Discussion Groups as an Assessment Strategy

Lecturer/Academic Dr Rob Gillanders (robert.gillanders@dcu.ie)
Subject 5 ECTS credit module titled Public Choice (EF325)
Discipline Economics
Level Final year undergraduate students - level 8
Class size circa. 50 students
Mode of delivery Online


What was the assessment challenge you faced?

The challenge was moving a traditional economics module to an online environment. This challenged me to consider how best to engage students in a mode of teaching that I was not necessarily a fan of. Some of my concerns included ensuring students attended the online Zoom classes, were engaging with the material outside of these synchronous classes, and confirming the student’s assessment efforts were their own work (i.e. promoting academic integrity).

I had used a reading and discussion club mechanism as an extracurricular activity in the past and found it to be very rewarding and engaging for both me and the students. I recalled deep and meaningful conversations around important issues in the political economy such as gender equality, gun control, and anti-corruption policy. I thought this might transfer well to an online teaching, learning and assessment environment and began planning and structuring the module around this approach.

What did you do?

I designed a new module assessment strategy which involved the assessment being conducted weekly across the full semester. Using the module topics, I sourced over twenty appropriate peer reviewed journal articles, with two articles specifically addressing each weekly topic. Students were required to choose one of two peer reviewed journal articles assigned to them weekly. The students had to submit a one-page critique of the article two days in advance of the weekly class. This enabled myself and a teaching assistant (the excellent Ciara O'Riordan) to review all submissions and harvest a suite of questions and observations for discussion in class. If we had any suspicions about the work submitted we were able to target questions to that particular student. The students quickly realised they could be put on the spot and so preparation was important, and submitting a critique that was not their own would not work. Some earlier submissions included students trying to pass off some cut and pasting as their own work. After about two weeks the standard of work improved significantly, and real meaningful discussions ensued in class.

In preparation, I had to read a wide array of journal articles to ensure the final twenty-plus that made the cut spoke clearly to the module learning outcomes, were accessible to undergraduates and targeted the weekly topics. This did require some time, however, I enjoyed the opportunity to read papers I might not otherwise have had occasion to - or at least not with a hyper-critical eye. So the preparation time was a worthwhile endeavour.

How did it work in practice?

The class of approx. 50 were divided into two groups. Each group had a one-hour weekly discussion class. Within that class, the 25 students were randomly assigned to one of two Zoom breakout rooms to work with either the teaching assistant or me.  This facilitated us to explore the individual student contributions in a small group of approx. 12, allowing students to showcase their work in a manner that assured us that it was their own efforts. Furthermore, this approach gave students agency in the module and assessment, in addition to supporting them to develop good academic integrity practices.

Through well-chosen targeted journal articles, the module topics were comprehensively addressed weekly through old-style discussion groups and had the additional benefit of promoting academic integrity and good practice.

Student feedback was generally positive. Although they did find weekly preparation was quite onerous, they appreciated the push to engage in relevant and authentic reading and discussions. A number of them commented that the experience would help them to select better references for other assessments and had generally helped them with their critical thinking skills. Additionally, I confess to this being one of my most enjoyable teaching and assessment experiences.

What advice would I give to other academics who would like to try this approach?

  • Prepare well in advance by collating a host of relevant journal articles;
  • Allow time to review the one-page critiques submitted in advance of class (discussion groups);
  • Ensure discussion groups are circa. 10 students to allow for individual contributions and discussions; and
  • …just try it!!

Additional resources that might be helpful:

Podcast conversation between Rob Gillanders & Fiona O’Riordan [12 mins]

Link to Module Reading List

Link to Module Overview

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