Sunday, April 22, 2012

Group Evaluations that Support and Clarify Professional Practices and Soft Skills for Students

Kevin Anthony Stoda Salalah College of Technology Salalah, Oman ABSTRACT Because there have sometimes been discrepancies between the training offered at the tertiary levels and the present (& future) needs of the labour market, many students, teachers and educational institutions are interested in both teaching soft-skills and applying various business & industrial (professional) practices in the classroom (Watts, 1998; Hissey, 2000; Noll & Wilkin, 2002; ODEP, 2010). Interestingly, (1) by introducing a variety of professional practices, including soft skills, and (2) by providing opportunities to reflect on those behaviours used in simulations and group activities, students often quickly understand what behaviours are expected and needed to succeed both academically and in the world of work. One important way to ensure this progress is through the development of appropriate group-work evaluation rubrics—i.e. rubrics which support the goal of helping students integrate themselves as individuals in a successful group, office, or team. These evaluation practices support students and society well in terms of both improving individual achievement in the academic- and professional worlds. INTRODUCTION Much has been written about the needs of Omani students to individually self-evaluate their own individual performances in the classroom. The hope has been that an important classroom- and lifelong-learning skills will be achieved. (Klenowski, 1995; Sullivan et. al. 1998; Rolheiser & Ross, 2012). For example, in our college’s foundation program, both level 1 and level 2 students evaluate their work each week in what we call a “study skills class”. However, until now, these same students on our campus have not been evaluated regularly in terms of their achievements in group work activities --nor have these students been asked to reflecting much about their performances in groups in informal ways. With this paper, I encourage all schools in Oman to employ feedback and evaluations which enable and encourage students to work as an asset on a variety of teams (with a variety of peers from different tribes or cultures) in a variety of contexts. This will empower our student graduates with extremely marketable soft skills when they leave our programs in the future. This paper posits that group work activities, i.e. which are regularly followed by supportive evaluation rubrics and student-teacher reflection, can help students and teachers focus on important soft skills, such as a variety of (a) communicative skills, (b) problem-solving skills, (c) team-work skills, (d) information management, (e) professionalism, and (f) various leadership practices. It is clear that such rubrics can and do support progress (continuous) assessments. That is, their employment in classrooms and for projects outside of the class will improve time-on-tasks efforts for both groups and individuals. Moreover, these practices will enable students to improve their efforts and overall-success in (and out of) the classroom in a variety of repeated activities over time. In the following sections of this paper, (1) I will share my own background in undertaking group activities and evaluations as an educator or language trainer, and (2) I will present and discuss a variety of evaluation options for groups, which highlight or reinforce particular groups of soft-skills needed for more-and-more successful group (and individual) efforts in the classroom and in the workplace. Why Self-Evaluate? According to the Nebraska Department of Training (NDT), “[i]n order to become lifelong learners, students need to learn the importance of self-evaluation. They can do this by filling out self-evaluation forms, journalizing, taking tests, writing revisions of work, asking questions, and through discussions. When students evaluate themselves, they are assessing what they know, do not know, and what they would like to know. They begin to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. They become more familiar with their own beliefs, and possibly their misconceptions. After they self-evaluate they will be able to set goals that they feel they can attain with the new knowledge they have about themselves.” When I first entered the teaching profession, I was primarily interested in working in the social sciences with high schools students. I desired to empower students to be more active socially in their societies, i.e. in terms of improving their workplaces, NGOs, and government organizations. However, over the subsequent two-and-half decades, I have come to primarily work teaching foreign languages in a dozen different countries. During these years, I have often tried to integrate my social science training into my curricular developments in foreign language education. I have done so because I found early-on that social science topics and social-studies-inspired activities, such as conducting surveys and debating, were motivating for many students. This was true for native speakers and for and social studies for many L2 learners. As part of the continuing assessment movement of the early 1990s, I chose to adapt (See Rubric 1 below) for my second language students in Japan a rubric for group work evaluations which had originally been created by social science teachers in California to promote social-, group-, and individual classroom behaviours. The three key criteria for evaluation are (a) cooperation ability, (b) communication ability, (c) ability to thoroughly complete task(s). The particular rubric, Group Discussions & Problem Solving, is designed for groups of 3 to 6 students but works best with groups of 5 students. Rubric 1: Group Discussions & Problem Solving Note: 1 is low score, 5 is high score Cooperation 5 All members of the group participate in an outstanding manner throughout the activity. 4 Most of the members of the group participate most of the time in the discussion and in achieving a solution. 3 At least half of the members of the group participate most of the time in the discussion and work towards achieving solutions for the activity. 2 Only one (or occasionally two) student[s] in the group is on task and ready to discuss most of the time. 1 The group and individuals in group are not on task most of the time. Communication 5 All members of the group communicate clearly & perform their assigned roles—speaking & discussing topic while making individual contributions to the group in finding solutions for task--in an outstanding manner throughout the activity. 