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Like-ability peer interactions and grouping in an engineering classroom

Conference Paper

Like-ability peer interactions and grouping in an engineering classroom

Abstract

Students enter an engineering masters unit at an Australian university from a variety of backgrounds and a range of achievement levels. Ways to cater for this range of entry achievement levels were suggested in a recent project, the Realising the Potential of Australia’s High Capacity Students (REAP) Project. Two recommendations from the REAP project, (i) facilitate like-ability peer interactions, and (ii) use online curriculum, are being implemented in the engineering masters unit. Early formal and informal feedback shows students responding favourably to these actions.
Proceedings of the AAEE2019 Conference Brisbane, Australia, Copy right © Jolanta Szymakowski, 2019
Like-ability peer interactions and grouping in an
engineering classroom
Jolanta Szymakowskia.
University of Melboournea
Jolanta.szymakowski@unimelb.edu.au
Introduction
One feature of an Australian classroom is the diversity among the student body. Students
clustered into classrooms display a range of abilities, motivations, beliefs, previous
experiences, and achievement. A recent study of 58 Victorian primary and secondary
schools, the Realising the Potential of Australia’s High Capacity Students (REAP) Project
(Harding, Griffin, Graham, English, & Nibali, 2018), found that, for any one year level, student
achievement was measured across up to 10 achievement levels. In the study, the maximum
number of achievement levels seen in any one classroom was six. Catering for this diversity
in student achievement levels in a classroom requires attention and intention, for under the
Australian Curriculum, students are entitled to a relevant learning program no matter their
level, requiring teachers to provide personalised learning (Australian Curriculum, 2019).
At the tertiary level, the student body is similarly diverse in abilities, motivations, beliefs,
previous experiences, and achievement. This was particularly evident in an engineering
master’s unit, Engineering Practice and Communications, at an Australian university. Having
discerned this diversity, perhaps applying the REAP project findings to the engineering
classroom would lead to better students’ outcomes. The tutor, in her second and third
iteration of the unit, applied one of the REAP project findings – acknowledge the range of
student achievement levels in any classroom of students - and two of the four REAP project
recommendations: (i) facilitating like-ability peer interactions, and (ii) the use of online
curriculum. This paper describes the observations and reflections from applying the finding
and the first recommendation, facilitate like-ability peer interactions, using them to inform
student grouping.
Like-Ability
Student ability and like-ability is a contentious issue in education, and a clarification of terms
is needed to set the scene.
Insights into what is meant by student ability can be gained by considering the area of gifted
and talented education. In the most commonly accepted definition of gifted and talented
(Australian Curriculum, 2017; State of Victoria (Department of Education and Training),
2019c), gifted’ refers to student potential or ability, while ‘talented’ focuses on achievements
such as knowledge and skills (Gagné, 2003, 2010). A gifted student may be described as
highly able, of high ability, high capacity. A talented student may be described as high
achieving. A key intention of the gifted and talented classification is to recognise that, in an
age-based curriculum, some students have already mastered the required age-based
concepts and require an alternative, relevant, more advanced curriculum. It is not about
creating an elite or superior group of students or focusing on high IQ – it is simply to drive the
provision of a relevant curriculum for these students.
More recently, two trends in gifted and talented education have been noted. Firstly, early
research into gifted and talented education focused more on the qualities or characteristics of
giftedness that helped identify whether someone was gifted (Roeper, 2013; VanTassel-
Baska, 1998). More recently, the discourse in this area has swung towards the talented or
achievement side (Ziegler & Phillipson, 2012). Secondly, there is a move away from calling
Proceedings of the AAEE2019 Conference Brisbane, Australia, Copy right © Jolanta Szymakowski, 2019
students gifted and talented. These students are now described as high-ability (State of
Victoria (Department of Education and Training), 2019a), exceptionally able (Department of
Education, Western Australia, 2019b) or high achieving (State of Victoria (Department of
Education and Training), 2019b). Achievement at a high level, rather than ‘being gifted’,
seems to be the current focus of gifted and talented education.
