Group feedback, fast feedback, good feedback

We had the “first cut” poster presentation today in my new course. Having had the students present their pitches the previous week, this week was the time to show the first layout – put up your poster and let it speak for itself.

The results were, not all that surprisingly, very, very good. Everyone had something to show, a data story to tell and some images and graphs that told the story. What was most beneficial though was the open feedback environment, where everyone learned something from the comments on their presentation. One of my students, who had barely slept for days and was highly stressed, got some really useful advice that has given him a great way forward – and the ability to go to bed tonight with the knowledge that he has a good path forward for the next two weeks.

Working as a group, we could agree as a group, discuss and disagree, suggest, counter-suggest, develop and enhance. My role in all of this is partially as a ‘semi-expert’ but also as a facilitator. Keep the whole thing moving, keep it to time, make sure that everyone gets a good opportunity to show their work and give and receive feedback.

The students all write down their key feedback, which is scanned as a whole and put on the website so that any good points that went to anyone can now be used by anyone in the group. The feedback is timely, personal and relevant. Everyone feels that these sessions are useful and the work produced reflects the advantages. But everyone talks to everyone else – it’s compulsory. Come to the session, listen and then share your thoughts.

This, of course, reveals one of my key design approaches: collaboration is ok and there is no competitiveness. Read anything about the grand challenges and you keep seeing the word ‘community’ through it. Solid and open communities, where real and effective sharing happens, aren’t formed in highly competitive spaces. Because the students have unique projects, they can share ideas, references and even analysis techniques without plagiarism worries – because they can attribute without the risk of copying. Because there is no curve grading, helping someone else isn’t holding you back.

Because of this, we have already had two informal workshop groups form to address issues of analysis and software, where knowledge passes from person to person. Before today’s first cut presentation, a group was sitting outside, making suggestions and helping each other out – to achieve some excellent first cut results.

Yes, it’s a small group so, being me, now I’m worrying about how I would scale this up, how I would take this out to a large first-year class, how I would get it to a school group. This groups need careful facilitation and the benefit of inter-group communication is derived from everyone in the group having a voice. The number of interactions scale with the square of the group size, so there’s a finite limit to how many people I can have in the group and fit it into a two-hour practical session. If I split a larger class into sub-groups, I lose the advantage of everyone see in everyone else’s work.

But this can be solved, potentially with modern “e-” techniques, or a different approach to preparation, although I can’t quite see it yet. There’s a part of me that thinks “Ask these students how they would approach it”, because they have viewpoints and experience in this which complements mine.

Every week that goes by, I wonder if we will keep improving, and keep rewarding the (to be honest) risk that we’re taking in running a small course like this in leaner times. And, every week, the answer is a resounding “yes”!

Here’s to next week!

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