4 Most of the members of the group perform their assigned roles while communicating clearly contributing to solutions for completing the task. 3 At least half of the member of the group participate most of the time in the discussion and participate adequately in finding solutions for the task. 2 Only one (or sometimes two) students in the group is discussing or speaking most of the time—and trying to complete the task in a timely fashion. 1 None of the individuals in the group are on task or contributing to discussion and to problem solving most of the time. Completion of Task 5 All members of the group played their assigned roles throughout the activity in completing the task in the required amount of time and with outstanding effort. 4 Most of the members of the group participate most of the time in completing the task on time in a more-than-adequate fashion. Most participants played their part most of the time. 3 At least half of the member of the group played their assigned roles in working to achieving solutions for the activity in an adequate fashion. 2 Only one student in the group is on task and has enabled the group to complete the task. 1 The group and individuals in group are not on task most of the time and did not do an adequate job at what they did undertake. Later, I learned that this approach to group work discussions and group training is quite similar to the practices of coaching trainees and employees that are used all-around the globe to train new employees and working professionals alike. “Coaching can be defined as a continuous process of providing students with feedback to enhance, maintain or improve their performance. The coach observes performance, shares knowledge and expertise, and provides encouragement to assist students in reaching continuously higher levels of performance. Coaching enables students to develop their thinking and actions in response to differing situations. The coaching approach encourages learning, growth and teamwork all at the same time. (NDT)” In line with the principles of coaching, I quickly began adapting the rubric to a variety of daily group activities—as well as for long-term projects, group presentations or writings. For the daily activity-evaluations of a group (continuous assessment), I began to adapt the criteria and give scores that included fractions. For example, one group might receive on the first day a “3” in each category: a “3” for cooperation, a “3” for communication, and a “3” for completion of task. Whereas, on the following days, I might note scores of “3.3”, “3.2” and a “3.5”. This signalled to the students that they were improving and encouraged them to continue to obtain more total group participation and encourage more achievement from all members—while recognizing that some improvement is taking place. (Eventually, I could make long term evaluations for weekly efforts for some groups.) In any case, I did not expect students to immediately understand how evaluate themselves and their groups. So, usually, on the first few days of class each semester, I would try to get new groups of students (from whatever nationality or tribe) to evaluate their own small group activity that we were undertaking--for example: a group discussion,. After the individuals and groups had finished their oral (and written) portions of the discussion, I would hand out the classroom (level-adapted-) rubric and then ask each group to determine which scores the individuals would give themselves. I would then share the scores I had decided to give the group that day. After repeating this procedures for a few days, most students had gained a common understanding of the individual and group behaviours that I and most of them expected for high-levels of performance on any group evaluation. NOTE: Most importantly, for almost all activities or projects I assign on a daily basis (a) a leader and (b) a group secretary—often on a rotating basis among members of a group over time-- so that I can receive a written report about what the group has achieved (and how well the leader felt the group was doing). Combined with my own daily evaluation rubrics for each group, these ‘secretary”-written notes enable me to give progress reports (or continual assessments) to individual students and groups throughout the term. This continuous feedback motivates as many students as possible to be involved in the project from start to finish. Moreover, notes from the secretary which clearly explain what different students said or contributed is a great reference for later—end of semester reports and evaluations in work- and holistic appraisals of performance.. Naturally, using a variety of rubrics for groups is important. On the one hand, this is because not all students and not all evaluators see the behaviours of a particular group in the same way that I do—and this is a good thing. This is because we want students to obtain soft skills that are applicable in a myriad of situations, places, times, and contexts. Remember, “[s]ome people go through life with apparent ease while their peers with access to similar resources struggle. Life skills such as critical and creative thinking, decision-making, communication and interpersonal relations make a big difference to the success a person achieves. Of all these skills, those that equip a person to fit into a social structure are known as soft skills. (Stewart)” The importance of soft-skills is being conveyed to the students through the continual usage of group evaluations and group self-evaluations. Category 4 3 2 1 Contributions Provides useful ideas when doing group work. A real leader who contributes a lot of effort. Usually provides ideas in group work. A strong member who tries hard. Sometimes provides ideas in group work. A satisfactory group member who does what is required. Rarely provides ideas to the group. May even refuse to participate. Quality of Work Provides excellent quality of work Provides high quality work Provides work that needs to be rechecked by group members. Provides work that usually needs to be redone or rechecked by others. Time management Uses time well and has things completed on time. Deadlines and responsibilities are followed. Uses time well but may have procrastinated on an item but deadlines were still met. Tends to procrastinate but still meets deadlines. Rarely gets things done by deadlines and had to change responsibilities in the group to ensure time management. Attitude Never is publicly critical of anyone’s ideas, opinions or work. Always has a positive attitude about the task. Rarely is publicly