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Group Discussions for Recruitment and Placement

Module by: Ananda Mahto. E-mail the author

Summary: This module was developed for students at the Tata-Dhan Academy to help them understand both how to participate in a group discussion as well as how to evaluate a group discussion. It includes example topics and explains how to use a rubric to achieve more consistent evaluation within a panel.

Group discussions are increasingly being used as assessment tools during recruitment processes, whether for jobs or for enrollment in educational institutions. This is especially true for institutions where “teamwork” is seen as a prerequisite for a productive work environment. Management schools or job placements which require management skills will generally include some form of group discussion activities as a part of their application.

For some recruiters, the group discussion is used as a tool for shortlisting or “weeding out” candidates; that is, if an applicant performs poorly in the group discussion, they may not be eligible for further application processes. Other recruiters see the group discussion simply as an opportunity to get to observe the applicant from a different perspective than is possible from reviewing test scores or conducting personal interviews. Furthermore, if the group discussion takes place before the personal interview, which it typically does, a proficient recruiter can also effectively utilize their observations during the group discussion to generate discussion points for the personal interview.

In this note, we will (1) explain the different types of group discussions you might expect to encounter, (2) describe some of the more common evaluation areas for group discussions, (3) provide an (abridged) example of an evaluation rubric1 for a group discussion, and (4) highlight some desirable and undesirable behaviors to be aware of when participating in a group discussion.

Different Types of Group Discussions

In broad terms, group discussions can be classified2 as either topic-focused, case-based, or goal-oriented. Of course, there can also be significant overlap among these categories.

Topic-focused group discussions seek to assess the level of knowledge an applicant has, or the ability of an applicant to apply creativity and cognitive skills towards things they may not already know. For example, applicants may be asked to discuss topics such as farmer suicide, genetically modified organisms, or the Millennium Development Goals with the expectation that the applicant should have some prior knowledge about the topic. Similarly they may be asked to discuss topics such as “are people with pets happier?” or “should firecrackers and fireworks be made illegal?” to test their ability to apply cognitive skills to topics they may not have thought about or been exposed to in the past. For a topic-focused group discussion, the amount of preparation time may be minimal; sometimes, only a couple of minutes will be provided for the applicant to gather their thoughts. The topic may be written down, distributed in printed form, or read aloud to the group by a moderator.

Case-based group discussions seek to evaluate an applicant's ability to solve a problem or make a decision. This includes their ability to use and organize the evidence provided in a logical manner to reinforce their decision made or their proposed solution. Some case-based group discussions include a list of discussion topics at the end of the case narrative; while these may be good starting points for your discussions, you should not restrict yourself to those points if you feel there are bigger issues that need to be discussed or if you were given different instructions orally. For case-based group discussions, you will generally be given a fixed amount of time for different tasks including reading the case, gathering your thoughts, conducting the discussion, and consolidating the group's views. At the end of the discussion, participants are often asked to prepare a written consolidation of the process, so it is recommended that you take careful notes during the entire process.

Goal-oriented group discussions are designed to identify how well applicants are able to work as part of a team to achieve a predetermined output. For example, the group participants may be asked to plan an event or a project, or be asked to create a “product” of some sort, or even be asked to solve a puzzle. In some situations, a goal-oriented group discussion might be an extension of a case-based group discussion; for instance, the group might be given a case to analyze and be asked to draft a framework for a policy brief or prepare a presentation highlighting the decisions taken or solutions proposed during the discussions. Quite often, during a goal-oriented group discussion, the evaluators look at how well applicants are able to allocate responsibilities to group members and how well they are able to manage their time to reach their goal.

Common Evaluation Areas for Group Discussions

A well-designed group discussion should give the recruiting panel a rich amount of information about the applicant. Through a group discussion, a recruiter should be able to determine, at the very minimum, (1) language proficiency, (2) leadership and interpersonal skills, and (3) current knowledge (both subject-related and general) and critical-thinking ability.

Language proficiency can include pronunciation, fluency of expression, organization of ideas, and even how loudly you speak. Evaluators also check to see how well applicants understand each other (listening comprehension) and how well they understand any written materials provided (reading comprehension) or instructions given (task clarity and listening comprehension). If applicants are asked to document their group discussion experience in writing, this might also be evaluated as a component of language proficiency.

In assessing leadership skills, evaluators often look at a wide range of behaviors. These include taking initiative (being the first to speak or motivating the group to discuss openly), regulating the discussion (making sure that the discussion is on topic or that time is being managed effectively), being supportive and constructive (ensuring that others get a chance to speak and acknowledging the ideas of others), and synthesizing the discussion (acknowledging the inputs of others). It should be noted, however, that leadership does not mean dominating the discussion. Instead, leadership means making good use of interpersonal skills to create an environment that promotes dynamic yet focused discussions. These interpersonal skills include listening, asking questions for clarification, ensuring consensus, resolving disagreements, body language, and creating an equitable discussion environment.

