DoingCL - Preparing the Students





Preparing the Students

Many students have learned with a traditional teaching style. When students are exposed to a new teaching environment, they need preparation; that is, the stage must be set before the students come on board and "buy into" this new approach.

Part of laying this groundwork is to include a description of collaborative learning in the course syllabus and to address some of other questions students might have. For instance, when the students are working in groups and have questions can they ask the instructor? Depending on the specific classroom situation, you might address this question in the syllabus in a number of ways:

  • you can always ask questions or seek help from other group members
  • you can always (sometimes?) ask questions or seek help from other groups
  • you can ask the instructor questions only when all groups members have the same question (Millis and Cottell, 1998)
Kagan answers this question with "three before me": the students must consult three resources before asking the instructor (Kagan, 1992).

Students might also want to know

This last item, course goals, is important: Having clear objectives (both academic and skills) and communicating these goals to the students is vital for success. If the students don't know why they are doing what they are doing, they may feel lost or that the course is disorganized. One way to determine your course goals is to use the Teaching Goals Inventory self-assessment tool by Angelo and Cross (1993).

Miller, et al. (1996) has an elegant way of presenting some of the course objectives to the students. During the introductory meeting, she has students pair up and write down what skills they believe their first employer will be looking for. Common responses include, "mastery of the subject area," "ability to work in teams," "written and oral communication skills," "problem solving ability," and "ability to learn on my own." This leads nicely into a discussion of the objectives and goals of working in collaborative learning communities.

Another technique (Goal Ranking and Matching) is presented by Angelo and Cross (1993). Before doing this, decide what course goals you consider "sacred," which are negotiable, and which can be replaced by student goals. If nearly all of the course goals are sacred and no "open" time during the semester has been built in, it is probably unwise to try this technique. As the authors state, "Don't ask if you don't want to know! Asking students to write down their goals implies that you are planning to read them and respond in a meaningful way."

During the first week of class, anonymously ask the students to jot down three to five of their learning goals for the course and to rank them from 1 (most important) to 5 (least important). It is helpful if you explain that goals such as "I want to do well in this course." is a general universal goal and not what is meant by goals in this context. This process will take about 5-10 minutes. If the students are freshmen, it is advised to wait until at least the second class period before doing this assessment. Let the students know when you will discuss the tallied results. After collecting the information, organize the data into groups with common ideas and tally how many students have goals in common. Discuss with the students areas of common ground and areas where the goals don't coincide. If you are willing to, adjust the course goals to accommodate the students' goals. Students will feel you respect their needs and will most likely buy into the course more.

Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers, 2nd edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Boss.

Miller, J. E., Groccia, J. E., and Wilkes, J. M. (1996). "Providing structure: The critical element" In Sutherland, T. E., and Bonwell, C. C. (Eds.), Using active learning in college classes: A range of options for faculty, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 67.

Millis, B. J., and Cottell, P. G., Jr. (1998). Cooperative learning for higher education faculty, American Council on Education, Series on Higher Education. The Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ.

Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers, Inc.

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