Group work can help students to become more active in their learning (Ruel and Bastiaans, 2003). When working with peers in a group, students are encouraged to articulate their ideas and question the ideas of others. When it works, this leads to a social process of constructing ideas and developing possible solutions to problems. Hendry et al. (1999) describe the link between constructivism philosophy and problem-based learning. This active engagement with peers in learning should be more likely to lead to 'deep learning', in which students really understand the meaning of theories.
Economics students can expect to spend a large part of their careers working in groups, whether in committees or project teams. Employers need good team workers and better social skills will increase students' employability. A recent survey of employers in Wales found that team and group working skills were ranked fourth in importance after communication, understanding customer needs and the ability to learn (Cardiff University, 2001). Group work activity in higher education provides practice in the salient skills and the opportunity to refer to this experience.
Group work can help to meet the QAA criteria for economics (QAA, 2000). These criteria refer to the importance of providing 'active and deep learning opportunities' for students' learning, and group work is one way of delivering these opportunities. Group work can also contribute to the achievement of various aims of the economics degree programme, such as:
It is often argued that students prefer different styles of learning (Charkins et al., 1985; Lage et al., 2000). For example, the Grasha-Reichmann questionnaire for categorising learning styles uses a student classification of dependent learners, collaborative learners and independent learners. The implication is that students who are collaborative learners benefit substantially when learning in a group process and that teaching should give opportunities for each type of student to learn in the style they prefer. This means providing a mix of opportunities to learn, including working in groups. 'Instructors who use only the dependent teaching style can improve economic understanding and attitudes toward economics by utilising other teaching methods' (Charkins et al., 1985, p. 112). Whilst these arguments have gained considerable influence in some quarters, a recent review of the evidence for such categorisations (Coffield et al., 2004) is broadly sceptical of the claims made for learning styles inventories.
Many higher education establishments have experienced large increases in student numbers and this can support the rationale for introducing more group work. First, it might be regarded as a palliative for the resource problems that massification tends to create. Second, it may be championed as a practicable way of providing good learning experiences for students.
Increases in student numbers typically reduce the average lecturer time available for each student and certain forms of group work can be offered as a partial solution. Class contact time can be reduced if students are asked to work in groups outside of the direct supervision of lecturing staff. Individual projects can be replaced by group projects. However, group work can take many hours of administration to make sure that the process runs smoothly.
Massification also puts pressure on the quality of teaching. How do lecturers engage the feelings and emotions of a large body of students, whom they neither meet individually nor know by name? If the cited benefits of group work can be realised, the productivity of teaching might be raised through improvements in quality as well as through reductions in resources per head. For example, following Kolb's (1984) model of experiential learning, students might be more effectively engaged in their learning, develop their initiative and motivation, and show increased commitment in their learning.
It is now usual for undergraduate awards to be required to include in their aims a commitment to developing students' skills. Statements are easily written into award documents, but less easily located in the experiences that are provided for students or the outcomes that are assessed. Group work projects provide practicable opportunities for the application of transferable skills (such as teamwork, leadership, communication and project management) and these opportunities are easy to write into module specifications. Identifying students' progress in these skills is more of a challenge and one that lies beyond the scope of this chapter.
For students studying within a mass education environment there can be social and personal benefits of being allocated into relatively small, clearly identified, task-oriented groups. There is a longstanding body of research suggesting that membership of groups can make a major contribution to an individual's sense of identity and self-evaluation (see, for example, Festinger, 1954).