Beautiful decomposition

Now there’s a title that I didn’t expect to write. In this case, I’m referring to how we break group tasks down into individual elements. I’ve already noted that groups like team members who are hard-working, able to contribute and dependable, but we also have the (conflicting) elements from the ideal group where the common goal is more important than individual requirements and this may require people to perform tasks that they are either not comfortable with or ideally suited for.


Kevin was nervous. The group’s mark depended upon him coming up with a “Knock Knock joke” featuring eyes.

How do we assess this fairly? We can look at what a group produces and we can look at what a group does but, to see the individual contribution, there has to be some allocation of sub-tasks to individuals. There are several (let’s call them interesting) ways that people divide up up tasks that we set. Here are three.

  1. Decomposition into dependent sub-tasks.
  2. Decomposition into isolated sub-tasks (if possible).
  3. Decomposition into different roles that spread across different tasks.

Part of working with a group is knowing whether tasks can be broken down, how that can be done successfully, being able to identify dependencies and then putting the whole thing back together to produce a recognisable task at the end.

What we often do with assignment work is to give students identical assignments and they all solemnly go off and solve the same problem (and we punish them if they don’t do enough of this work by themselves). Obviously, then, a group assignment that can be decomposed to isolated sub tasks that have no dependencies and have no assembly requirement is functionally equivalent to an independent assessment, except with some semantic burden of illusory group work.

If we set assignments that have dependent sub-tasks, we aren’t distributing work pressure fairly as students early on in the process have more time to achieve their goals but potentially at the expense of later students. But if the tasks aren’t dependent then we have the problem that the group doesn’t have to perform as a group, they’re a set of people who happen to have a common deadline. Someone (or some people) may have an assembly role at the end but, for the most part, students could work separately.

The ideal way to keep the group talking and working together is to drive such behaviour through necessity, which would require role separation and involvement in a number of tasks across the lifespan of the activity. Nothing radical about that. It also happens to be the hardest form to assess as we don’t have clear task boundaries to work with. However, we also have provided many opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability and to work together, whether as mentor or mentee, to learn from each other in the process.

For me, the most beautiful construction of a group assessment task is found where groups must work together to solve the problem. Beautiful decomposition is, effectively, not a decomposition process but an identification strategy that can pinpoint key tasks while recognising that they cannot be totally decoupled without subverting the group work approach.

But this introduces grading problems. A fluid approach to task allocation can quickly blur neat allocation lines, especially if someone occupies a role that has less visible outputs than another. Does someone get equal recognition for driving ideas, facilitating, the (often dull) admin work or do you have to be on the production side to be seen as valuable?

I know some of you have just come down heavily on one side or the other reading that last line. That’s why we need to choose assessment carefully here.

If you want effective group work, you need an effective group. They have to trust each other, they have to work to individual strengths, and they must be working towards a common goal which is the goal of the task, not a grading goal.

I’m in deep opinion now but I’ve always wondered how many student groups fall apart because we jam together people who just want a pass with people who would kill a baby deer for a high distinction. How do these people have common ground, common values, or the ability to build a mutual trust relationship?

Why do people who just want to go out and practice have to raise themselves to the standards of a group of students who want to get academic honours? Why should academic honours students have to drop their standards to those of people who are happy to scrape by?

We can evaluate group work but we don’t have to get caught up on grading it. The ability to work in a group is a really useful skill. It’s heavily used in my industry and I support it being used as part of teaching but we are working against most of the things we know about the construction of useful groups by assigning grades for knowledge and skill elements that are strongly linked into the group work competency.

Look at how teams work. Encourage them to work together. Provide escape valves, real tasks, things so complex that it’s a rare person who could do it by themselves. Evaluate people, provide feedback, build those teams.

I keep coming back to the same point. So many students dislike group work, we must be doing something wrong because, later in life, many of them start to enjoy it. Random groups? They’re still there. Tight deadlines? Complex tasks? Insufficient instructions? They’re all still there. What matters to people is being treated fairly, being recognised and respected, and having the freedom to act in a way to make a contribution. Administrative oversight, hierarchical relationships and arbitrary assessment sap the will, undermine morale and impair creativity.

