CL1 - Teaching Stories: What students would tell their teachers



Students speak out on Collaborative Learning
by Cathy Middlecamp

What students would tell their instructors

One student writes:
"... of course, teachers should remember that although group work may initially create situations that are problematic, the process of adjusting and learning to function efficiently within a group is highly essential to our growth as individuals, in both an academic and social context."

What are the problems that instructors should avoid? Check out the details:

  • Troubleshoot before you start
    Think before you act. MORE, ...
    Assess your class. MORE, ...
    Prepare students for group learning. MORE, ...

  • Set up groups that work
    Pick a size that works. MORE, ...
    Majority view: instructor should pick groups. MORE, ...
    Minority view: students should pick groups. MORE, ...
    Select group composition carefully. MORE, ...
    Decide how long group stays together. MORE, ...

  • Manage groups effectively
    Design good group assignments. MORE, ...
    Assign roles to group members MORE, ...
    Monitor, monitor, monitor! MORE, ...

  • Attend to grading MORE, ...

  • Know when to use cooperative learning MORE, ...

Troubleshoot - Think before you act

Teachers do need to think about a few things before they go ahead and change their teaching style to cooperative learning. They need to think of group projects that will be fun and have a way to make sure that all students will contribute to the work.

Teachers should also go through the project with others before hand to see how smoothly it runs.

The teacher should plan how to structure a class activity cooperatively. Then the teacher practice this into his or her class until it becomes a routine or integrated level of use.

For teachers that are going to use cooperative learning in their classes, they need to be very organized and well prepared for those that may have problems working in groups.

Teachers need to make sure that everyone will benefit from cooperative learning methods. They also need to make sure that students are put in groups that will enhance their learning, not inhibit it.

Teachers have to realize or think about a few things before they plan group activities for a class. One thing is that it requires quite a different approach in regard to the teaching method as compared to giving a lecture. I think it requires more effort on the part of the teacher to work in groups because there is no longer just one group to talk to like there is in a lecture.

Some things that teachers should consider when planning group work is that in most cases, it is just one or two students doing the work. This means that the project isn't beneficial to those who don't do the work. The other consideration, is that sometimes a person doesn't learn as much if he is not forced to figure it out on his own.

For teachers planning cooperative learning in their classes, the only suggestion that I can think of is to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages, but, the disadvantages should not discourage giving the plan a try. If the teacher is aware of both sides, then their attention can be focused on adjusting certain problem areas without losing sight of the main goal.

Beforehand teachers should think about the time limit that they should allow for their students to work on a project in a group. They should allow enough time, but not too much so that the students start to goof off.

Troubleshoot - Assess your class

When using cooperative learning, teachers should consider the ability of students to get along with others, their ability to do the work, and the quality of their work. Personal factors should also be a consideration.

The teachers should look at the material that they are going to cover and find out if the students would be interested in working in groups on a certain project. (Maybe by giving a survey.)

Teachers also could consider the level of the class, as more advanced courses tend to include hard-working students who would benefit from their peers.

Teachers need to be aware of what their students' abilities are and the diversity of them. Keep these characteristics in mind when deciding on a plan.

Beforehand, teachers should always remember that all groups will not be effective. Sometimes, certain people just can't work with one another.

I think teachers who are going to use cooperative learning methods should try several types and find out from the class what seems to work the best. Every class and group of students is going to be different so they shouldn't always assume that something is going to be good for every class.

I think the way to solve the problems of cooperative learning is think about the class and the students in the class. Some classes maybe be better working in groups while others may not. Maybe take a class vote to see opinions of students.

Teachers should think about the ability of the students and work before assigning groups. Questionable personality traits and exclusion/inclusion should be taken into account.

Factors that teachers should take into account before initiating group activity would be: will my students be able to handle group work, can they get along with other classmates, will they enjoy this type of activity, and to make sure everyone is getting involved in the group work.

Also, don't forget those shy individuals who won't jump at joining a group - gently guide them into one.

The only thing to consider beforehand is the case of a particular student getting forgotten about in a group.

They should also look at the students and see if they care enough about the class or are mature enough to work in groups.

Troubleshoot - Prepare students

Teachers obviously should stress the point of group work.

It would be helpful for professors to present the purpose and benefits of this type of learning the beginning of the class, and then do a "wrap-up" at the end of class discussing its merits.

I think that all teachers should stress to students how important it is for a team (group) to get along well. Without this, there will be a lot of problems in the group. I think that the teachers should suggest to students ideas on how everyone can get along.

Teachers can have small activities beforehand to help students learn ways of working in groups before they actually do it. If possible the teacher should provide a time when all of the class members can get to know each other. This way the first group project will be a little more comfortable.

