Using group assignments to improve students’ writing skills
The year three Topics in Development Economics is a very popular module among students at the University of Manchester. Usually, it enrols among 100-120 students from different programs, including BAEcon, BSc Economics and PPE students that have quite different backgrounds.
Since the module is delivered completely online as of last year, together with the Deputy Head of the department, I decided to introduce optional group assignments, where students get the chance to team up with others in the same module, discuss a specific assignment, do some writing in economics and finally also prepare a short video discussing their contribution for that specific assignment.
There are three main reasons that motivated this choice:
- First, I wanted to provide opportunities for students to meet and work together while enhancing their critical thinking and debate skills. Development Economics is a well-suited topic with controversial issues that, if discussed in groups, increase the understanding of the literature and why some approaches are more popular than others.
- The second reason is to increase feedback opportunities for students. The final exam for this module is made of two sections. In the first they comment with a short answer (no more than 2 pages) on a statement, a paper and or theoretical model. In the second part they solve a problem. The grades history of the module has shown that usually students fare much worse in the first part of the exam. Since writing in Economics is something that not all the students have many opportunities to do before they arrive in year 3, they simply have not had enough practice with that challenge. Having more opportunities to practice short essay questions before the exam becomes therefore crucial for them to learn how to best deal with such questions.
- The third reason, very much linked to number 2, is to teach students to write in Economics which is very much different from any writing they might have had to do for other departments like Politics or Sociology. Communicating Economics has become a very important skill in the job market recently. Policy briefs, reports or essays are only some examples of the many types of writing that you can do in Economics, where expressing your own opinion without the support of the literature or of stylized facts is usually not well taken. As mentioned earlier, Development Economics is a subject that by nature fosters discussion among people and provides a very wide range of real-life examples such that putting down in words those discussions becomes a natural step for students.
Though these assignments were optional, 70% submitted essays throughout the semester.
An example of the questions I gave is:
Briefly discuss the validity of each of the following statements. In your answer define or explain as precisely as possible any term or concept underlined, with reference to the context in which they are being used. The text for each answer should be no longer than 2 pages, but you can also include diagrams or examples where appropriate.
It is not possible to have a land (or tenancy) reform that can improve productivity without any technological change.
For the video, students were asked to realize a 2 min video (max) where each of them should speak for 30 seconds highlighting their contribution for that assignment question.
Moved by these considerations and being the first year to try this exercise out, I decided to keep those group assignments voluntary. The way in which I provided incentives to students to sign up for the groups was to mention that the exam questions would have been of the same style of those done in the groups and so all the students would have benefited from further practice. I allowed the students to choose to hand in the assignments either every week or every two weeks. This was mainly driven by the fact that I did not want to require a very high level of commitment with this module and, knowing that they take part in several other modules with their own assignments, I wanted them free to choose the modality that suited them best.
Once the two categories were formed, I matched into groups of four to have as many variations as possible by nationality, gender, program and ability. Though these assignments were optional, 70% submitted essays throughout the semester. Together with the essay, they could also submit a very short video to explain the individual contribution of each member and what type of issues/problems they encountered during the group work, if any.
4. Final Remarks
Being group work, the associated marking was not too burdensome. I did provide short comments on the paper with a final mark and offered to meet with individuals or with the entire group at office hour for further feedback if they wanted. Over time — say after two or three essays — the students saw significant improvements, not only in the essay writing skills but overall, in the understanding and learning of the module’s content. Thanks to the discussion within the group and to the actual writing of their ideas they learnt to select the relevant material, to express their ideas in a clearer way and to summarize properly, offering only the relevant explanations without digressions.
The quality of the midterm essays submitted after five weeks into the module was sensibly higher than the one obtained in the previous years, before these voluntary assignments were introduced.
Still there was a portion of students that decided not to engage with the module and made me wonder whether it should be turned into a compulsory activity. But this is something I am still debating for the future.