Together with Dr Stuart Gordon and Dr Regina Enjuto Martinez from the Department of International Development, LSE LIFE recently offered an innovative day-long workshop to support ID MSc students in preparation for their half-unit Humanitarian Consultancy Project. Dr Helen Green, Learning Developer from LSE LIFE, explains what students experienced as part of the workshop.

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Learning opportunities through teamwork, presenting, and observation

Students on the International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies MSc programme all take part in a half-unit Humanitarian Consultancy Project, which requires them to work in groups to apply the analytical tools and critical thinking skills they learn on their courses to a real-world humanitarian or development problem. These projects entail collaborative group work over several months. Students periodically present their findings to peers and teachers, and finally to their external clients. There have been two main concerns with this course in years past. First, some groups have difficulty working effectively as a team over the course of the project. Second, some presentations lack the planning, preparation, and professional “polish” that is expected at the humanitarian and development agencies and organisations, such as UN, OCHA, UNICEF, NATO, DFID, who are among the external clients of these consultancy projects.

Together with Dr Stuart Gordon and Dr Regina Enjuto Martinez from the Department of International Development, LSE LIFE recently offered an innovative day-long workshop to support ID MSc students in preparation for this consultancy project. This workshop took a three-pronged approach: students experienced reviewing technical material and preparing a presentation; delivering a presentation as a group; and observing and evaluating others’ group work skills.

In the morning session, groups of 3 to 5 students were asked to review an unseen “surprise package” containing various reports and analyses related to a specific humanitarian emergency. They then had to plan, prepare, and practise a 5-minute briefing of the case, in the context of a simulated meeting with senior management to evaluate the effectiveness of humanitarian responses to emergencies. They had two hours to accomplish all these tasks, and were provided with detailed guidelines on how to prepare a presentation, deliver a presentation, and work in teams and create an inclusive environment.

 While the presenting teams got on with their work, they were observed by other groups of students, who conducted non-participant observation, paying particular attention to group dynamics related to creating a supportive environment, planning and time management, decision making, inclusion/participation of all members of the group, active listening, and managing pressure and conflict. The observers worked as a group to discuss and write structured, constructive feedback for their fellow students on both strengths and weaknesses of their group work.

After a break, the groups switched roles. Groups who had previously observed then had to prepare their presentations; and those who worked on presentations in the morning became ‘observers’ in the afternoon. Finally, all students gave their 5-minute presentations to their peers, ID teachers and LSE LIFE staff. The presentations were filmed; and groups of presenters met with their teachers after the workshop to review the video and receive detailed feedback on their presentation skills. In addition, students gave written peer feedback on each presentation.

We aimed to give students an opportunity to

  • apply principles of effective group work (discussed in a session on group dynamics and communication delivered as one of the departmental workshops, together with LSE LIFE, the week before)
  • experience both the preparation and delivery of a short presentation using a simple, but discipline-specific, relevant case study
  • practice formulating constructive feedback on group work skills and presentation skills
  • work with each other and with academic staff from their department in an informal environment outside the classroom.

 

Group interaction

While some students said they would have preferred working with their assigned project group, others found the experience of working with “strangers” to be quite rewarding. One student commented that the most helpful part of the workshop was “learning to create a presentation and to cope with a brand new team under time constraint.” Another student realised “how I am able and should contribute in a group and ways to do that even if I’m feeling shy.” Many others thought it was valuable simply because they were able to meet others in their course they had not met previously.

 

Reviewing and synthesising material quickly and critically

Some students particularly valued the chance to work under pressure in a simulated real-world context. For example, among the highlights cited were learning to “cop[e] with stress and information overload” and “working to time and honing our existing skills in analysis and presenting information.” Another found that “working with strangers on a completely new and engaging, interactive project” to be their favourite part of the workshop.

 

Observation

Many students found the observation to be the most helpful part of the day. They considered observation to be a “means for self-reflection” and a way to “strengthen your own team performance.”   Many were surprised that they were asked to observe as a task in a group work/presentation workshop; and some actually preferred the observers’ role to the presenters’ role: “It was really fascinating to self-reflect on my own group habits and interactions. It was a creative way to get us thinking about how we carry ourselves. I absolutely learned more in the observer role than the case study role.”

Students commented that the experience of observing gave them a new perspective on group work, including “lessons … like mutual trust and engagement”; “it really made me reflect on my own conceptions and biases regarding group collaborative work.”

“We wanted to weave practical and transferrable skills together with relevant case studies, taking a clear disciplinary approach–all in the context of a project that is part of the formal assessment of the programme.   I think it was outstanding and that students realised the value of the exercise on the day. But I’m confident that it will also have a long-lasting effect. I think students will continue to realise what they learned at different moments of the project this year,” commented Dr Regina Enjuto Martinez, from the department of International Development.

On its own, the day proved to be a positive, constructive experience for students and facilitators alike. We are all very interested to reflect back on this initiative as the consultancy projects progress, and after they have been submitted to consider to what extent this work may have addressed some of the concerns expressed in the past.

 

This article was first posted on the LSE Education blog.