From being saddled with all the work to coasting along for a free ride, student experiences of group projects are not always positive. And oftentimes, students just try to get through their group work for the grades, without realising that the true value lies in the process – not the end result.

Group work usually provokes such a strong emotive response, but in actual fact, it’s just the mechanism for teaching students about teamwork skills.

Dr Bernadette Smith, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

“The problem is, very few people actually teach students how to work together; what makes a good team; or what they need to be thinking about.”

In the field of accounting, new graduates who can work well with others are in high demand. In all areas of higher education in Australia and overseas, people skills have been recognised as some of the most important skills students need to learn.

The International Accounting Education Standards Board said that university education should be more focused on building personal skills, communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking, values, and ethics – all of which come from working successfully together, said Dr Smith.

The big challenge for educators is knowing how to improve the overall experience of group work to ensure that the students are gaining the practical skills they need to thrive in the workplace, she adds.

“Everyone has an opinion about group work – they either love it because of their particular experience, or they hate it because of their experiences. So, first I have to deal with what’s underlying these perceptions of group work,” said Dr Smith.

I’m trying to understand what’s driving their perceptions in order to improve their experience, because we’re usually just focused on the project, and that’s problematic.

Dr Smith’s 2017 PhD thesis investigated student and staff perceptions of group work from six universities across Australia. After interviewing a sample of accounting academics, she selected three universities with diverse teaching styles and student cohorts to focus on as part of an in-depth study of the experiences and perceptions of group work.

She found that the most important aspects of working together for students were personal characteristics and values.

Student experiences of group work fell into two main categories: students who were individualistic and concerned mostly about their own grades; and students who accepted that teamwork was important and understood that there are positive outcomes from being able to successfully work together.

But the common link underlying both good and bad experiences was the behaviours and attitudes of group members.

And it's an attitude of respect and understanding of others that teaching staff need to be able to cultivate in their students, says Dr Smith.

“Values and attitudes are the key to working together, and what we need to do is embrace the psychological and emotional aspects of working together.”

From her interviews with teaching staff, Dr Smith found that there are considerable barriers to academics improving their use of group work in this way.

Most staff agreed that group work was necessary to promote teamwork skills in accounting students. However, they tended to view teamwork skills as something students already had; will learn through experience; or will learn about in the workplace.

“Even though universities put together all these fantastic resources on how to set up your group work and how to write assignments that are suitable for group work, it’s difficult for the teaching staff to find the time to read the resources, to make significant changes, and to then monitor how the group work is progressing,” she explains.

“Most of the people I interviewed said they don’t have the time to manage group work. If you want to do it well, it takes a lot of extra time and effort, and university teachers need to spend most of their time doing research.”

Dr Smith plans on developing strategies that universities can use to improve student and staff experiences of group work, to help get accounting graduates ready for the workplace.

We need to focus on the teamwork – not just the end product. Above all, we need to focus on values and attitudes to improve the way students communicate, interact and engage with each other.

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About Dr Bernadette Smith

Dr Smith's research aligns to the University's research theme of Creativity, Culture and Society. Her research interests in accounting education specifically relate to generic skills, group work, blended learning, mnemonics, and international students. In financial accounting and taxation, reporting and the communication of information between stakeholder groups underpins her research interests.

View Dr Bernadette Smith's full researcher profile