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 focused exclusively on group work.
In Part 2, I focused mainly on student presentations. Finally, in Part 3, I 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.
Striking a balance between group work and student presentations:
In Part 1, we learned that group work is an effective way to organize classroom learning, but that there are sometimes issues that need to be resolved or discussed by the entire class, or problems that many groups are unable to resolve on their own. In Part 2, we learned that student presentations are good for putting the focus of the class on a particular solution, but that there is the potential for students’ preparation for class and participation in discussion to suffer. Therefore, I find that using both groups and individual presentations helps to keep students engaged in class, and that a good mixture will encourage students to prepare for class on their own time.
Given the challenges and opportunities associated with group work and student presentations, what mix of these two forms of classroom organization is best?
For me, there is no one right answer. Even for a particular semester with a particular section of a class, I am sure that different blends of class organization would be valuable. Still, I have found that I tend to favor more groups or more presentations in different sorts of classes. I use two basic models in my classes. In what follows, I will describe the models and why I feel that each one is valuable in the particular courses where I use it.
In this model, roughly 60-70% of each class period is spent in groups. Usually, I have classes that meet twice each week. Typically, on one of these two days, class begins with me introducing the topic of the day, in some courses explaining the manipulatives we will be using, or the calculator functions that they may need to do the day’s mathematics, and then sending the groups to work on problems. I may tell the groups to give a report when they have a solution to a particular problem. As groups work, I monitor their progress, check to ensure that everyone is participating in the work of the group, and ask questions as needed to help groups make progress in their thinking. If a group is ready to report, then I ensure that all group members contribute to the report, and if they answer all my questions satisfactorily, then I approve the report; otherwise, they are told to work more and call me back when they are ready. If I did not request group reports, then I am usually making note of which groups have done work that I think should be discussed in front of the class, and which problems are sticking points for groups. If all groups become stuck, then we transition to a student presentation or a whole-class discussion of how to proceed. Otherwise, groups continue to work until I feel that most of the class is ready to discuss the key ideas and the work that I have identified for presentation. Presentations then serve as a way to codify the important concepts, as a way to compare different solution ideas, and for groups to ask questions regarding issues they had while working. Everyone is sent home to work on problems, and to come back ready to discuss solutions.
When students return for the next class, they begin in groups right away. Sometimes, I will announce a jigsaw, so that particular groups are assigned to focus on solutions to a single problem and prepare the explanation they will give later. Other times, I make sure that everyone has a colored pen, and I quickly identify which problems will be presented and who will present them, so that we move into student presentations rather quickly. Because students are using colored pens, I can tell what they have done on their own time, and yet taking good notes on the presentations can boost their homework score. It may happen that after a particular presentation, students have the tools they need to solve other problems on which they were stuck, in which case they get time to work in groups again. Or, I may have follow-up problems that build on what was presented, and again the groups are charged to apply what they have learned from the presentations. Depending on time, we may begin a new cycle of looking at a new topic while working in groups.
I have used and refined this model since I first had my own classes. I find that this is a good model for lower-division mathematics, including courses like Mathematics for Elementary Teachers, where a number of the problems involve computations and generally involve more familiar or concrete concepts. The problems lend themselves to groups being steadily engaged. It is more difficult to use this model when the problems are longer and more abstract. One reason for this is that the average time to solve a problem is longer. This makes it more difficult to launch into a topic during class time and have sufficient progress made by all groups within 30 minutes or so. Therefore, in classes like Transition to Proof, Abstract Algebra, or Modern Geometry, I use a different model.
In the presentation-centered model, roughly 70-80% of the time is spent on student presentations (this includes the think-pair-share time in which partners are discussing presentations). Class begins in one of three ways. Either, a) students are encouraged to discuss their solutions while I ensure that everyone has a colored pen and I sign up the presenters for the day; b) the class begins with a set of prompts, in which I put up a short set of questions, often true/false or multiple choice, and students are asked to think-vote-discuss-revote, similar to Interactive Engagement in physics and elsewhere; or, c) I announce a jigsaw, and partners are assigned to one of two problems that they will shortly have to explain to another person. At the conclusion of any of these events, we launch into student presentations. Each presentation is discussed in detail, until the class is satisfied with the mathematics, and I am satisfied that the class has identified the important ideas. Occasionally, in between presentations, partners may be asked to look at a related problem that either applies the ideas from the most recent presentation, or anticipates the ideas that may come up in the next presentation. After the conclusion of all the day’s presentations, usually four to six of them, then I may point students to the next topic or assignment, and partners will often be asked to do some preliminary work with definitions or examples that may help them.
When I first began teaching proof-oriented courses, I used presentations and accompanied them with think-pair-share, as I do now, but I did not use the jigsaw and prompts. I find that beginning the class with the partner work gets the class into a discussion-oriented mindset, which helps to make the presentation discussions more lively. Using the prompts makes for a nice formative assessment where I learn where the whole class stands with key concepts, and I can see and react immediately to what the class thinks. I also find that students are very highly engaged during jigsaws, so that I often structure the problem sets so that there are two closely related, more accessible problems that lend themselves to a jigsaw. But because a jigsaw depends on a large portion of the students being able to solve the assigned problems, not everything can be handled this way.
Stepping outside of my own classroom, I know that different instructors have preferences for whole class or small group mode. Each mode demands slightly different skills from the instructor. In small groups, the instructor has to travel from group to group, listening and occasionally contributing questions, and making mental or written notes about the discussions for later summative activities (whole-class presentations or sharing, or instructor summary). The noise and activity level tend to be high. With whole class presentations, the challenge is to ensure that all students are engaging with the content of the presentation, and to do as much as possible to have broad participation. Ultimately, the goal is to have as many students as possible engaged in creating mathematics and making sense of the core ideas of the course for themselves, so that students develop the mathematical thinking skills that will serve them long after the course is over. One of the benefits of inquiry-based learning and the active modes of instruction described here is that there are many opportunities to gain evidence of students’ thinking—to conduct formative assessment, so that adjustments to instruction can be made before an exam reveals critical gaps or misconceptions among the students. And, as the recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper indicates, evidence favors active learning in STEM courses over lecture. So, whether an instructor prefers groups or presentations, if students are engaged, chances are good that they are learning.
Readers, what classroom organization works for you?