January 8, 2004, by Teaching at Nottingham

How do you ensure everyone’s participating in practicals?

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Chris: “Well that is something we have lots of experience with. I’ll start with this one. We run a lot of group projects and almost always get somebody who is self evidently not pulling their weight.

“Now there are a number of ways you can deal with that. One way is that peer pressure often deals with it before you have to. Students are acutely aware, especially if they think there is going to be an overall mark for this thing which comes out of the group effort and I’ll come onto that in a minute.

“Peer pressure can sort it out. But what we often do with groups is have feedback sessions with whoever is supervising the project where you discuss what you decided to do, where you have got to now, and you can direct your questions and manage the discussion like an ordinary group discussion, so people are forced to come in on it.

“The first thing that is evident is somebody who is dragging their feet and not doing it because they don’t have a clue why they are doing this. They can’t answer anything sensible about the reason they are doing it. So you can get it that way.

“Another way of dealing with it is if students know, (and this is a technique we have used in several group projects) that there is going to be a democratic division of marks around whatever the assessed outcome of their practical is.

“So for example if we give the practical outcome 65%, then the students themselves decide what the distribution of that mark will be between the group . It is remarkable how the dossers accept 25% and the ones who do the work accept 80%, but usually they do something about it before they are going to be faced with having to accept 25%.

“We have used that in a number of different contexts. You have to be careful how much of the degree it is counting towards when you use these different techniques, but it is one way of dealing with it. They know that is going to happen then often it takes care of the problem from the outset.

“But discussions can embarrass them into working, but it also catches them out and they know then that they are shown up by knowing that they don’t understand it and that helps.

Michelle: “The way I deal with it, is to allow the teams to take control of their own policing. In that at the beginning of the module if there is a problem and people are not pulling their weight, then could the team leader come and tell me.

“So, initially I get a warning that this is happening and I provide the person who is slacking with a formal warning. If the team then comes and says it is still happening, then that person gets booted off and has to do the practical on their own.

“This then has one of two results – the person who is doing it on their own is going to be marked on their own ability which means they can do very well if they are working on their own they can pull their weight for themselves. Or they flunk it and do very badly, but the result for the team is that those who are pulling their weight get the credit for the work that they do.”

Kathy: “In Engineering, it’s an individual piece of practical work, but they are doing the practical in a group, but they are going to submit an individual piece of work.

“To some extent does it really matter that in the 2 hours they are in the lab that somebody is not pulling their weight. At the end of the day they are going to take a set of data out.

“Ideally you would want all four contributing people to contribute, but they are going to go away and produce an individual piece of work and the weak student will go away with a lack of comprehension and will hand in a weak piece of work.

“You can hover around, ask them the right questions and try to get them to engaged, but if you can’t get them to engaged with the work then they are going to pay the penalty for that themselves. Personally I wouldn’t be too anxious in that situation.

“If it’s a piece of project work that is extending over several weeks, and it’s a group mark, then the idea that you can have an agreed split of the marks that is not equal and all the students are aware of that is a good approach.

“I do think you need an arbitration process that is also agreed and everybody buys into it so that if the students cannot agree an equitable division of the marks you have to be able to arbitrate.”

Chris Barnard (School of Biology),
Michele Clarke (School of Geography),
Kathy Simmons (Department of Mechanical, Materials & Manufacturing Engineering).

Extracts from a panel discussion on teaching in practicals at the January 2004 PGCHE Introductory Event.
This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Design and loadingPracticals and labs