Teaching Culturally Diverse Groups: managing assessed group work

Jude Carroll, Oxford Brookes University. Extracted with permission from Teaching International Students: improving learning for all edited by Jude Carroll and Janette Ryan, 2005, RouteledgeFalmer, ISBN: 0415350654.
Published on the Economics Network site, June 2009.

These suggestions are designed to make group work more effective where students are working in culturally diverse groups and where the result is assessed. They are based on a chapter in a book, Teaching International Students: improving learning for all (eds Carroll and Ryan, 2005 by Routeledge). The full text includes references to studies and research to support the recommendations, and another chapter by Glauco de Vita in the Brookes Business School about using groupwork where the cultural differences themselves form part of the assessment. Here, the focus is on ensuring discipline-specific tasks which result in good learning for all when tackled in a group where different cultural groups are working together.

Resolve generic issues about assessed group work

Difficulties in group work may reflect inappropriate use of the method per se such as

  • Using groups to manage large classes rather than to encourage learning
  • Setting tasks that are better done individually than in a group
  • Not planning ways to deal with conflicts
  • Assessing the group as if they were generating individual work, taking no account of individual effort

Resolving these generic problems lessens the danger that resentment arising from (mis) management are directed by one group of students at another or misinterpreted as arising from language competence or cultural misunderstandings.

Explain the purpose of using group work and interactive learning

Help students see group work as a legitimate learning method and encourage them to see interaction as valuable, since cross cultural interaction outside of the classroom is often very limited.

Think carefully about how you set group membership

Letting students choose who will be in ‘their’ group might be the best way to set membership if:

  • You do not know them well
  • It is relatively early in the programme
  • They need to work within familiar rules and behaviours
  • The task is relatively short-lived and/or straightforward
  • Assessment stresses the final product. (This is because a diverse group will take longer to achieve the result compared to a monocultural group so allowing self-selection is fairer).

Arguments against self-selection include:

  • Some students’ preference for multicultural groups, perhaps as a chance to interact with fellow students and to practise using informal, discipline-specific English
  • Providing early, low-stakes practice with formative feedback to prepare for later summative assessment that includes cross-cultural competence.

Teachers may decide to allocate group membership where:

  • The group process is being assessed as well as the product
  • Students are expected to develop group skills
  • Tasks clearly warrant a global perspective
  • The programme is producing graduates with cross-cultural competence
  • Teachers know individual students’ skills and competence

When you are ‘engineering’ group membership, bear in mind:

  • Distribution of international students. Ensure at least two in groups where home students predominate. If some students share a language, ensure the issue is addressed and the group reaches agreement about its management.
  • Global conflicts. Students from some areas will not necessarily find it easy to work together. If you know your students, you could explore this aspect with them.
  • The size of the group and the relative diversity of membership. Five to seven is considered optimal; very diverse groups (however you define this) may need to be smaller.

Group-work tasks

A suitable task involves all group members, rewards use of members’ skills and previous experience, and (ideally) encourages the kind of synergy that turns students’ diverse skills and knowledge into an asset rather than a liability. You could do this by:

  • Choosing a collaborative verb (compile a catalogue, comment on others’ contribution, collect applications of a theory and compare their significance, assemble a portfolio of examples, prepare positions on an issue or prepare for a debate by first documenting and justifying a wide range of possible positions).
  • Setting a complex problem requiring joint effort (eg prepare for a product launch, redesign a nearby derelict urban site or role-play a public enquiry)
  • Requiring roles (chair, note taker etc)
  • Asking students to draw on skills in the group (for example, a strong organiser who finds oral presentations difficult or someone with statistical skills who writes grammatically incorrect English) and provide evidence they have done so.
  • Making all students equally unsure via ‘fuzzy’ tasks (with clear task briefs) or unusual contexts such as finding a solution that would work in Antarctica so everyone starts with an unfamiliar context.

If cultural knowledge is essential, (eg how UK adoption law works or what is normally included in a UK publisher’s marketing plan), state this explicitly (‘I am assuming you know about xx’) and provide advice on filling general knowledge gaps.

Adapt the context in which the task is set to recognise all students’ sensitivities. For example, one UK management course set a case study in a brewery which meant students with religious reasons to avoid alcohol had to set aside strongly held views before they could engage with the task. Of course, if you are teaching a course on managing breweries or any of a range of issues where students are likely to hold strong beliefs, then these become part of the learning outcomes. If this is not the case, choosing another industry would work equally well.

Rethink assessment

Multicultural groups will take longer to achieve the final outcome compared with monocultural ones because the group must first find ways to communicate effectively. Unless the task lasts for many weeks, if you are only assessing the final result, you may be inadvertently making diversity a disadvantage. If you assess both the product (ie what they must do) and the process (ie how they do it), you are telling students to put effort into both rather than aiming for a ‘perfect’ final artefact.

Assessing multicultural group work is more effective if

  • All students know what will be assessed and how marks will be allocated.
  • Difficult aspects such as cross-cultural communication or managing conflict effectively attract a percentage of the final mark that reflects the effort involved .
  • It is clear how students track and record their own and others’ efforts.
  • Marks are allocated to reflect individual effort. Judging individual effort is problematic in all group work and even more so where multicultural membership is involved, especially if peer assessment is used. Criteria for a ‘good performance’ needs to address the relative importance of English language competence. In general, both home students and international students over-estimate the impact of English on a student’s ability to contribute though students with low English competence will struggle with all aspects of group work, especially in the early months.
  • Novel or unusual methods (eg a poster or oral exam) are rehearsed. with formative feedback on how to improve.

Helping and intervening

Despite students’ and teachers’ best efforts, conflict in group work is virtually inevitable. In multicultural group work, the differences that often cause the conflict will also often prevent students from drawing on shared assumptions and communication styles to resolve them. The teacher, therefore, needs to intervene by:

  • setting ground rules for participation and discussing how the group will manage conflict .
  • making clear what the group will do should conflict arise
  • planning ahead for addressing conflict. For example, one UK teacher uses a red or yellow card to ‘stop play’ before a given date then seek his involvement in resolving problems.
  • observing or tracking group activity to spot the signs, if possible, before the situation becomes serious.

Managing ‘difficult moments’ in a diverse group will never be easy but if the emphasis remains on learning from the experience and gaining useful cross- cultural communication skills, students can develop skills they can use next time. As they will probably encounter many such groups during their university career, it may be that enhanced group skills are the most useful outcome of assessed, subject-specific independent group work.

Extracted with permission from Teaching International Students: improving learning for all edited by Jude Carroll and Janette Ryan, 2005, RouteledgeFalmer, ISBN: 0415350654.