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January 21, 2016

Teaching @ Pitt: Using student groups for learning

teaching@University faculty always are seeking new ways to motivate students to take an active role in learning in and out of the classroom. Most students enjoy opportunities to build knowledge by exchanging information and ideas with peers. Collaborative activities also provide a sense of community, which promotes motivation and confidence.

Whether learning takes place in the classroom, outside of class, or in an online environment, you can use an unlimited array of collaborative assignments and activities to help students reach the course learning objectives. For any of these activities, groups of students can work together in person or using a variety of online tools such as Blackboard’s discussion board and group tools.

At one end of this continuum of collaborative activities are brief “buzz group” conversations among seatmates in which they respond to a question at a pause in a lecture.

About midway along this continuum are activities to promote engagement with readings or lecture materials by forming small groups. For example, you can ask students to work together to challenge ideas from the text, analyze an article, solve a problem or develop possible test questions.

At the other end of the continuum are more complex projects of longer duration and using more permanent groups. Collaborative activities that can be adapted to higher-stakes learning projects include discussions, case studies, writing assignments, peer critiquing, group problem solving and presentations.

To help students get off on the right foot, you will need to provide a clear explanation of the expectations for a “product” and for learner interaction. As you design group projects, you will want to consider the following:

Rationale: To motivate students and lay a foundation, prepare to explain the rationale and let them know if/how participation will be graded. To help students plan and manage their contributions and participation, begin by defining the purpose and applications for group activities and assignments. Explain how the activities will help students to achieve the course learning objectives.

Group size and makeup: Most agree that a group of four-six students is optimal. You can allow students to choose their own groups, randomly assign students to groups, group students with similar interests or create groups composed of students with diverse interests.

Scope: Time should be allotted for building relationships and doing the necessary work to deliver the product. Whether planning a series of group assignments or a longer project, it is important to scaffold and sequence activities. Confirm that groups can complete simpler tasks successfully before moving on to handle more complex ones. Chunk longer assignments into week-by-week tasks, with specific milestones, checklists and criteria for each, so that students can see clear expectations. Set specific dates when you will provide feedback.

Roles: Use the tasks and expectations to generate roles that members of a group can take on for each project. Common roles include facilitator, recorder, reporter/spokesperson, timekeeper, monitor, researcher, summarizer, editor, proofreader, writer, timekeeper, conflict resolver, organizer.

Group guidelines: Require each group to meet initially to set up procedures and expectations, allocate roles and distribution of work, set goals and deadlines, and establish ways to self-monitor the product and process.  Specifically, they should consider the following:

Rules of conduct:  Communication processes should be agreed upon at the beginning of the assignment in order to avoid potential problems. Ask students to help brainstorm communication and interaction skills needed for a successful, productive group. For example, regardless of individual communication styles, group members should be expected to stay on task, contribute ideas, help others to learn, encourage everyone to participate, listen with care, show respect for others, compromise and share resources. Point out that disagreements can generate creative thinking as long as people are willing to consider others’ points of view and communicate with respect.

Troubleshooting: Decisions on how to handle problems that arise from disagreements or poor performance of group members should be made in advance, as a class or within each group. The instructor should be informed if any such action is taken.

Feedback and grading: Your criteria for evaluating group members should be explicit from the beginning and clearly align with course learning objectives. Build in regular intervals where feedback will be provided on specific tasks.  Ask students for frequent feedback on the group process.

Many instructors find they get helpful feedback by periodically asking students to rate each member of their group on a scale of 1-4, ranging from 1 — “Did not participate at all” to 4 — “This member was prompt, observed expectations for submitting work and responding to others, played a significant role, and greatly influenced for the better the quality of group interaction.”

Carol DeArment is a CIDDE senior instructional designer and teaching/learning consultant.

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