DoingCL - Course Structure


 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
  
  
 


 


 
 
  
  
  
  
  
  
 
 
 
 
 
  
  
  
 


Course Structure

Collaborative Learning can be thought of as a continuum incorporating four components (Bonwell and Sutherland, 1996):

  • Simple to Complex Tasks
      The simple tasks are less structured and shorter in duration while complex tasks are more structured and may last the entire class period or several periods.

  • Course Objectives: Acquisition of Knowledge to Acquisition of Skills/Attitudes
      Acquisition of knowledge refers to mastery of concepts and facts while acquisition of skills and attitudes can refer an appreciation of how a course impacts our daily lives in a more practical sense. (This continuum can be thought of if one considers a majors science course that typically emphasizes knowledge acquisition while a nonmajors course often emphasize less factual and more topical and practical information.)

  • Interaction in the Classroom: Limited to Extensive
      The degree of interaction between the students and the instructors and among students is dependent on the instructor's teaching preference, personality, and need for control. Limited interaction is less spontaneous and flexible for the student.

  • Level of Student Experience: Inexperienced to Experienced
      More structured activities are often better initally for inexperienced students who may feel threatened in an unfamiliar learning environment. The activities can become less structured as the students become more experienced.
Even though collaborative learning is effective in helping students learn, it may reach students to different degrees (Slavin, 1995). The degree of structure within specific activities and within the overall course may appeal to some individual learning styles while it may not for others. So how can one engage students who come with a wide range of learning styles? One approach is to include some lecturing (or mini-lectures), some structured group work, and some group work that is less structured to give all students an opportunity to excel (Millis and Cottell, 1998).

Here are some characteristics of activities with different degrees of structure:

  • More structured
    • a defined goal or task
    • interim evaluation such as quizzes or mid-activity summary
    • group roles established by instructor
    • group processing at specified times
    • methodology on how to complete the task is defined
  • Less structured
    • ill-defined goal or goal defined by the group
    • less formal feedback
    • group decides how to work together and what, if any, group roles should exist
    • group initiates group processing
    • little or no methodology is given to complete the task
When structuring activities take into account the students' experience level with group work. Start with more structured activities so students unfamiliar with collaborative learning can gradually adapt to this new mode. As the students become more experienced, longer-term and more ill-defined tasks can be given (Miller, et al., 1996).

Here are some insightful questions raised by Bonwell (1996):

  • "Are my expectations realistic with regards to class level?"
  • "How can I ensure that students are prepared for the exercise/discussion?"
  • "How will I introduce the skill?"
  • "How will I structure the exercise/problem?"
  • "Are my expectations realistic with regards to time?"
  • "How will I assess that students have achieved proficiency in the skill?"
  • "What do I want students to feel (attitudes)?"
and a common sense suggestion from Millis and Cottell (1998):
  • Include an extra or extension component in the collaborative learning activity for groups that get the primary task done quickly.


Bonwell, C. C. (1996). "Enhancing the lecture: Revitalizing a traditional format" 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.

Bonwell, C. C., and Sutherland, T. E. (1996). "The active learning continuum: Choosing activities to engage students in the classroom" 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.

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.

Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.



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