Teaching Tip: Learning to be a group

If you would like to use more group work in your classes, but have had difficulty getting the groups to work as well as you would like, here are some suggestions from an expert in the field, Dr. Barbara Millis.  Her most recent book “Cooperative Learning in Higher Education” (2010) describes cooperative learning as a versatile and flexible approach that can be adapted to all disciplines.  Benefits of cooperative learning include deeper learning and critical thinking.  BUT as we all know from bad experiences with group work, if cooperative learning experiences are not well designed, they can result in less learning!

One particular issue for a lot of faculty is groups that don’t work well together.  In many disciplines learning to work on a team is an important course goal, and of course it’s a great life-long skill to have.  So how do we help students learn to work in groups?  Here are some suggestions offered by Dr. Millis.

When you assign several students to produce a major assignment together you will have to consider not only the quality of the task they complete but also the effectiveness of their interaction. If one of your course objectives is that students will learn to work altogether with colleagues, then teach them how. The steps are the same as for teaching and grading discussion:

  • Provide criteria and instructions.
  • Provide opportunities for practice and feedback.

Here are suggestions for guiding group processes:

  • Begin with instructions and guidelines for group work. Address the ways in which groups could go astray.
  • Construct a rubric by which the groups will be evaluated.  (or ask at the CTE for some samples)
  • Have groups compose and sign a written agreement, at the beginning of their work together, that details what all of them will be responsible for (for example, being on time for meetings, completing their share of the work by certain deadlines, communicating regularly with other group members) and what each will do (Mary will research this part; John will research this part; Ling-Chi will produce the first full draft; Jamal will edit the draft).
  • Ask the group to appoint people to certain roles such as record keeper, convener, and any others necessary for the group to work efficiently.
  • Ask the group for frequent feedback to you and to each other.  At the end of each meeting, whether online or face-to-face, group members can write to one another what they thought was successful about the group meeting and what they thought needed improvement.  Responses can be shared with you, and you can step in quickly if the group is struggling.
  • Ask a recorder to post or submit to you a record of the group’s activities. When did they get together? Who was present? What did each person do? What progress was made? What problems arose, and how did the group address them? What do they need from you, if anything?
  • Schedule a face-to-face or synchronous online meeting with each group at intervals to check the group’s progress and interaction. At these meetings, anyone who feels another group member is not doing his or her share should say so during the meeting so the issue can be discussed and you can facilitate.

How do you help students become more effective group members? What kinds of problems have you experienced with groups in your classes?  What questions do you have about working with groups?

Thanks to Barbara Millis of the Teaching & Learning Center and UT San Antionio (http://www.utsa.edu/tlc) for contributions to this tip.



Teaching Tip: Send a Problem

Looking for a different way to structure some group activity in your class?  This week’s tip was contributed to a consortium of faculty developers who share ideas that have worked on their campuses.  If you give it a try, please share your experiences with us!

Purpose:  To challenge students to think critically about key issues and open-ended questions in each discipline.  This three-part process encourages students to question assumptions and explore alternative solutions.

How to Conduct: The instructor brings to class file folders or envelopes with one problem posted on each one.  She announces the activity and its time limits.  She distributes the folders, one per team.  In large classes several teams can work simultaneously on the same problems with the caveat that they cannot be seated close together.  The activity proceeds in a highly structured manner:

(a)    Each team discusses its particular problem and generates within the given time frame as many solutions as possible; the solutions, recorded on a sheet of paper, are placed in the folder or envelope on which is written the problem addressed.

(b)    The folders are then passed clockwise to another team which does not open the folder.  That team, seeing only the problem posed but not the solutions generated by the previous team, follows an identical procedure and brainstorms solutions, placing their recorded conclusions in the folder or envelope.

(c)  The folders are passed a third time, but in this case, the third team opens the folder and reviews the ideas/solutions generated by the other two teams.  They can add additional ideas of their own or consolidate those already suggested by the two other teams.  Their primary task, however, is to identify the most viable solutions to the given problem or issue, usually by synthesizing all three teams’ answers.

Those familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) will recognize that this activity brings students to the highest levels of critical thinking because the final step requires sophisticated evaluation and synthesis.  Group reports can provide useful closure.

Discipline applications:  Instructors will find that Send-a-Problem activities are limited only by their imagination.  Virtually all disciplines lend themselves to problem-solving activities where “many heads are better than one:” For example, what things would a clinician need to know before considering a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Disorder/AIDS/Alzheimer’s?  What features would an art historian look for to authenticate an original Rembrandt/Renoir/Klee?  Biology students could be asked to design various experiments, including a list of equipment:  Compare the rates of growth of two different kinds of bread molds; compare the rates of growth of fruit fly populations under different vitamin supplements; compare the rates of growth of two hybrid varieties of bean plants.  A class in religion might identify challenges facing the Catholic Church today (challenges to Papal authority; the declining priesthood, etc.) and have students discuss the ramifications of these issues and possible solutions.  A class in history might outline the various claims to territory of the cattleman, the farmers, and the native Americans.  Courses in literature could break down various aspects of a novel or short story with teams locating and explaining examples of things such as color imagery, symbols, and figures of speech in books such as The Great Gatsby.  Geography students could discuss these topics: What makes the Balkan region unique as compared to other shatter belts?  Explain the effects of linguistic diversity on European unity. Describe and explain the impact of colonialism and the resulting economies of a given region.

