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Useful evaluation data can be gathered by using varying techniques with small groups of students. Teaching staff may meet with groups or ask them to follow an evaluative process overseen by some other staff member. The process may be open or purpose-specific and groups may meet as often as deemed necessary. In some cases, students may initiate and control part of the evaluative process, that is to say, they may be given a degree of autonomy to decide how they will evaluate.
Usually, group members are chosen in a way that ensures objectivity: by random selection, by representative selection, or by appointment from an outside party. Recent research indicates that if the students are chosen at random, one group of 10-15 members can serve as representative of a very large group of students (Talbot and Bordage, 1986; Hansen, 1993). Small group processes demand a time commitment from participating students so evaluators need to be sure that students are willing to contribute in this way.
In the Delphi Technique individuals pool their written ideas. Each individual receives a copy of the collected ideas and assesses their relative importance and perhaps adds to them. The results are again pooled with the process being repeated until consensus is achieved. This method can be combined with small group methods such as Q-sort or Charrette.
Q-sort is a way of obtaining forced-choice preferences from an individual or small group. Students individually or in small groups sort slips of paper listing such things as competencies and criteria into a restricted number of categories. There could, for example, be three: most important, less important, least important. Students then discuss among themselves why they have sorted these items in this way, attempting to justify and to re-examine their judgements.
In the Charrette Procedure, a group leader collects ideas from a small group discussion, then presents the results to a different small group which discusses them adding input, refining them, and arranging them in priority order. Leaders may move through several groups soliciting further consideration and input while other members of the small groups consider one another's ideas.
Focus Groups centre around one theme. Such groups are homogeneous, and there are usually at least three groups. The discussions are often tape-recorded, and the results are summarised and analysed later.
The Two-Four-Eight technique is a three stage process for gathering data. The first stage involves pairs of students discussing and taking notes on the strengths and weaknesses of a course or unit. The next stage involves groups of four who pool their ideas and record majority views only. Groups of eight, or possibly sixteen, follow the same process. The feedback is then discussed by the whole group, who produce some agreed outcomes which represent what is occurring in the learning environment. The group can then be invited to make suggestions for improving the course or unit.
Rounds is an evaluation feedback method described by Gibbs, Habeshaw and Habeshaw (1988). In a round, everyone in the group can speak, without interruption, on a given topic. When used for evaluation of teaching and learning, such a topic might be 'What I think of the subject/course so far' or 'Advice I would give to entering students' or 'Three things about this unit I would change'. The method aims to neutralise monopolising students, allows each student solicited speech, and fosters useful and interesting feedback. The loss of anonymity is a limitation.
Some ground rules for 'Rounds' need to be established in advance, such as:
The Nominal Group Technique involves individuals writing down their ideas to a question such as 'What needs to be done to improve this unit?' The ideas are pooled, then the group discusses them, clarifying and amending what was originally presented. The method is usually recommended for idea building as a part of needs assessment.