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Not Another Group Activity!


In a recent study, University of London distance learning students were asked to rank different types of course components by how much each component helped them to learn. 

Respondents reported that components that encouraged more active forms of learning (e.g. summarising an article, writing some code, performing a calculation) were less helpful than reading articles or watching videos provided by their courses. Above all they ranked shared, collaborative activities as the least helpful. Given what we know from educational research about the efficacy of active learning strategies generally, and group activities in particular, these findings are surprising.

They raise important questions about how much students understand about the purpose of different kinds of learning activities, and about how to study effectively. They also suggest that students might sometimes benefit from more explicit help to appreciate the value of active learning strategies generally and the benefits of undertaking specific individual and collaborative learning activities in their courses.

Although the subjects in the study were distance learning students, the article argues that, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the findings are relevant more widely.

The Student Learning Hours and Learning Strategies study, undertaken by CODE Fellows Professor Stephen Brown and Dr David Baume, focussed on how and why students engage with different types of content and learning activity, and, in particular, what role peer interaction plays in student learning. A sample of four programmes was selected to represent a range of subject domains, pedagogical strategies, and academic levels, each with some 1000-2000 students per cohort. Data were collected via:

  • Online survey of students on the four target courses
  • Sample of Learning Diaries from volunteer students
  • Remote interviews of volunteer students (via videoconference)

What do students think of online collaborative/group learning activities?

Survey respondents were asked to rank different programme components in terms of “how much they have helped you to learn”. The course components can be classified as:

  • Content, such as a reading or a video; or
  • Individual activities, such as summarising an article, writing some code, performing a calculation, etc.; or
  • Shared activities, such as group work and online fora.

In our study, responses to these different component types fell into three distinct bands of helpfulness – high, medium and low.  Content components were ranked as most helpful, while peer learning activities were ranked as least helpful across all four programmes.

Why does this matter? For students? For course designers?

We know from meta-reviews of research into distance learning student behaviour that, the more students engage with their courses, the better their academic achievement tends to be.  Engagement is defined here as both the amount of time learners spend on tasks, and the ways in which they use that time.  Unsurprisingly, more time spent learning tends to correlate with better assessment grades. Similarly, more active forms of learning behaviour such as summarising and making new connections between course content, receiving and making use of feedback on their work, rehearsing knowledge and skills and collaborating closely with peers are also associated with greater success.

The clear extent to which our respondents ranked the helpfulness of content above both individual learning activities and peer interaction suggests that some students may need more explicit help to experience how active learning activities and collaboration can help them to develop the capabilities, as well as the knowledge, they need to succeed in their studies. 

It’s all distance learning now, isn’t it?

Although the study examined distance learning courses, the findings are relevant more widely because most institutions now offer a significant proportion of learning at a distance to their on-campus students via online learning. This was already a growing trend before Covid-19. All institutions now need to understand how students learn online/at a distance, and design their courses accordingly.