The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2.1 How group work can improve learning outcomes

Deep learning

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.

Employability

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.

QAA benchmarks

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:

  • to develop the ability to apply knowledge and skills;
  • to develop, through the study of economics, a range of transferable skills to be of value in employment;
  • to develop relevant skills for constructive use of that knowledge in a range of settings;
  • to stimulate students intellectually, leading them to apply economics to a range of problems in a variety of contexts. (See QAA (2000, p. 1) for a list of the main aims of an economics degree programme).

Variety is the spice

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.