For some group discussions, it is important for the recruiters to be able to determine your current knowledge about a given topic; however, it is common, especially in more open-ended group discussions, to not expect the applicant to already know about a given topic, but instead, expect them to demonstrate their ability to creatively apply their knowledge to the topic being discussed (critical-thinking ability). When demonstrating your knowledge, it is important to present a clear analysis with an appropriate amount of persuasion. Try to demonstrate your critical-thinking abilities by introducing new dynamics into the discussion; however, be careful that in introducing new perspectives, you do not steer the discussion off its intended course.

While these are some areas that you should focus on when participating in a group discussion, it is equally important to be aware of some of the undesirable behaviors which are also documented by the evaluators. These can include absolute silence throughout the process, interruptions, discouraging others, and monopolizing the discussion.

Model Rubric for Evaluating a Group Discussion

The rubric presented in Table 1 only looks at two components that might be included in a rubric for evaluating a group discussion. Keep in mind that rubrics are developed based on the desired behavior that the recruiting institution hopes to see; as such, you should expect to see wide variation in rubrics used from one institution to the next. Remember that one of the purposes of a rubric is to help evaluators with diverse backgrounds evaluate in a consistent manner;3 without a clearly-defined rubric, evaluating an activity like a group discussion can be highly subjective.

Note that even with a rubric, there is room for variation in scoring. As such, it is important that all members of the evaluation committee are briefed on proper use of the rubric. To minimize this variance, a rubric should also include certain minimum policies for scoring. One example of a scoring policy might be the procedure for reconciling a large discrepancy in the scores between different members of the evaluation team. Some institutions might simply accept the discrepancy and simply use the average of scores. Others might require that the evaluators come to a consensus and adjust their scores to a point of minimum variance. Still others might require that the entire group process be repeated with a different set of evaluators. Another example of a rubric policy might be guidelines for the scoring of an applicant who was silent throughout the whole group discussion process. For example, one area of evaluation might be “no interruptions”. In such cases, should a person who was silent throughout the discussion receive full marks? Probably not.

Along with a rubric, you will also have to develop a scoring sheet. This is typically a grid where the components for evaluation are arranged horizontally, and a list of applicants arranged vertically. The scoring sheet may include additional scoring guidelines; for instance, different weights (a multiplier) might be applied to components which are more important for the recruiters.

 Language Proficiency 4 3 2 1 Applicant demonstrates clear pronunciation, is easily audible, and is well-organized in expression of ideas. Applicant demonstrates correct understanding and usage of contemporary jargon and “buzz-words” but also explains concepts well in everyday language. Applicant demonstrates clear pronunciation, is easily audible, and is well-organized in expression of ideas. The applicant seems to be aware of some of the subject's jargon, but does not use all of the terms correctly. Applicant is unaware of contemporary language used to describe the subject. Pronunciation is highly accented, or speech is not easily audible, or ideas are not well-organized. Applicant demonstrates poor grasp of basic language skills. Speech is very hesitant, filled with “non-words”, or not easily audible or comprehensible. Interpersonal Skills 4 3 2 1 Applicant invites others to speak, uses polite language, does not interrupt others, summarizes ideas, links ideas by different participants, and resolves dissent. Applicant demonstrates a strong desire to practice desirable interpersonal skills, but also demonstrates lack of skill or confidence in achieving group cohesion. Applicant assumes a passive role, neither inviting discussion nor discouraging others from participating. Applicant dominates the discussion and creates an environment that discourages open expression.

Things to Practice and to Avoid During Group Discussions

Whether you are approaching a group discussion as a participant or an evaluator, it is useful to consider the following points.

• Come prepared. Bring some paper and something to write with as these might not be provided to you at the time of the discussion. If these are prohibited, the group discussion organizers will inform you.
• Make sure you understand the question, topic, and any instructions given to you.
• Take your time to organize your thoughts; although time is limited, clarity and accuracy of expression would be preferred to a participant who caries on a soliloquy but does not say anything significant.
• Take initiative. This does not mean that you have to be the first person to speak. In fact, many group discussions start by the participants “stating the obvious”; however, an evaluator would be more impressed if you are able to go beyond such behavior and bring the discussion to a less superficial depth.
• Write down some quick notes at the start of the discussion and make quick notes of the discussions taking place. Not only will this help you organize your thoughts; it will also help you remember what others said so that you add points to the discussion rather than repeat what has already been said.
• Speak audibly and clearly. This will ensure that you are heard— both in the sense of “sound” as well as in the sense of “acknowledged”.
• Be polite and respectful. This does not mean to be quiet and let others speak; it does mean you should listen well, acknowledge different opinions, and practice using more “diplomatic” language. It also means you should be aware of your body language; sometimes, what might seem to you like natural gestures might be perceived as aggressive by others in the group.
• If you need to interrupt, be as polite and discrete as possible. Do not refrain entirely from interrupting other applicants in the discussion; sometimes, an interruption is necessary to give others an opportunity to speak, or to help bring the topic back on task.
• Periodically summarize and consolidate the points which have emerged. This will help the group to maintain focus. When summarizing the overall discussion, do not merely restate the points you made in the group discussion; try to synthesize the views presented, highlight the areas of agreement and disagreement, and present the conclusions that the group arrived at.
• Do not merely repeat what others have said; this is an ineffective use of time and does not demonstrate critical-thinking skills. However, do use what others have said to try to develop consensus within the group.
• Being a leader is not merely facilitating the discussion. You should not find yourself at the end of the discussion realizing that all you have done so far is coordinated the discussion. Be sure that your opinions are also heard.

