3 Working with Groups

Author: Fiona Smart

As a lead into this section and what you might draw from it, remember Lee? We met Lee in the previous section where a working relationship with Lyndsey had started to form. Subsequently, Lyndsey asks Lee to speak at a programme team meeting. The team has started work on redesigning the curriculum. The team has very different views about assessment, its purpose and the value of feedback. Lee has anticipated these differences of opinion in advance but has decides not to take a wealth of potential resources to the meeting. Instead, he plans to listen to the different views and to suggest ways in which he can support the programme team through the process of curriculum redesign.


Educational developers work with groups - formally and informally. Sometimes their role is to lead the group; other times, they are invited to join as a member, perhaps because of their subject expertise, sometimes not. Invitations to join groups can come from different quarters. Not uncommonly, the mechanism is via 1:1 connections. The type of group and the focus of its activity will be many and varied, but could include committee work, curriculum development with programme teams, organizing a conference. Working in a group might require a range of skills, for example, leadership, negotiation, project management.

As you contemplate your work with groups, and how you perceive your effectiveness, consider two seemingly different views. First, Cherrington et al (2018, p.298) who observe:

‘A central goal of academic developers’ work is to support academics’ engagement with on-going teaching development in order to enhance student learning’.

And then Fyffe (2018) who, whilst supporting the concern for student learning, contends that ‘there is no consensus view about the nature of academic development or its intentions’ (citing Lee & McWilliam, 2008). From her perspective, the consequence of this is a lack of certainty in respect of the nature and purpose of the educational developer role. If this is so, it is not surprising that this field of practice, i.e. educational development, is commonly understood to be a messy business (Thomas and Cordiner, 2014).

Looking in on Lee and the invitation to join the meeting, we wouldn’t be surprised if there is uncertainty in the group, and for Lee also, in terms of why the invitation has been extended and what the expectations are. To try and clarify the nature and purpose of working in a group, consider the seminal work of Ray Land, focused on orientations to educational development.  The paper is well worth reading despite its age (Land, 2001).

For now, contemplate Becher’s model (see below) and its potential value to you as you seek to work effectively in a group. You will see that at its heart is a question of purpose, which should assist with making clear what can be expected of you and what you should expect of yourself.



Authority conferred from above

Recognizable chains of command

Pre-determined regulations and procedures

Specified roles




Authority ratified from below

Equality of rights in decision-making

Decisions exposed to dissent

High personal discretion



Authority eroded by personal loyalties

Emphasis on individual autonomy

Ambiguous goals; pluralistic values

Influence based on expertise




Authority deriving from personal power

Conflict as basis for decisions

Policies based on compromise

Influence deriving from interest groups


Table 1:

Becher’s four main patterns of organization behaviour (from Sawbridge, 1996, p.9)

To add to your reflections, listen to this audio. Its focus is Belbin’s work on team roles, always worth thinking about in a group work context.


What now?

Working with groups in a common activity in educational practice. But how might Land’s orientations, Becher’s model and Belbin’s thinking be of value to you as you develop your practice as an educational developer? We suggest that one approach might be to use each separately or in combination to reflect on a recent experience you had when working in a group situation. For example, what was the nature of the group (e.g. hierarchical, collegial, etc), what type of authority did you have, or were you perceived to have,  what team roles could you see in operation, which of these roles presented as being more helpful than others in that particular group setting, and finally, what do you think your team role tends towards?


Sue Cherrington, Anne Macaskill, Rhian Salmon, Suzanne Boniface, Sydney Shep & Jonny Flutey (2018) Developing a pan-university professional learning community, International Journal for Academic Development, 23:4, 298-311, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2017.1399271 https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2017.1399271

Jeanette M Fyffe (2018) Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: a narrative account of becoming an academic developer, International Journal for Academic Development, 23:4, 355-366, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2018.1496439:  https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2018.1496439

Ray Land (2001) Agency, context and change in academic development, International Journal for Academic Development, 6:1, 4-20, DOI: 10.1080/13601440110033715 https://doi.org/10.1080/13601440110033715

Sharon Thomas & Moira Cordiner (2014) The ‘messy’ business of academic developers leading other academic developers: critical reflection on a curriculum realignment exercise, International Journal for Academic Development, 19:4, 293-304, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2014.895732 https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2014.895732


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Comment on “3 Working with Groups

  1. The most meaningful interactions I have had as an educational developer with course teams have been ones outside formal committee structures. If you can persuade or encourage a course team or subject group to meet more informally in a more open workshop format then this can pay dividends both in terms of outcomes/outputs and the relationships you can establish.

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