just wanted to be part of a group on the basis of personal affection.
Since all participants majored in German as a foreign language, those
who chose to be moderators for transliteration and translation were
also the ones with stronger self–esteem, often playing leading roles
in the regular German classroom. There, they perceived themselves
as successful and were acknowledged by their peers. These students
showed no lack of motivation for their studies, had a generally positive
attitude towards curricular and extra–curricular activities, and were
mostly willing to help other students – as long as they were treated
as academic higher–ups. During the project, one of the challenges for
peer tutoring was to get those students to acknowledge other group
members’ superior skills in other elds, which were equally important
for the successful completion of the project.
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142
As pointed out by Cohen and Lotan (2014, pos. 829), skill–heterogeneous
groups, provided they work well, eliminate the undesirable domination
of a group by an expert member. By taking turns at being the experts,
group members break up the hierarchy established by academic status
in favor of mutual respect. One of the ndings of this project was that
if skill–heterogeneous groups are to work well, then special attention
needs to be paid to reducing the gap between high–status and low–
status students’ participation rates. Especially the design of project–
or event–management tasks has to be carefully constructed so as to
facilitate inter–skill exchanges.
2.1.3 Structuring Activities, Facilitating Interaction
Effective cooperation requires skills in leadership, trust, decision
making, and conict management. Because of the time constraints of
one two–hour plenary meeting a week a formal training in all required
social skills was not feasible. In order to prevent counterproductive
behavior, the teacher instead provided instructions on how to give
respectful negative feedback and urged groups to stick to a set of simple
interaction rules during their peer tutoring sessions. These instructions
included the allocation of ve minutes of uninterrupted talk time to
each (temporary/revolving) tutor and the recommendation to start and
end each member’s feedback with a positive remark concerning the
contents or presentation of the talk, before going into specics.
The subtitling project consisted of several modes of group work.
Individual participants would work alone or cooperate in virtual
space, often with members of other groups. They met twice a week in
small groups of three or four members, each of whom paid attention
to different subtasks. In weekly classroom meetings with all groups
present, peers would review the results of the groups’ efforts. Although
Johnson & Johnson (1989, p. 42) nd signicant evidence that pure
cooperative work yields better academic results than forms that mix
cooperative with individualistic work, the approach of individualistic
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143
learning with subsequent peer tutoring promised adequate results with
benets in regard to self–esteem and group consensus between members
with very distinct skill sets, especially since the subtitling project was
extracurricular and participants were sometimes hard put to set up a
physical meeting (cf. Odendahl, 2015, p. 123).
The group work was designed to distribute responsibilities and
cooperation through communication in the form of reports and
structured discussions. Small–group interaction in the form of regular
meetings was to take place not less than twice a week, each meeting
scheduled to last 15 minutes or more. During the in–group discussions
of problems and solutions, moderating members would act as tutors,
passing their insights on to the other members in structured reports and
asking them for support with specic problems. In the spirit of cognitive
elaboration, learning not only occurred through peer tutoring, but also
during the process of organizing and preparing reports in a manner the
other members would understand.
Motivation–inducing interaction was rst realized within the small
group by tutees giving constructive face–to–face feedback and also
during classroom sessions by the teacher’s encouragement of each
group’s overall performance and his giving informational feedback
regarding each member’s learning achievement. Aside from cooperating
in small groups, participants were expected to join weekly classroom
attendance periods. These followed the same basic principles as the
small–group meetings, with the groups replacing individual members
as the basic entity of interaction and the teacher taking the role of
moderator. Classroom language was mostly German on the part of the
teacher and predominantly Chinese among the students. The focus of
classroom interaction was on summarizing progress, the inter–group
exchange of problems and solutions, and, most importantly, the peer
review of nished subtitles.
The highlight of most classroom attendance sessions was the screening
of a subtitled lm (or section thereof), where the audience would
objectify their rst impressions with a prepared mini–questionnaire
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144
using a forced–choice four point Likert scale.
Translation Adequacy ..................... bad  good
Spotting ..................... bad  good
Readability of Subtitles ..................... bad  good
Overall Viewing Experience ..................... bad  good
Tips..................................................................................................................................
..........................................................................................................................................
..................................................................................................................................
Figure 2: Peer Review Questionnaire
Before using the questionnaires for the rst time, classroom time was
devoted to the explanation of the technical terms it contained. Students
knew that Translation Adequacy evaluated the naturalness of the
translated wording in that particular context. The question they should
ask themselves was: if that person were Taiwanese, would s/he use that
term in this situation? Spotting concerns the timing of beginning and
ending of the subtitles, which should correspond to the lip movement of
the actors. By Readability of Subtitles, we understood the equilibrium
between duration of subtitle and amount of information involved. For
considering the Overall Viewing Experience, students had to judge
whether a Taiwanese audience would experience the same feelings as
the originally intended target group. In the Tips section, students could
make some notes that they would refer to in the plenary discussion
which followed immediately after the screening. The questionnaires
were collected after the discussion and passed to the group responsible
for that lm.
Several of the high achievers in German thoroughly enjoyed the process
of working on nding the most adequate translation for colloquialisms.
During classroom sessions, group cooperation was realized by the
presenting group paraphrasing the German original for the plenum, and
pointing out the literally translated meaning, as well as the contextual
meaning within the lm’s plot. After every member of the audience
understood the intricacies of that particular passage, all of them were
equally able to contribute to an adequate rendering in Chinese. This
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145
meant that many of the more colloquial subtitles were truly the product
of a lively and pleasant group brainstorming, during which ludicrous
slang was discussed alongside overly formal speech as well as literary
translations and so on. Discussions of the adequacy of translations
were also the highlights in classroom sessions, where the plenum often
polished the ner points of the Chinese renderings.