If your group task can be decomposed badly, it most likely will be. If it’s a small enough task that one keen person could do it, one keen person probably will because the others won’t have enough of a task to do and, unless they’re all highly motivated, it won’t be done. If a group of people who don’t know each other also don’t have a reason to talk to each other? They won’t. They might show up in the same place if you can trigger a bribe reaction with marks but they won’t actually work together that well.

The will to work together has to be fostered. It has to be genuine. That’s how good things get done by teams.

Valuable tasks make up for poor motivation. Working with a group helps to practise and develop your time management. Combine this with a feeling of achievement and there’s some powerful intrinsic motivation there.

And that’s the fuel that gets complex tasks done.

Aesthetics of group work

What are the characteristics of group work and how can we define these in terms that allow us to form a model of beauty about them? We know what most people want from their group members. They want them to be:

  1. Honest. They do what they say and they only claim what they do. They’re fair in their dealings with others.
  2. Dependable. They actually do all of what they say they’re going to do.
  3. Hard-working. They take a ‘reasonable’ time to get things done.
  4. Able to contribute a useful skill
  5. A communicator. They let the group know what’s going on.
  6. Positive, possibly even optimistic.

A number of these are already included in the Socratic principles of goodness and truth. Truth, in the sense of being honest and transparent, covers 1, 2 and possibly even 5. Goodness, that what we set out to do is what we do and this leads to beauty, covers 3 and 4, and I think we can stretch it to 6.

But what about the aesthetics of the group itself? What does a beautiful group look like? Let’s ignore the tasks we often use in group environments and talk about a generic group. A group should have at least some of these (from) :

  1. Common goals.
  2. Participation from every member.
  3. A focus on what people do rather than who they are.
  4. A focus on what happened rather than how people intended.
  5. The ability to discuss and handle difference.
  6. A respectful environment with some boundaries.
  7. The capability to work beyond authoritarianism.
  8. An accomodation of difference while understanding that this may be temporary.
  9. The awareness that what group members want is not always what they get.
  10. The realisation that hidden conflict can poison a group.

Note how many of these are actually related to the task itself. In fact, of all of the things I’ve listed, none of the group competencies have anything at all to do with a task and we can measure and assess these directly by observation and by peer report.

How many of these are refined by looking at some arbitrary discipline artefact? If anything, by forcing students to work together on a task ‘for their own good’, are we in direct violation of this new number 7, allowing a group to work beyond strict hierarchies?


“I’m carrying my whole team here!”

I’ve worked in hierarchical groups in the Army. The Army’s structure exists for a very specific reason: soldiers die in war. Roles and relationships are strictly codified to drive skill and knowledge training and to ensure smooth interoperation with a minimum of acclimatisation time. I think we can be bold and state that such an approach is not required for third- or fourth-year computer programming, even at the better colleges.

I am not saying that we cannot evaluate group work, nor am I saying that I don’t believe such training to be valuable for students entering the workforce. I just don’t happen to accept that mediating the value of a student’s skills and knowledge through their ability to carry out group competencies is either fair or honest. Item 9, where group members may have to adopt a role that they have identified is not optimal, is grossly unfair when final marks depend upon how the group work channel mediates the perception of your contribution.

There is a vast amount of excellent group work analysis and support being carried out right now, in many places. The problem occurs when we try to turn this into a mark that is re-contextualised into the knowledge frame. Your ability to work in groups is a competency and should be clearly identified as such. It may even be a competency that you need to display in order to receive industry-recognised accreditation. No problems with that.

The hallmarks of traditional student group work are resentment at having to do it, fear that either their own contributions won’t be recognised or someone else’s will dominate, and a deep-seated desire to get the process over with.

Some tasks are better suited to group solution. Why don’t we change our evaluation mechanisms to give students the freedom to explore the advantages of the group without the repercussions that we currently have in place? I can provide detailed evaluation to a student on their group role and tell a lot about the team. A student’s inability to work with a randomly selected team on a fake project with artificial timelines doesn’t say anything that I would be happy to allocate a failing grade to. It is, however, an excellent opportunity for discussion and learning, assuming I can get beyond the tyranny of the grade to say it.

