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Vol. 5, No. 1. ISSN: 1473-8376


Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One

Jon Dart ([email protected]) Department of Sport, Health, Leisure and Nutrition, Trinity and All Saints College, Horsforth, Leeds. LS18 5HD. DOI:10.3794/johlste.51.121 Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education


This paper describes the introduction of a teaching and learning strategy devised to increase student attendance and contribution in a first year module. The concerns that prompted the intervention are discussed, as are the implementation and outcomes. The planned intervention involved introducing group presentations, formative assessment and feedback, with the `action research cycle' guiding and monitoring the intervention. The article concludes by identifying increased student attendance, higher levels of commitment and a greater responsibility for their own learning and contribution to the module's success. Keywords: attendance, formative assessment, group presentations


Since starting at Trinity and All Saints College, I became concerned that an increasing number of students with whom I was working gave the impression of being unwilling to participate in, or even to attend, seminars. This was a particular problem for the module identified below. After discussions with colleagues, and reflecting on why students were not participating in their own learning, it was concluded that the existing teaching style was teacher-centred with the students often little more than passive listeners. The existing teaching format of traditional lead lectures and complementary seminars was seen as not providing the students with opportunities for developing their abilities and encouraging independent learning at Level 1.

Jon Dart was formerly a Research Officer at Leeds Metropolitan University (UK) working on various sport and leisure projects, including racism in grass-roots football. He completed a PhD (2000, Leeds Metropolitan University) on the relationship between work and non-work time, space and activity, before working at McMaster University (Canada). He currently teaches at Trinity and All Saints College on the social, historic and political aspects of sport and leisure.

Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One My intention was to develop a learning environment more conducive to students' active participation and learning. The aim of this intervention was to improve the students' attendance and contribution through the introduction of group presentations and formative assessment.

A changing student body

It was considered that the students' reluctance might be a sign of their lack of confidence (given their non-traditional backgrounds), or a lack of understanding of the purpose of seminars, resulting in a decrease in their levels of attendance. Since the early 1980s, the shift from an `elite' to `mass' educational system (Jary and Parker, 1998; Jary and Jones, 2004) has seen the smaller post `92 universities recruiting the majority of their students from `non-traditional' higher education (HE) backgrounds, as part of the Widening Participation (WP) initiative (Thompson, 2000). The move to widen participation and recruit non-traditional students raises questions about the calibre, and motivation, of the current cohorts entering HE. The issues of (poor) attendance, (poor) contribution, (weak) general knowledge and specific subject matter are all evident amongst the current student cohort (Shepherd, 2006). It has been suggested that students entering HE, as part of the WP initiative, hold quite distinct ideas and expectations of learning and assessment, with such attitudes hampering the development of the `autonomous learner' so valued by tutors working in HE (McDowell and Sambell, 2004). There is a perception that many students are poorly prepared and have little concept of the basic requirements for study at HE level, including study skills, motivation and independence (Copeland, 2001). Whilst there are a number of possible reasons for the students' lack of motivation (including how to cope with the `strategic student' ­ see Kneale, 1997) and even why students enter HE, this intervention focused on those aspects over which staff had some control. The intervention targeted attendance and participation because focussing on the students' approach to study allowed for the early establishment of good practices in their academic careers. There was also value to be gained in reinforcing a sense of community ­ real rather than virtual ­ amongst the cohort. There were also personal (rather than external) reasons for undertaking this research, specifically a desire to learn more about student motivation (Prescott and Simpson, 2004; Brown et al, 1998). The author was interested in why students appeared uninterested in their own learning and Cowan's (1998) approach of `reflection-for-action' was used. Cowan developed this from the Kolb (1984) `cycle of learning' and Schon's concept of the `reflexive practitioner' (1983; 1987) to propose a model that allowed for reflection upon the process of learning. In short, the author wanted to identify how students could be helped to improve the quality of their learning and retain his motivation to teach.