The Send-a-Problem concept does not need to be limited to issues only.  In place of the folders, geologists can pass around rocks needing identification; paralegal instructors can have teams fill out work sheets on various legal books; and ESL teachers can have teams caption various cartoons using the target language.

Submitted by Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio

High Impact Educational Practices

In his recent AACU publication “High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them and why they matter” noted education scholar George Kuh summarizes the research literature on higher ed practices that increase student retention, engagement and deep learning. Evidence suggests that these practices are beneficial for students from widely varying backgrounds. The good news is that we are already implementing many of these ideas. The question is, how can we do more and do it better? Although Kuh’s research focused on undergraduates, many of these ideas are equally appropriate for graduate programs. There’s something here for everyone – which of these practices would YOU like to get more involved with?

First-Year Seminars and Experiences
“The highest-quality first-year experiences place a strong emphasis on critical inquiry, frequent writing, information literacy, collaborative learning, and other skills that develop students’ intellectual and practical competencies” (Kuh, 2008, p. 9). Our DISCOVER 101 seminars are already showing a positive impact on student retention – where can we build on this foundation to improve both semesters for first year students and extend into the sophomore year experience?

Common Intellectual Experiences
These go beyond the idea of the core curriculum and focus on thematic instruction, linked common courses, integrative studies courses and curricular/co-curricular partnerships. How can graduate cohort programs take more advantage of their linked courses? We have some beginning projects here and our new strategic plan talks about campus themes – how can we make this happen widely?

Learning Communities
Learning communities help students begin to “live” the learning; taking at least two common courses that link across disciplines. Learning communities may or may not feature a residential component. Frequently learning communities focus on a broad theme and explore it from various disciplinary perspectives and also extensive out of class collaboration such as service learning or other projects. Presently, Marymount also has a couple of disciplinary-based residential communities (Women in Science and Men & Women in Business). How can we create vibrant cross-disciplinary communities? How can we help faculty connect with colleagues in other disciplines to facilitate the growth of learning communities?

Writing-Intensive Courses
We will be implementing WI courses next year. However, the skills and attitudes fostered in these courses will need to be sustained through writing across the curriculum as well. All faculty need to start thinking of themselves and their courses as opportunities for student writing. What do you need to get started or develop your expertise in helping students write effectively?

Collaborative Assignments and Projects
Working with others and learning from others, especially others who are different from ourselves, is a necessary skill in most work environments, contributes to successful lifelong learning and growth and can also build a sense of community. Collaboration can be as basic as requiring study groups within a course or as complex as joint research or artistic ventures. How much collaborative work goes on at MU right now? How do we prepare students to be successful collaborators? How do we design collaborative assignments that work?

Undergraduate Research
Although it is still most common in the sciences and social sciences, undergraduate research is spreading throughout the disciplines. Inquiry teaching is one form of preparation for more independent undergraduate scholarship. The overarching goal of the DISCOVER program is to engage as many of our undergraduates as possible in some form of inquiry-based learning and research. When students actively engage with important, unanswered questions along with peers and professors, they are more likely to persist and learn more deeply. What else can we do to expand the availability and quality of undergraduate research, scholarship and creativity?

Diversity/Global Learning
Intercultural studies is more than spending time abroad or taking a course! One of our strategic plan goals is to expand our students’ global perspective, our core curriculum has a global perspective course requirement and our Global Studies office is eager to support faculty and student study abroad. We also are blessed with a diverse campus – how can we put all these pieces together to develop a more comprehensive approach?

Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
These programs go beyond volunteering or the provision of services to the “needy” to develop true partnerships that are mutually beneficial. The goal of community-based learning is to give students concrete experiences that mirror what they are learning in the classroom plus the experience of applying disciplinary knowledge to a real world problem. At its best, community-based learning offers the opportunity for students to experience, analyze and reflect on their learning. It also can develop a sense of engaged citizenship. While we have some excellent community outreach programs in the School of Health Professions, community-based learning is not widely practiced at Marymount. It is a natural fit with our Mission, Strategic Plan and values. How can we develop effective courses and programs that integrate coursework and community action?

Required, credit-bearing internships have long been part of a Marymount education. How can we make sure that our internships are academically rigorous, tied to strong outcomes and linked to the students’ major and career goals? Where can we improve this program?

Capstone Courses and Projects
Whatever they are called, a culminating experience requires students to integrate and apply their learning to a project that is important to them. Depending on the discipline, this can be a performance or exhibition, a research or service project, or a paper. Great capstone experiences allow students to see how far they have come since they started their programs and also can give us the opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments with them. How can we raise the profile of capstone experiences, celebrate them and use them to inspire and motivate less advanced students?

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them and why they matter. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Colleges & Universities.