DoingCL - The Finer Points of Working with Groups





"The Finer Points of Working with Groups"
- by Karl A. Smith

Whether you use informal or formal small groups, true cooperative learning is a complex process. When it works, it can powerfully enhance learning. But small-group learning requires attention and fine tuning, often in real time, which is part of its excitement. The following techniques will assist you in helping your groups work more effectively:

When you're giving oral directions to groups, especially in a large class - and especially if the class meets early in the morning - ask for a volunteer from the back of the room to restate/paraphrase the directions. This can be helpful for two reasons:

  1. When you hear your directions as interpreted by a student, you might find the result to be quite different from what you intended.
  2. This is a helpful way to make sure that your students are listening carefully.
Be careful not to intimidate your students. Let them know from the start what you will be doing - that you will periodically ask them to restate material and/or directions - and why you will be doing it. You can also ask everyone to take a moment and reflect on what they heard, before asking for a volunteer.

You can often improve the quality of what occurs in groups if you give individuals the chance to reflect on a question or problem in advance and write down their ideas; this is especially helpful to the more introverted students. You also get more rich conversation within the groups - after reflecting and writing, students feel more of a commitment to compare and contrast their ideas within their groups.

If you can make connections between what students already know - their life experiences - and what they're doing in the group, you can often effect a much greater change in their learning.

Tell students how you want them to work before you give them a task. If you give them the task first, they typically start working on it immediately and don't listen to your instructions.

When you give groups a question to discuss, listen to the volume of conversation in the room. When that volume decreases, bring the students' attention back to the class as a whole, even if some groups haven't finished yet. If you don't bring the groups back at the time the volume lowers, the ones that are finished or close to finishing will shift to talking about something else. At that point it can be really difficult to get their attention back.

Not all groups work at the same rate. If a group finishes early, find another group that is also finished and have the two groups compare what they did and how they did it. This technique really enriches their work and is one of my favorites. Further, our colleagues in business and industry have made it quite clear that they need graduates with skills for working with all kinds of people, both within a team and as a team working with other teams.

If you use rich tasks - tasks that have more than one reasonable set of assumptions or require more than one approach to complete - the process of working cooperatively becomes truly outstanding.

Doing CL
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