critical and usually has a positive attitude Occasionally is publicly critical and usually has a positive attitude. Often is critical publicly and often has a negative attitude toward the task Focus to task Continuously stays focused to the task. Very self-motivated. Focuses to the task most of the time. Can be depended on to complete a task. Focuses to the task some of the time. Others need to encourage, prod and remind this person to stay on task Rarely focuses on the task. Lets others do the work. (Rubric for Group Evaluations) Rubistar is a great website to go to for teachers to be able to either create or find your own rubrics. CONCLUSION Best practices teach us that if group evaluations are taken seriously and are truly supportive of either maintaining or enhancing language and soft skills, students will acquire many important soft skills and professional skills through their group work activates (and from their evaluations of their group efforts). This is true whether students are beginners, intermediate or advanced speakers of the language they are communicating in. Felder and Brent (2010) write, “Once you have a checklist or rubric, grading student work becomes much more efficient than the usual procedure in which detailed feedback is provided on each student product, and more reliable because the breakdown of points by criteria makes it more likely that products of the same quality will get the same grade.” While it is true that rubrics and checklists are used in Omani tertiary education, one problem I have noted in here is that often rubrics are not simplified and nor translated so that students can benefit from them in an efficient manner, especially when their all-around language skills may be low. They are often also not repeatedly used enough so that both instructor and student can observe improvements over time. It should not be difficult for bilingual staff to enable the creation of great rubrics and checklists for groups and individual students. (One example of an individual checklist can be found in the Appendix 2 of this work.) As noted above, rubrics support good group work practices and other student soft-skills. Some departments at universities and technical colleges in Oman employ good to very helpful rubrics and checklists, but many departments and foundations programs do not regularly use appropriate checklists and rubrics across the variety of curricula which Omani students participate in. In conclusion, just as students are taught early-on that writing or creating a good paragraph involves various elements: (1) good topic sentence, (2) great supporting details, and a (3) strong conclusion, our students need to be shown an image or target of what is required to do well in the work place--and working with others outside of the college world in general. This is true--regardless as to whether an Omani works with team mates (or workmates) from the same tribe or culture. This is why I encourage the creation and implementation of helpful group-work and teamwork rubrics and checklists which support such soft-skills and positive group work behaviours. REFERENCES Center for Applied Linguistics 2008, (Part II: Activity Packets) Needs Assessment and Learner Self-Evaluation, Felder, Richard M. & Brent Rebecca (2010) , Random thoughts… hard assessment of soft skills, Chemical Engineering Education, 44(1), 63-64 Hissey, T.W. (2000) Education and careers 2000. Enhanced skills for engineers. In: Proceedings of the IEEE, 1367-1370. Klenowski, Val (1995), Student self-evaluation processes in student-centered teaching and learning contexts in Australia and England. Assessment in Education, 2(2),145-163. McIntosh, Kathy Adams, How to develop soft-skills, NDT (2012), Self-evaluation, NDT (2012), Coaching for success in the classroom, Noll, Cheryl L.& Wilkin, Marilyn (2002), Critical skills of IT professionals: a model for curriculum development, Journal of Information Technology Education, 1(2), 143-154. ODEP (2010), Teaching soft skills through workplace simulations in classroom settings, 1-9. Rolheiser, Carol & Ross, John A. (2012), Student self-evaluation: what research says and what practices shows, Rubistar, Rubric for Group Evaluations, Sloan, Megan. (1996). I Love This Piece Because…., Instructor 105 (7) & 30-32. Sullivan, Maura, Hitchcock, Maurice & Dunnington, Gary (1998) Peer and self assessment during problem based tutorials, The American Journal of Surgery, 177(3), 266-269. Stewart, David, What are soft-skills and life-skills?, Watts, A.G. (1998) Reshaping career development for the 21st century, Center for Guidance Studies, APPENDIX 1 This example of a peer rating rubric of group work is adapted from Felder & Brent (2010). TABLE 1 Excerpt from a Peer Rating Rubric for Team Projects Your Name Other Student #1 Other Student #2 Other Student #3 Other Student #4 Team: Names: Contributing to the teams 5 5 5 5 5 -Does more or higher quality work than expected. -Makes important contributions that improve the team’s work. -Helps teammates who are having difficulty completing their work. 4 4 4 4 4 Demonstrates some of the behaviors described in Level 5 & 3 3 3 3 3 3 -Completes a fair share of the team’s work with acceptable quality. -Keeps commitments and completes assignments on time. -Helps teammates who are having difficulty when it is easy or important. 2 2 2 2 2 Demonstrates some of the behaviors described in Level 3 and 1 1 1 1 1 1 -Does not do a fair share of the team’s work. Delivers sloppy or incomplete work. -Misses deadlines. Is late, unprepared, or absent for teem meetings. -Does not assist teammates. Quits if the work becomes difficult. Interacting with Teammates: 5 5 5 5 5 -…. APPENDIX 2 This example of a peer rating rubric of a grading checklist is adapted from Felder & Brent (2010). TABLE 2 Grading Checklist for a Written Report Student ________________________________ Project Phase ___________________________ Date:___________________ Evaluator:____________________________ Max. Score Comments TECHNICAL CONTENT (60%) Abstract clearly identifies purpose and summarizes principle content 10 Introduction demonstrates thorough knowledge of relevant background and prior work 15 Analysis and discussion demonstrate good subject mastery 30 Summary and conclusions appropriate and complete 5 ORGANIZATION (10%) Distinct introduction, body, conclusions 5 Content clearly and logically organized, good transitions 5 PRESENTATION (20%) Correct spelling, grammar, and syntax 10 Clear and easy to read 10 QUALITY OF LAYOUT AND GRAPHICS (10%) 10 TOTAL SCORE 100


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