Relational Agency in First and Further Year Group Work

Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
Proceedings of the AAEE2020 Conference Sydney, Australia, 2020
Issue Date:
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At the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), first and second-year students in engineering and IT develop professional practice skills through project-based work with significant group work components in large, 500+ student cohort subjects. Some students find group work challenging and do not appreciate its importance to their professional practice. In looking to improve the transition of our students into and through university, and then into professional practice, we are revising our subject activities. This paper looks at teamwork through the lens of building students’ capacity for relational agency. PURPOSE OR GOAL Relational agency is a valuable capacity for professional practitioners working in complex, inter-professional environments (e.g., Edwards, 2010). This paper makes a case for the development of this capacity in engineering and IT students. As a first step to reviewing our group work activities, we report on a pilot study investigating the current capacity for relational agency in our students, and more broadly evaluating the relational agency framework as a tool to help us understand teamwork. The findings will inform further study into relational agency in students and tutors, and will form the basis for redesigning group work and tutor training. APPROACH OR METHODOLOGY/METHODS Focus groups on group work experience were held with students from one second-year and two first-year subjects. Inductive qualitative content analysis used data from the focus groups to look for evidence of relational agency and identify emerging themes. The results were triangulated using self and peer review data from the students and their teammates. ACTUAL OR ANTICIPATED OUTCOMES The data indicates that the capacity for relational agency develops with time at university. This provides support for the proposed structure used to identify relational agency as progressing from 'novice' to 'professional'. Absent aspects of relational agency were identified, such as a lack of agency in aligning motivations. Emerging themes indicate aspects of teaching that may inhibit or facilitate the development of relational agency, including a continued focus on a strengths-based approach, consideration of the psychological safety of students, and a focus on communication (remote or in-person). CONCLUSIONS/RECOMMENDATIONS/SUMMARY The paper builds on translational research in higher education practice and contributes to our understanding of the development of professional practice skills in engineering and IT students. It has shown that development of the capacity for relational agency is a valid lens for reviewing group work activities and has identified avenues for future focus groups with tutors and a wider range of students. KEYWORDS group work, relational agency, transition
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