Planning, introducing and monitoring the intervention

Intervention in teaching, learning and assessment is a necessary and important task in teaching in HE (Ramsden, 1992; Cowan, 1998). Some changes are ad hoc whilst others follow the action research approach, which has become a more accepted method of introducing and assessing an intervention (McNiff and Whitehead, 2005; Hammersley, 2004; Carr and Kemmis, 1986). In attempting to improve the student's attendance, contribution and responsibility for their learning, the first step is to motivate them. This was addressed through the introduction of student-led group presentations within the scheduled seminars. It was considered that asking students to present material to their peers (with their peers involved in the assessment) would alert all the students to: `what makes a good presentation'; increase their subject-specific knowledge; and reinforce their immediate (and the wider) group's identity. At this point, in order to contextualise the discussion, it seems apposite to provide a brief outline of the module's content, learning objectives, and summative assessment. The module's content introduced the growth of modern sport(s), national trends in sport and leisure, and the structure and governance of sporting organisations. The stated `Learning Objectives' for the module were: Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 5(1), 58-65. 59

Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One · To demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the way in which sport and leisure is organised, promoted and structured in various countries · To plan and carry out an investigation into the ways in which sport and leisure provision is organised · To demonstrate the ability to communicate effectively The module's summative assessment was the production of a poster and report on a UK sports organisation. During the weekly seminars, small groups of students made in-class presentations. These presentations were designed as formative assessments to prepare the students for the summative assessment, with each group presenting on a (different) sport: covering the history, growth, structure and current issues pertaining to that sport.

Formative assessment and feedback

Assessment can be a potentially powerful tool for shaping student behaviour and influencing their approaches to learning (McDowell and Mowl, 1996). It has been shown that assessment methods which are perceived by the students as anxiety provoking may impel them towards adopting a surface approach to learning rather than the reflective/deep learning approach sought by academic staff (Gibbs, 1995; Ramsden, 1992; Rowntree, 1987). Therefore emphasis was placed on the learning process and the opportunity for the students to present in a non-formally assessed environment. In this module the students were to be formally assessed at the end of each semester and, in line with the views of Sambell and Hubbard (2004), giving feedback on work which did not count towards their degree credits, that is `low stakes' assessment, was considered to be significant in supporting and retaining non-traditional students. There are varied and wide-ranging reasons for conducting formative assessment of student work (see Race, 2001:35, for an extensive listing), including some that are of particular relevance to this assessment: · providing feedback to staff on levels of success regarding teaching (and if necessary change teaching); · adding variety to the students' learning experience; · building student confidence and showing them what is expected of degree level work. Feedback is a central element in all forms of assessment, especially formative, with potential feedback available from: the presenting group; from their peer-assessors; and from the tutor (Orsmond, Merry and Callaghan, 2004; Fallows and Chandramohan, 2001). In order for the students to be able to adequately reflect on their presentation it was necessary to provide them with clear guidance on the expected content and standard, and to offer prompt feedback on their performance. The peer-assessors ­ the `audience' of fellow module students, who sat in their presenting groups to reinforce group cohesion ­ were each given assessment sheets for evaluating the presentations, with the adoption of a clear template being essential for all parties involved. The template was based on assessment criteria directly related to the generic College criteria for presentations (including content, delivery, and quality of handout), with space available for additional comments. This format allowed the presenting group to get consistent, immediate and specific feedback on their presentation performance. Allowing students to assess their peers reinforces the learning process and enables comparison between peer and lecturer expectations which can be explored during the feedback discussion. Formative assessment (as with summative assessment) is designed to provide feedback to the students on their learning achievements (Knight, 2002). The key point here being that early feedback (using formative assessment) can facilitate improvement prior to the summative assessment by encouraging the student to reflect on their performance. Identification was made of the links between the module's stated Learning Objectives and the summative assessment. In doing so, the purpose and relevance of the formative learning through the weekly presentations became clear to the students. Any marks awarded in formative assessment did not count towards the final grade, as the purpose was to

Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 5(1), 58-65.


Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One encourage greater understanding by the students of their strengths, weaknesses and gaps in knowledge.

Group work and presenting

Group work and presenting were central to this intervention though a full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this short article. However, opportunities to work within groups are increasingly being recognised as significant in enabling students to develop a key skill whilst in HE (Hartley, 2005; Fallows and Steven, 2000; Jaques, 2000; Cowman and Grace, 1999). The approach used in this intervention was one proposed by Walvoord (1986), whereby the students were asked to arrange their own groups. From personal experience, and with reference to research (Davies, 1993), it is clear that students learn best when they are motivated and actively involved. Similarly, presenting is seen as a key skill (Fallows and Steven, 2000), and it is therefore important that the students have sufficient opportunity to practice and improve their oral presentation skills, with this skill forming one of the assessment criteria in this module.