Going Further

Activities

• Form a peer-group to practice group discussions. Gather discussion topics from websites, from your course materials, or from discussions with your faculty or your colleagues. Read working papers and similar materials to identify potential cases for discussions and rotate the responsibility within your peer group for facilitating the case discussion.
• Develop your own detailed assessment rubric for a group discussion. For each evaluation component, describe the specific behavior you expect to see—simply noting that “4 = good” and “1 = poor” is insufficient since these terms are subjective. Explain your rubric to someone else, and try to use your rubric to evaluate group discussions. This will not only give you additional clarity on the desired behavior of group discussion participants; it will also help you understand how to ensure consistency in evaluation across diverse evaluators.
• Find some video or audio recordings of debates and listen to the language being used. Although a debate is considerably different from a group discussion, a good debate will introduce you to different ways of presenting arguments and counter arguments while using polite and respectful language.
• Join some online discussion boards or get into the practice of commenting on blogs. Although this is a written activity, it will help improve some of your skills in discussion, persuasion, argumentation, and logic. Because such discussions are asynchronous, you have better opportunities to plan your responses. Additionally, you will be exposed to more information, making it easier for you to participate in group discussions in the future.

Example Topics

Discussion prompts come in many forms. In the following three prompts, some background information is given to the participants. However, in some cases, the discussion prompt might be a single sentence, or even a photograph.

Office Productivity

You are a team leader and are responsible for managing a five-member office staff. Your job profile also requires you to travel quite often, so you are not able to (nor do you desire to) micromanage your team. You have good relationships with all of your colleagues, many of whom see you not only as a professional, but also as a friend.

However, productivity has been decreasing in your location recently, and you have come to learn some interesting news. For example, you've found out that, on days when it is known that you'll not be coming to the office, attendance is very low, or your team members show up whenever they feel like coming to the office. One of your friends had come to visit you at work one day when you were out in the field and found your whole team sitting around a laptop in the conference room watching a movie.

What are the implications of this behavior (for example, in respect of workplace ethics or motivation) and how should this situation be managed?

Employee Motivation and Retention

The development sector has a lot of money coming into it, but people who work in the development sector are not always very well-paid, particularly when one considers the challenging nature of the work involved. In fact, it can be difficult for a person to maintain working in the development sector for an extended period of time, whether for emotional, familial, or financial reasons.

While some development organizations are able to offer professional growth and entice employees to remain in the sector (albeit completing different job responsibilities), even those organizations can have a difficult time retaining staff. Yet, experienced professionals are exactly the types of people who are required to help the sector achieve its objectives.

How can a development organization balance an employee's life needs while still remaining a financially viable institution? Are there other ways in which employees can be motivated which may not cost anything (or maybe only cost very little) to the organization?

MFI Interest Rates

A Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) paper4 began with the following text:

Over the past two decades, institutions that make microloans to low-income borrowers in developing and transition economies have focused increasingly on making their lending operations financially sustainable by charging interest rates that are high enough to cover all their costs. They argue that doing so will best ensure the permanence and expansion of the services they provide. Sustainable (i.e., profitable) microfinance providers can continue to serve their clients without needing ongoing infusions of subsidies, and can fund exponential growth of services for new clients by tapping commercial sources, including deposits from the public.
The problem is that administrative costs are inevitably higher for tiny microlending than for normal bank lending. For instance, lending $100,000 in 1,000 loans of$100 each will obviously require a lot more in staff salaries than making a single loan of \$100,000. Consequently, interest rates in sustainable microfinance institutions (MFIs) have to be substantially higher than the rates charged on normal bank loans.

Are the interest rates charged by MFIs justifiable?

Footnotes

1. A rubric is a tool for scoring subjective assignments in which specific desirable and undesirable observable behaviors are clearly described. In a classroom or training setting, the rubric may be made available to the group participants before they start their activity. This will help them to be more reflective of the group process and will help ensure that the learning objectives of the activity are met. However, in formal evaluation settings, it is rare for the participants to know the details of the rubric.
2. In this note, we are restricting our discussion to group discussions being used for recruitment. Group discussions occur in many other settings. For instance, in the workplace, a group discussion might be used for brainstorming about institutional activities. Or, in a research setting, a focused group discussion might be used to collect information from a group of respondents about a particular topic or to help the researcher identify research questions relevant to the respondent group.
3. In some settings, rather than expecting a diverse group of evaluators to be able to accurately evaluate all components, the recruiting institution might decide to assign evaluators based on their competencies. Thus, one member of the evaluation panel might be asked to only evaluate the applicants' communication skills while another panelist might be asked to only evaluate the applicants' subject-related knowledge.
4. Rosenberg, R., Gonzalez, A., and Narain, S. (2009, February). The new moneylenders: Are the poor being exploited by high microcredit interest rates? Occasional Paper 15. Washington, DC: CGAP. [link]

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