ITiCSE 2014: Working Groups Reports #ITiCSE2014 #ITiCSE

Unfortunately, there are too many working groups, reporting at too high a speed, for me to capture it here. All of the working groups are going to release reports and I suggest that you have a look into some of the areas covered. The topics reported on today were:

  • Methodology and Technology for In-Flow Peer Review

    In-flow peer review is the review of an exercise as it is going on. Providing elements to review can be difficult as it may encourage plagiarism but there are many benefits to this, which generally justifies the decision to do review. Picking who can review what for maximum benefit is also very difficult.

    We’ve tried to do a lot of work here but it’s really challenging because there are so many possibly right ways.

  • Computational Thinking in K-9 Education

    Given that there are national, and localised, definitions of what “Computational Thinking” is, this is challenging to identify. Many K-12 teachers are actually using CT techniques but wouldn’t know to answer “yes” if asked if they were. Many issues in play here but the working group are a multi-national and thoughtful group who have lots of ideas.

    As a note, K-9 refers to Kindergarten to Year 9, not dogs. Just to be clear.

  • Increasing Accessibility and Adoption of Smart Technologies for Computer Science Education

    How can you integrate all of the whizz-bang stuff into the existing courses and things that we already use everyday? The working group have proposed an architecture to help with the adoption. It’s a really impressive, if scary, slide but I’ll be interested to see where this goes. (Unsurprisingly, it’s a three-tier model that will look familiar to anyone with a networking or distributed systems background.) Basically, let’s not re-invent the wheel when it comes to using smarter technologies but let’s also find out the best ways to build these systems and then share that, as well as good content and content delivery. Identity management is, of course, a very difficult problem for any system so this is a core concern.

    There’s a survey you can take to share your knowledge with this workgroup. (The feared and dreaded Simon noted that it would be nice if their survey was smarter.) A question from the floor was that, while the architecture was nice and standards were good, what impact would this have on the chalkface? (This is a neologism I’ve recently learned about, the equivalent of the coalface for the educational teaching edge.) This is a good question. You only have to look at how many standards there are to realise that standard construction and standard adoption are two very different beasts. Cultural change is something that has to be managed on top of technical superiority. The working group seems to be on top of this so it will be interesting to see where it goes.

  • Strengthening Methodology Education in Computing

    Unsurprisingly, computing is a very broad field and is methodologically diverse. There’s a lot of ‘borrowing’ from other fields, which is a nice way of saying ‘theft’. (Sorry, philosophers, but ontologies are way happier with us.) Our curricular have very few concrete references to methodology, with a couple of minor exceptions. The working group had a number of objectives, which they reduced down to fewer and remove the term methodology. Literature reviews on methodology education are sparse but there is more on teaching research methods. Embarrassingly, the paper that shows up for this is a 2006 report from a working group from this very conference. Oops. As Matti asked, are we really this disinterested in this topic that we forget that we were previously interested in it? The group voted to change direction to get some useful work out of the group. They voted not to produce a report as it was too challenging to repurpose things at this late stage. All their work would be toward annotating the existing paper rather than creating a new one.

    One of the questions was why the previous paper had so few citations, cited 5 times out of 3000 downloads, despite the topic being obviously important. One aspect mentioned is that CS researchers are a separate community and I reiterated some early observations that we have made on the pathway that knowledge takes to get from the CS Ed community into the CS ‘research’ community. (This summarises as “Do CS Ed research, get it into pop psychology, get it into the industrial focus and then it will sneak into CS as a curricular requirement, at which stage it will be taken seriously.” Only slightly tongue-in-cheek.)

  • A Sustainable Gamification Strategy for Education

    Sadly, this group didn’t show up, so this was disbanded. I imagine that they must have had a very good reason.

Interesting set of groups – watch for the reports and, if you use one, CITE IT! 🙂