Have helpful hints for groups in order to have things run as smooth as possible. Think about trouble spots so you know when they might need an extra hint or two.

Another suggestion I have is for the teacher to prepare some tools for each group (especially groups of strangers). These tools would be given to the groups to help them learn about each other and produce efficient work. Whether these tools would be warmup-get-to-know-you questions or detailed assignments for each person in the group so that one person wouldn't end up doing all of the work, I think that these tools would be very helpful.

A worksheet that talked about what each student's strengths and weaknesses are in a group setting might be beneficial to help to settle certain issues before they become problems.

Teachers can also ask students their ideas about group work and what advantages and disadvantages may occur. Getting students' perspectives and ideas can help teachers prepare for group activities.

Set up groups that work - Size

Figure out the best size for the groups, so that everyone is involved and it's efficient.

I also think having larger groups work together at the beginning of the semester, and then later calling for smaller groups or pairs would be positive in choosing members of the group who work well together and get along personally as well.

Teachers should think about group size an ways of separating individuals before class to stimulate the highest productivity within each group.

Groups should be kept small enough so that everyone gets included in the activity.

The size of the group: Sometimes a partner activity would work better than a group one. For example in labs or in an English class reading to one another. These activities seem to be more beneficial when working in partners. This way the student is giving more time participating with one another.

Suggestions I might give teachers planning on using cooperative learning in their classes would be to keep the groups small in size which would help keep students on track and not get disturbed.

If a meeting outside of class is necessary, a smaller group will find it easier to find a time when everyone is available.

Teachers ought to be aware of the difficulty of meeting out of class. Coordinating times that are acceptable for all the team members is no easy task.

I think I would assign three completely random students to work together for the entire semester. I think that two students might not be enough to get through some labs, and four would be too many people. Three gives enough people for good discussion, but everyone still has to participate for the job to get done.

The only thing that I can think of is to put between three and five students into a group and to have them exchange phone numbers (or e-mail addresses).

Set up groups that work - Selection of members
Majority view: instructor should pick groups

For teachers planning to use cooperative learning, I suggest a random matching of students. Avoid friends choosing to work with each other.

I would suggest that teachers choose the groups themselves. This way the students get a chance to meet other people that they may not be familiar with.

For teachers that are planning to use cooperative learning in their classes, I strongly suggest that if all possible you should set up groups yourself and appoint the groups members. This will help to get use to each other, and/or change the group members up once in a while so the same people wouldn't be together all the time. This will help students to get to know other students in the class.

The only advice I'd give to teacher is watch how you pair people together. Yes it's true people should be able to overcome each others differences, but this is not always the case. I don't believe that students should be able to chose their partners, but maybe before you set cooperative groups up have them write on a piece of paper five people they wouldn't mind working with. The teacher then would pair them up accordingly and this way work gets done, but the student also can overcome the differences of the person they are working with.

My suggestion would be to separate students into groups as a trial run and if all goes well, continue to do it.

If teachers are considering interactive learning, it may be beneficial to make an effort to mix the students more as the semester goes by. Of course I enjoyed the freedom to choose who I would work with, but to enhance the idea of learning to get along with others, it may be a good idea to consider how students might work with different peers throughout the semester. I missed out on meeting some of my classmates because I stuck with the ones I worked well with.

I think that it is important to give students the opportunity to chose their group half of the time, and the other half, the groups should be assigned. This would give students the chance to work with their friends and have a good time doing the work yet, it would also encourage new friendships with some of the other students in the class and the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas.

Write down which groups did well together and which didn't. That way, when you assign a bigger, longer project, you'll have an idea on who to assign in groups. Towards the end of the semester, you might want to allow the students to choose their own groups since they should know their classmates.

Set up groups that work - Selection of members
Minority view: students should pick groups

For teachers that are planning to use cooperative learning in their classes, I would suggest that they let students have the chance to pick their own groups, if it is not too much of a hassle. Some people, like myself, just work better with certain people. If there seems to be a person that is always left out in group "pickings" then selecting groups once in awhile is OK. Hopefully the person gets to know some of the people in the selected groups and will end up picking them for their own free groups.

Let students form their own groups and see how that works out first. Then rearrange from their after observing the groups and their work. Sometimes you need to pick the groups. Depending on the age of the students, they start to form their own clusters. And these clusters aren't always helpful.

If a teacher is planning to use cooperative learning, I would suggest allowing student to pick their own groups and keeping those groups together throughout the semester unless otherwise impossible.