Intervention criteria and data collection

In order to show the success (or otherwise) of the project it was important to identify exactly what was to be measured. The criteria for a `successful' intervention in this particular project were: a) Improved student attendance - measured by attendance registers. Registers from previous years were kept on file (as part of the action research approach to research), to compare and identify any changes in average attendance. b) Improved student contribution - the contributions (i.e. type, level) during class time were assessed by the tutor and noted accordingly; c) Improved student motivation at sessions ­ measured by specific module survey and wider College surveys. Tutor notes made during presentations. d) Improved student feedback ­ determined through the above surveys. The peer observation sheets were useful indicators of the level of peer engagement with the presentation. Records from previous years were available for criteria a), c) and d), making comparative analysis to measure any `improvement'. With regard to point b), the tutor was able to reflect upon past years experience and students' contribution in other Level 1 modules. In addition to the data sources (listed above), triangulation was sought, to address issues of validity and reliability (McKernan, 1996; Sankaran, 1997). Throughout the intervention, data was collected via: personal observations and reflective notes; informal student feedback ­ ongoing during presentations series; an informal debriefing with the whole group; a colleague-observed session; and a focus group with eight students conducted by the tutor at the end of the module.

Implementation of the change to the new assessment format

Printed guidelines on the arrangements and expected content for the presentations were issued to all students in the first taught session. The students then formed groups and selected a topic for their group's presentation from a list provided. A timetable of weekly presentations was arranged, with each group being allocated a specific week. The following section briefly outlines how the intervention was refined during the implementation phase. The iterative nature of introducing change shows the usefulness of adopting an action research approach at the outset of the intervention.

Issues arising and changes made during the intervention

Not all group members attended their presentation and no reason was offered The isolated instances in which this occurred (<2) may have resulted from there being no `formal' marks attached to the activity. Students were advised that, even if some of their group did not attend, they were expected to present the material they had collected. It was stressed that the presentations Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 5(1), 58-65. 61

Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One offered a `safe' opportunity for their learning and development. Next time, clearer guidance, and reading, on group work will be offered. Groups overran their time allocation and needed to be cut off This provided an important and instant lesson on time management which could be of use, not least, in future job interviews. As the module progressed other groups became more aware of the time and planned accordingly.

Despite the guidance issued, students repeatedly made the same mistakes each week. In particular a number of groups felt it necessary to explain the `Rules of the Sport'. For example, in the Lawn Tennis presentation, we were given information on the scoring arrangements, the size of net and racquet, regulations regarding injuries, etc. This was universally seen as a `very boring' part of the presentations. Most groups failed to include a bibliography ­ either in their presentation or in the handout ­ a significant failure that carried over into other areas of their studies. Clearer guidance was issued on the expected content of their presentation and what to leave out! Repeated explanations were given on the purpose of a bibliography, although this had a limited effect both within this module and in other modules. Given the importance of referencing this omission needs to be repeatedly revisited with the students. Handouts were sporadic, with not all groups producing one, and those that did were of varying quality. Again, clearer guidance was (re)issued on what was expected. Previous cohorts' handouts (having been made anonymous) were reviewed by the students to identify good and poor examples. Students were initially reluctant to ask questions of the presenting group. Each of the groups were directed to ask a question of the presenting group ­ this encouraged all groups to actively engage with the topic/presenters.