3. Observations
The current literature on cooperative learning comprises a vast amount
of qualitative and quantitative data. For the years between 1898 and
1989, Johnson & Johnson (1989, p. 16) count 521 studies on “the relative
impact of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic situations
on a wide range of dependent variables, including achievement and
productivity, motivation to achieve, intellectual and creative conict,
quality of relationships, social support, self–esteem, and psychological
health.The data, mostly collected in controlled environments, proves
unanimously that cooperative learning, if deployed on group–worthy
tasks, is superior to its individualistic or competitive variants with respect
to academic achievement and positive effects on study motivation.
Given this abundance of evidence, there was no reason for this study
to set out replicating these ndings; instead, it was designed to nd
out whether collaborative learning in small, skill–heterogeneous groups
employing peer tutoring can help Taiwanese GFL students master a
complex task and regain a positive attitude towards their studies and
towards themselves.
The crucial point discussed in this paper is the set up of skill–heterogeneous
group work with a group–worthy task, i.e., a task challenging and
complex enough to justify the involvement of several members at once.
Subtitling German short lms seemed to be near perfect, since it is a
rather challenging endeavor from both its technical aspects as well as the
translator’s point of view. What might have helped even more is the fact
that all participants had a very positive attitude towards the medium,
which of course is part of most students’ daily consumer experience
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146
– foreign lms on Taiwanese TV are subtitled. Still, even in the age of
YouTube and 30–second advertising clips, the short lm is an art form
with its own rules for epic storytelling with which most participants had
never before come in contact. Similarly, even though subtitles are very
common on Taiwanese television, consumers normally don’t realize the
intricacies involved in formulating sentences that t a standard screen
width or in synchronizing the appearance of subtitles with the actor’s
lip movement. However, by taking part in the project, students gained
knowledge of these intricacies through hands–on experience, and so
creating subtitles for short lms became a challenging and rewarding
task for them.
The small–group peer tutoring rules, which explicitly ask participants
for sharing their newly acquired skills and insights in a structured way,
enable cognitive elaboration. Furthermore, the frequent switching of
tutor/tutee roles is crucial for the intended effects of reciprocal skill
appreciation. In the beginning, not everybody was comfortable with their
roles as peer tutors/tutees, neither in structuring their knowledge nor in
constructively discussing solutions as equals. This initial awkwardness
passed rather quickly through repetition, because every non–virtual
session of group work, including classroom sessions, would include
presentations followed by discussions. Rather unsurprisingly, some
of the lower–achieving students who would not actively participate in
regular German classroom settings gained self–esteem through respect
from their peers by showing exceptional computer skills which were
directly applicable as a solution to problems at hand. The internal
hierarchy of these groups attened notably and the atmosphere of group
discussions became more animated and cordial; the group cooperation in
a attened peer hierarchy was an important new experience that helped
students experience social interdependence in pursuing a complex task.
The newly gained self–esteem of formerly shy students spilled into their
general behavior even in regular German class, which was completely
unrelated to the project and most of its tasks.
The success of the project shows that one of the prerogatives for skill–
heterogeneous groups to work well is reducing the gap between high–
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147
status and low–status students’ participation rates. The synergetic
effects of group work were not limited to the formerly lower achievers.
As predicted by the literature, intense group work with peer tutoring led
to a deep understanding of the subject matter as well as social cohesion
in and between groups.
After participating in the project, all students had a clear understanding
of the processes and subtasks involved in subtitling lms and organizing
a public viewing. This included transliterating, translating, and several
le conversions and manipulations. Of course, the details and challenges
in delivering high–quality work were understood most clearly by the
members who had explored that particular area themselves, but through
the small–group and classroom reports, everybody had at least an idea
of the intricacies involved. More signicantly, they included a profound
understanding of the underlying principles of translation adequacy (see
Reiß, 1984), the importance of timing subtitles in accordance with the
video picture (‘spotting’ cf. Mälzer-Semlinger, 2011), general subtitle
conventions (cf. ARD Das Erste, 2014), and customer–oriented planning.
Overall, the project and its work group design turned out to be very
effective in keeping work progress on track while simultaneously
facilitating social cohesion and mutual respect. The division of the
project into subtasks and the completion of multiple subtasks helped
participants perceive competence, a prerogative for the Flow experience
(cf. White, 1959, p. 297; Deci & Ryan, 1985, p. 40; Connell & Wellborn,
1991, p. 51). Another factor for nurturing the perception of competence
came from assigning specic skill areas to each group member, so that
everybody was given the opportunity to tutor the other members in one
particular area. Students learned to give concise and structured reports
of their work, take responsibility, plan inside a given time frame, meet
deadlines, organize their group work, and communicate their work’s
progress with people outside their own skill set. All students said they
especially enjoyed the fact that they had been able to use their skills
in a real life application. On a personal level, several new friendships
emerged between students with different skill sets who without the
peer tutoring experience would probably not have recognized the
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148
other’s talents. Evaluating these results, I propose introducing skill-
heterogeneous peer tutoring into general classes as part of a mix of
motivational devices.
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149
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[received 10 June 2016;
accepted 9 September 2016]
... Planned heterogeneity or "cluster-grouping" (ibid., 851) may be very effective under certain conditions (cf. Odendahl, 2016) and improve peer-assisted learning results (cf. Nesmith, 2018;Odendahl, 2017;Smith, 2017;Tempel-Milner, 2018). ...
... The composition of work groups can be heterogeneous or homogeneous, according to the pedagogical needs of the task (cf.Odendahl, 2016). ...
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