This helps our understanding of the REAP project recommendation to facilitate like-ability
peer interactions. While facilitating ‘like-ability’ peer interactions could be understood literally,
suggesting perhaps students of similar high IQ, for example, be grouped together, in practice
like-achievement, rather than like-ability, shapes peer interactions. Visible high achievement
is taken as evidence of latent high ability.
In any group of students, there are those who achieve at the average or expected level of the
class, those below and those above. For those achieving above the average level of the
class, the REAP project recommended that some of their learning activities are with students
who are also achieving at that same level.
Defining like-ability, like-achievement and high achievement in the engineering classroom
was the next step.
Engineering classrooms ability, achievement, constructs
In the REAP project, student achievement was used to indicate student ability. Similarly, in
the engineering classroom, student achievement was used to indicate student ability. In the
REAP project, student achievement was measured by an online test of the latent constructs
of numeracy and reading comprehension (Assessment Research Centre, 2019). In the
engineering classroom, relevant latent constructs needed to be drawn out.
Two possible latent constructs for this engineering unit were (i) engineering practice and (ii)
engineering communication. The skills and knowledge developed in engineering practice
deal with planning, researching, and proposing and evaluating a number of solutions for a
client. The skills and knowledge developed in engineering communication focus on written
reports and summaries, as well as verbal presentations, verbal summaries and contributions
to meetings. Further, engineering communication needed to be in professional Australian
English.
A measure for the latent construct ‘engineering practice’ has yet to be developed.
Nonetheless, an indication of student’s initial achievement level in ‘engineering practice’
could be estimated from the student’s background. There are five typical backgrounds for
students in this unit:
1. International students who already have a Masters of Engineering from outside
Australia and who may have worked as an engineer outside Australia and are
completing a masters in Australia to be accredited to work in Australia or other
countries that are signatories to the Washington accord;
2. International students who have completed a Bachelor of Engineering overseas who
seek to complete a masters to be accredited to work in Australia or other countries
that are signatories to the Washington accord;
3. Domestic students who have completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Australia who
seek to complete a masters to upgrade their qualification;
4. International students who have completed a non-Engineering undergraduate degree;
5. Domestic students who have completed a non-Engineering undergraduate degree.
It was assumed that the more experience a student has with engineering, either through
previous work experiences or studies in engineering, the higher their starting point in the
construct ‘engineering practice’.
Similarly, a measure for the latent construct ‘engineering communication’ has yet to be
developed, although there are constructs and measures for written expression (Australian
Council for Educational Research, 2019; Department of Education, Western Australia,
Proceedings of the AAEE2019 Conference Brisbane, Australia, Copy right © Jolanta Szymakowski, 2019
2019a). An indication of student’s initial achievement level in ‘engineering communication’
was more difficult to estimate – being a native English speaker was no guarantee of higher
level engineering communication skills. It was thus assumed that all students began the unit
with a low starting point in the construct ‘engineering communication’.
Facilitating like-ability peer interactions
The engineering classroom described in this unit consists of up to 24 students who meet
weekly in a two-hour workshop. Students are placed into groups of up to four that stay
together for the length of the unita home group. The groups of four are not teams as they
do not undertake true team-based learning or team work - activities can be completed even
when a group member does not contribute (Bennett, Rolheiser, & Stevahn, 1991). Many
workshop activities redistribute the students so they work with students from other groups.
The home group is the small community of three or four that students work with for
assessment purposes.
The recommendation to facilitate like-ability peer interactions was applied to group formation.
Other factors also informed group formation: intended grade at the end of the unit, and
previously completed engineering studies.
Intended grade at the end of the unit.
In previous semesters, students had expressed their greatest frustration as being a student
who sought a High Distinction for the unit and being placed in the same group with a student
who just wanted a pass (Lloyd & Szymakowski, 2017). The intended grade reflects ambition
and confidence rather than ability but making this explicit in group formation helped address
many students’ anxieties at the beginning of the unit. Students were advised that, although
they may be aiming for a High Distinction, there was no guarantee that they would achieve it.
For semester 2, 2019, every student indicated their aim to achieve a High Distinction. This
factor thus played no role in group formation.
Previously completed engineering studies.