Evaluation of the intervention

The presenting group was assessed by their peers, who recorded their comments on an evaluation sheet. These comments were orally relayed by the tutor to the presenting group whilst preserving the anonymity of the assessing group. However, the presenting group was first asked to reflect on their own performance and only then were their peers' comments recounted, with concluding comments from the tutor. It was interesting to note that all three elements of feedback were usually very similar; such consistency helped to reinforce the students' ability to reflect upon the stronger (and weaker) aspects of the presentation. The peers' written comments referred mainly to the content, organisation and delivery of the presentation and were generally supportive, but not wholly uncritical, of the presenters. What was noticeable was that the students were engaged with the presentations and assessment process, clearly learning, and in some cases enjoying, the presentations. In terms of the presenting group's organisation ­ the area about which the peers were most critical ­ there was clearer evidence of reflection upon this key skill. Most of the peer criticism related to the actual presentation and delivery. This was somewhat surprising as this was their first presentation in HE and one might have expected more allowance to be given to the presenting group. A summary of the peers' comments will be used when introducing the next series of presentations, which should alert the students to potential weaknesses. The `debriefings' that were held by the tutor with the presenting groups were particularly useful as immediate feedback was offered (Race, 2001:86). The purpose of the tutor offering feedback was to ensure that the students left the session: a) feeling positive they had delivered a presentation; Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 5(1), 58-65. 62

Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One b) able to reflect on elements of good (or to be improved) practice; and c) feeling that the feedback comments were fair and honest. It was often the case that the presenting group identified many of the good and weak areas of their presentation before the feedback from their peers was relayed. It soon became apparent that insufficient time was left for the feedback and, given its importance, additional time was allocated over future weeks. It was decided not to arrange to meet the students at another time (e.g. later in the week), as this would delay the feedback thereby reducing the relevance and weight of the feedback and each student's reflective learning. The following (representative) student comments (taken from the anonymous module evaluation) illustrate how a safe and positive environment was established for their learning: "The presentations were very useful as they weren't assessed and so ensured that the first presentation is a good practice, useful feedback and good to watch other groups as well, able to pick out good/bad points of presentations." "Small presentations are excellent for improving your confidence in talking to an audience; also gives you a chance to work with a small group and as a team." "Presentations useful in getting to know other sports better." "The presentation was a good thing as it helped me get experience for the future. Also watching others' faults helps by showing us what not to do." These representative comments show the students' enthusiasm and motivation to attend, learn and contribute to their learning. It is clear that there was a widespread feeling amongst this cohort that the non-assessed presentations were a valuable learning activity to undertake. However, other students were critical of the presentations. The amount of negative feedback was minimal, but does require reflection: "I think the presentations are good if it's your week to do it but as an audience member they can be a bit boring as I know a lot of what is said already." "Group presentations, I believe, were not very useful as many groups merely copied and pasted from websites. Also as did my group, they simply read what people could already see." These concerns need to be regularly addressed though greater explanation of the purpose and expectations of the presentations. One of the aims of this intervention was to increase attendance and so one of the most pleasing outcomes was the high level of student attendance and participation. Records show that there were 28 unauthorised absences out of a possible 504, of which only two absences were of would-be presenters. No letters warning of unauthorised absence were sent on this module, which compares very favourable with other modules taught by the author. Comparison with registers from previous years showed that average attendance across all sessions had improved by over 30%

Significance and conclusion

A defining `moment' in the action research cycle is reflecting on whether one has achieved what was identified at the outset; in short, did the changes work? Whilst many students do not always appreciate the importance of formative assessment ­ in their eyes "it doesn't count!" ­ the data collected over the course of the intervention identifies a higher level of student attendance, contribution and interest; in short, a greater commitment to their learning. This paper has focused on the changes made within one module, but the elements of introduction and reflection are transferable to other areas of my teaching, learning and assessment. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education 5(1), 58-65. 63

Dart, J (2006) Developing a Learning Environment Conducive to Active Learning and Participation: Group Presentations and Formative Assessment at Level One The various forms of student feedback were very positive and demonstrated reflection and involvement in their own learning, with the adoption of a student-centred approach proving effective in activating their motivation. The students developed their confidence and their ability to reflect upon their learning and achievements at the outset of their studies in a higher education environment. The students are much clearer as to the required standards and expectations of studying in HE. This intervention, whilst not `earth-shaking', was still significant in that the students had an improved opportunity to learn, but also contributed to my own professional development. As with much action research, new issues and questions emerge as reflection takes place. As noted at the outset, the purpose of making changes was to establish a teaching and learning approach that promoted and encouraged active learning. The changes aimed to support the students in their development as autonomous learners and the intervention has gone some way to address this. However, the reflexive practitioner is always seeking to improve their teaching and consequently the student's learning experience.


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