The 'Business Project' at Salford University

Contact: John Lucas
Senior Lecturer in Business Economics, Salford University
J.M.Lucas@salford.ac.uk
Published January 2003 (brief version published August 2002)

During consultation with firms in the 1980s we found out that firms wanted graduates who can communicate effectively, work with others, and understand something of the reality of business. Following this the Business Project was born.

The intention was to expose students to practical analysis of real economic problems in a business environment and to develop skills of report writing, presentation and team work in an economics context.

'The Business Project' is an option in the Economics of Enterprise module at Level 2, Semester 2, for BSc Business Economics students and may precede a one-year work placement, between levels 2 and 3. It is the students' first attempt of group work. All Economics students now carry out group projects in the Enterprise Module, but only BSc Business Economics students follow the Business Project.

How it works

The tutor arranges with an outside firm what problem or project is suitable for a group of students to work on. In practice many projects have been basically market analyses with projected sales for the firm.

Student teams receive introductory explanations of the project, descriptions of the project, visit the firm, meet management, carry out desk research, write their report [with tutor available to assist], and finally present their report to tutors and managers.

Each team reports to the tutor with weekly minutes of meetings.

Assessment is a combination of final report, team presentation, individual presentation, individual Personal Reflective Journal and an interview with the tutor at end of project. The final report should be roughly 2,000 words in length per participating student. Personal Refective Journals should be up to 2,500 words in length.

The modules carried 10 credits in 2000-2001, but this was changed to 20 credits in 2001-2002. This change reflected the amount of work that enthusiastic students were putting into the project.

What problems have been encountered?

There are three types of problems evident: firstly those of group work, secondly those of project work and lastly those of working with an outside firm.

The latter problem was mainly ensuring that students obtain all needed information from the firm. Some delays were evident in 2000-1, and major problems occurred in 2001-2.

The main group work problem for the tutor was that of assessment. In particular, effectively measuring the performance of individuals. This was worse in 2000-1 when we had teams of 12 students, whereas in 2001-2 we had teams of 3 students.

Transparency of assessment for the external examiner was another group work problem. The presentations and interviews were not video recorded, so that the external had to rely on tutors' reports for that part of the assessment. The external examiner had access to the final reports and Personal Development Journals.

Objectives

The student objectives included enhanced employability and an opportunity to experience a real world application of economics.

The outside firm's objectives seem to include a genuine wish to help in the training of the next generation of managers. Also the work carried out by the students may well provide some new ideas and insights into the firm's problems. Some firms also value their links with the university. At Salford we have good contacts with many firms through the Campus operation. It is important that the firm's objectives are met.

Learning Outcomes

These are mainly about key skills and are as follows:

  • Set targets and make and follow plans to meet targets
  • Plan activities and work towards targets with others
  • Contribute to discussions and make presentations
  • Debate issues and assess arguments
  • Select, read, respond and produce written material
  • Use the internet as a resource base
  • Collect and record information and data
  • Process and present information

Transferable Skills

  • Managing own learning and performance
  • Communicate with others orally and in writing
  • Work with others
  • Collate, summarise and present information
  • Working for a client
  • Problem solving
  • Appreciating the realities of business
  • Struggling to find data, and manage with less than they would like

Tutor's role

The tutor has to prepare the students, which may require some lectures on relevant theory. A time comes to 'let the students go' and stand back to see how they meet the difficulties. There can be emergencies due to illness or interpersonal issues when intervention cannot be avoided.

Monitoring of group performance is mainly by receipt of minutes from weekly meetings. Contact with the firm should also ensure that managers are happy with their student contacts.

At the presentations, the tutor should be accompanied by a second tutor/examiner in addition to the managers.

Problems

From the students' viewpoint there are three types of problems evident: firstly those of group work, secondly those of project work, and lastly those of working with an outside firm.

  • In group work the students have to manage their team performance and allocate roles. Teams of up to 10 students may work on a project depending on its size. Team membership is set by the tutor, either at random or by a wish to ensure mixed abilities and attitudes.
  • In project work problems come from obtaining and processing information, meeting deadlines, writing and presenting a report.
  • The 'outside firm' problem has usually been about ensuring that students obtain all the information needed from the firm. Some delays, in this respect, were evident in 2000-1, and major problems occurred in 2001-2.

The main group work problem for the tutor was that of assessment. The main assessment issue is effectively measuring the performance of individuals. Students participate in the written report and allowance has to be made for personal work to be recognised. Individuals can be assessed by tutors through the following:

  • Their contribution to the presentation
  • Their section of the report [but editing can be a problem]
  • Personal Reflective Journal
  • Interviews [can be recorded]
  • Peer Assessment [see Gibbs and Jaques]
  • Examination [questions such as, "what if the firm had …..]

Transparency of assessment for the external examiner was another group work problem. The presentations and interviews were not video recorded, so that the external examiner had to rely on tutors' reports for that part of the assessment. The external examiner had access to the minutes of meetings, final reports, and Personal Reflective Journals.

How did the students respond?

Grades:

    I - 2, 2i - 8, 2ii - 7, III - 4, Fail - 1 [in 2000-1]
    2i - 2, 2ii - 4 [in 2001-2]

Students made very supportive comments in responses to evaluative questionnaires. The 'real' nature of the work, and the freedom they were given to research there own lines of enquiry were especially appreciated. 14% were 'Extremely Satisfied', and 57% 'Very Satisfied', with the module in 2000-1.

Students appreciated the commitment of the Managing Director and Sales Manager to the project and the formal nature of their presentations. All of the students agreed that they would 'recommend the module to a friend'.

Changes being considered

  • Peer Assessment
  • Fail-safe mechanisms, in case a firm gets into difficulties
  • Team-work training
  • Presentation training
  • Greater emphasis on teamwork skills in assessment
  • Links to other modules that include project work

References

Donaldson, A. J. M. & Topping, K. P., (1996) "Promoting Peer Assisted Learning amongst students in Higher and Further Education", Staff and Educational Development Association

Gibbs, Graham, (1994) "Learning in Teams - a student guide", Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes

Gibbs, Graham, (1995) "Learning in Teams - a tutor guide", Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes

Jaques, David, (2000) "Learning in Groups: a handbook for improving group work", Croom Helm