In previous semesters, students had also expressed frustration with the broad heterogeneity
of their assigned group. The heterogeneity is typically justified by alluding to the engineering
workplace and the diversity of engineering workplace teams, referred to in Engineers
Australia’s Professional Engineer Competency 3.6 (Engineers Australia, 2013). However,
other student feedback has noted that
group work in a university class setting is nothing like group work in real
world engineering and does not develop the skills industry is looking for.
HR staff complain bitterly about the 'group work' examples they hear over
and over in Grad job interviews.” (Szymakowski, 2013, p. 106).
In contrast, homogenous grouping produces positive gains for the high achievers without
harming the achievement of their peers (Kulik & Kulik, 1997).
In this unit, group work is for learning and assessment, unlike an a workplace group or team
of various professionals (engineer, technician, linesman, manager, finance) hired to complete
a project. Applying ‘like-achievement’ meant home groups consisted of people with similar
previously completed engineering studies. This facilitated an atmosphere where group
members, in their home groups, were genuine academic peers who could share and relate to
similar experiences. The sharing did not stop with the home groups. For many workshop
activities, students worked with others who were not in their home groups.
Australian English fluency
In previous semesters, students possessing a high level of Australian English fluency had
expressed concern about being allocated to a group of poor English speakers and writers,
Proceedings of the AAEE2019 Conference Brisbane, Australia, Copy right © Jolanta Szymakowski, 2019
acting as defacto English tutors. This was also considered when allocating students to
groups.
The students
The composition of the class across the two trialled semesters was similar. Around 70% of
the class had already completed engineering studies at either masters or bachelor level.
Twenty percent of the class were international students who had completed broad
undergraduate studies and, in the first semester, the remaining 10% were domestic students
who had completed broad undergraduate studies. No domestic students were present in the
class for the second semester. At least 15% of the students had also worked as engineers
overseas.
Results
Observing and reflecting upon student learning over three iterations of the unit, Engineering
Practice and Communication, it was reassuring to note no negative impacts. The one
concern was around the one or two students each semester who did not complete the unit.
Rather than graduating from the unit with a low grade instead of the high distinction they
sought, students opted to abandon the unit and retry in a later semester, hoping to achieve a
higher grade.
Surveys
Mid semester and at the end of semester students completed a 10 item peer review survey
where students are asked to rate each of their group members e.g., “This member's work for
the team is of high quality” as well their own assessments “I am happy to work with this
team”. The comments in the free form comment field are very telling. In the first iteration of
this unit, where like-ability/like-achievement grouping was not implemented, greater
dissatisfaction and much greater acrimony was expressed. The many email complaints sent
to the tutor and conversations with disgruntled students about their group members
corroborate this dissatisfaction. In the second iteration, students were more settled and
reported fewer complaints and dissatisfactions with their group members. One group
presented a complaint in the first week of semester, and once that was addressed, no further
complaints or dissatisfactions with group members were noted. In the third iteration, students
reported even greater levels of satisfaction.
Students were also asked to complete a short survey asking what the tutor did well and what
the tutor should do in future workshops. Only a handful of responses across the two
semesters was received – the one comment about grouping suggested a mid-semester
shuffle of students would allow students the opportunity to develop better communication
skills.
Conclusion
The findings from a recent study of high achieving students in Victorian primary and
secondary schools suggested that, to support their high achieving students, teachers
acknowledge the variety of student achievement contained within their classrooms, with two
recommendations being to facilitate like-ability peer interactions, and to use online
curriculum. The tutor of a master’s engineering unit, Engineering Practice and
Communication, considered the variety of student achievement in the workshop, and
adopted the two recommendations. This paper focused on facilitating like-ability/like
achievement peer interactions.
No causality is implied between facilitating like-ability/like-achievement peer interactions and
positive student outcomes. However, it is always reassuring to note that a change of
educational practice did not lead to reduced student outcomes. Fewer group work problems
were noticed, and the groups settled quickly. This and other recommendations will be trialled
in later iterations of the unit.
Proceedings of the AAEE2019 Conference Brisbane, Australia, Copy right © Jolanta Szymakowski, 2019
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