Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Building an Effective In-Class Learning Environment, Part 1: Group Work

In this series, I explore the questions: What are some advantages and disadvantages of group work and student presentations? How can students be held accountable for learning in groups and from student presenters? What defines a good balance of group time with whole class presentations? In Part 1, I will focus exclusively on group work.
In Part 2, I will focus on student presentations. Finally, in Part 3, I will discuss considerations involved in balancing time allocated to each of these modes of classroom organization, and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of the two modes against each other.

Advantages and disadvantages of group work:

Groups are an effective way to organize student learning, as described in numerous research articles, such as the meta-analysis by Springer, Stanne, and Donovan. Groups tend to be most effective when they are smaller, meaning pairs, or groups of three or four people.

Groups (or pairs) have the advantage of fostering more conversations in a classroom. There are a lot more people speaking at any given time, and there is a lot more back-and-forth exchange of ideas in groups. Generally, more students have the chance to explain their thinking, and they can get more clarification in a small group. Groups also foster more camaraderie and community in a classroom. This is particularly true if group membership is changed regularly, even daily, so that students have the opportunity to work with many different students in the class.

There are a couple of disadvantages of small group work. One difficulty is that the instructor has many groups to monitor. Groups sometimes do not solve the problems or fully complete the proofs. If there are several different errors or gaps in understanding across groups, it can be difficult to resolve the gaps or errors that arise. Another challenge is that sometimes, if students know that they will be able to work in groups, they may not put in sufficient effort outside of class. Instead, they hope that their partner(s) will have solutions to their problems. 

Individual accountability in groups:

Thus, it is prudent for an instructor to plan for ways to hold individuals accountable for producing work and for understanding the work of the group. What follows are a few ways to promote individual accountability in a class. Note that some of these are more about encouraging students to work outside of class, while others are about ensuring that everyone in the group understands the work produced.

  1. Check homework at the beginning of class to ensure that individuals already have a record of their own attempts and solutions before discussing their ideas with others. This lets students know that they are being graded for making their own attempts on assigned work outside of class. 
  2. Collect homework at the beginning of class. This works similarly to checking homework, but in order to collect homework, it is important that the work in class does not depend on the homework being collected. I have found that students prefer to have their work handy in class, so that they can compare their own thinking to what is shared in class. This is true even if the homework problems are separate from the class work, as ideas gained in class can sometimes cause students to rethink their homework.
  3. Use colored pens in class. This strategy does not apply only to groups, but again, it gives the instructor the power to discern what students are completing on their own time as well as what they are doing in class. As an added benefit over the early homework check, the instructor can encourage students to keep good records in class by commenting on the notes when the assignment is collected, and by giving full credit to assignments that show that all problems were attempted individually AND show corrections that reflect work done in class. 
  4. jigsaw (described previously) is effective in holding individuals accountable. I find that students often work quite hard to ensure that they understand the work of others in their group, because they know they will have to explain that work almost immediately afterwards. 
  5. Call on individuals at random to report on the conversation or work completed by the group. Since there are typically many groups in a class, calling on groups at random is one way to encourage the groups to stay on task, and to let the instructor get an understanding of the thinking of several students, even when the instructor may not have been able to visit with that group while they were working.
  6. Request group reports. An instructor can hold all group members accountable by asking that every group report its solution to a designated problem to the instructor separately (i.e., not in front of the class). The instructor then queries all members of the group about the solution. For instance, if the class is working on problems 7-12, then all groups may be asked to check in with the instructor when they are satisfied with their solution to problem 8. As the instructor wanders through the room, groups signal when they are ready to share their solution. The instructor then asks a particular group member to begin explaining the solution, stops the explanation to ask others to clarify particular points, or asks others to take over the explanation at that point. In this way, the group must ensure that all members understand the work. If a group member is stumped by an instructor question or gets stuck in an explanation, the instructor tells the group to discuss the work some more and call the instructor back when everyone is ready. 
With appropriate tools in place, groups can be very productive and make for a very lively classroom learning environment. Readers, what other strategies do you use to ensure that groups are effective? 

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