Other suggestions might include, letting students pick their own groups to work with to enable them to work with people they know to probably get more done which helps them contribute more to the discussion and activities.

One thing that is important is that the students should pick their own groups, for the most part they will be happier.

I would suggest that teachers place limits on how students organize their groups for the project, but leave them some freedom to choose. We did many group projects in high school and from my experience, the worst thing a teacher can do is: dictate to the students who they will do their group project with. This can create significant disasters.

For teachers that are planning to use cooperative learning in their classes, the best possible advice would be to let things happen. Do not force rules or partnering with groups. Yes, guidelines should be set, but the participants should be able to sort things out on their own. More often than not, there is a leader in the group. That person can delegate problems, and help iron out disagreements. The quality of how participants work together will show up in the individual's work. Like the old saying goes, "what comes around, goes around."

Set up groups that work - Composition

For teachers planning groups before hand, make sure to have an equal sex ratio. That way both sexs are represented and can engage intellectually with one another. This provides a lighter atmosphere.

The only advice that I would give to someone is to be very sure that the groups are well mixed. Not just mixed by sex though, also by race, age, study habits and so on. It is very important to learn how to deal with others that you wouldn't normally have dealt with. It also helps if someone in the group is very studious and if someone is semi-studious and so on. I think that this is beneficial because it allows people who avoid notes but understand the concepts to share their ideas with those who avoid concepts and just take notes.

Teachers should compare students with similar interests, personalities, and hobbies. This will help make group members more apt to work better with one another. Also, members will have better attitudes working as a this kind of group because they will want to come instead of thinking they have to come.

Always include more than one person of the same sex or foreign background so they feel more comfortable and are able to express their ideas better

Set up groups that work - Length of time

The group should not change constantly throughout the course, but give each group a chance to become comfortable with each member and develop to its fullest potential. I do think it is better to work with students close in age as they are at a closer mental level and can benefit more equally among each individual member.

instructors can have these groups be different from time to time. This will allow students to have the opportunity to work with students with other types of study skills different from their own. This can help students not only in that particular class but in future endeavors as well.

Split the students into several different groups throughout the semester. However, don't overdo it. By this I mean, allow the students ample time to get to know each other in their groups. I believe that students do better in school when they know their classmates enough to call with questions, or to study with.

In cooperative learning, I think it is necessary to mix up the groups all the time. If people are in the same group all the time, they can't experience how different people think. Another disadvantage is that cliques can be made within groups. People could start to think about other things, when the real topic one should be thinking about is school.

The teacher should make sure the groups change each week, that way everyone has a chance to work with everyone else.

Manage the groups well - Group assignments

Teachers should design questions suitable for groups. Easy questions for more than one person usually don't end up as group work, but rather independent work. Group work should make everyone contribute thoughts and opinions, and boggle their minds with controversy.

Teachers should think about making sure the groups have enough to work on. Sometimes our TA will give us one question to work on, but too much time to do it. So, we end up talking about other things and wasting time. It doesn't happen that often, but in past classes it has happened frequently.

Teachers obviously would want to consider the nature of the assignments, as some projects run more smoothly in groups, and the size of the class.

For teachers planning cooperative learning, I think it's important to vary problem solving techniques. Some questions should be concrete and others should be more abstract. This allows the students to state and support opinion, apply their knowledge, and do higher level thinking.

I think the best way for teachers to have a large success rate with cooperative learning projects is to be as specific as possible about what they want the group to accomplish. The teacher should place limits to keep the groups or projects within the scope of what they expect, but leave some freedom for the students to interpret the project, otherwise the end result may be twenty of the same exact thing.

Teachers should look at the material and decide if the students should work in groups on certain projects, because sometimes two heads really are better than one.

The teacher then must not forget to describe precisely what the students are doing. There are some important elements in cooperative learning which the teacher must implement into group activities.

Group work can be very beneficial if it's used to practice a newly learned concept or idea.

The combination of in class group work and independent report is by far the best system. An occasional group report would most likely strengthen the group which would make the system even stronger.

I think teachers need to think about a lot of things before they use cooperative learning in their class rooms. For example the activity needs to be set up so everyone can get involved, and no single person ends up doing all the work.

For teachers that are planning to use cooperative learning in the future, I would suggest that they give group projects that they feel would be interesting to the students. This is so that the students take the projects seriously. By doing this, that they would get more of a positive output from the students work.

Manage groups effectively - Roles

To help give students, who might not have the confidence in the first place, a push, a teacher could delegate certain roles to specific students in a group. This way, students receive the opportunity to fulfill different roles and gain more self-confidence.

To make group activities go smoothly, teachers should assign each member of a group a specific job. This way there is no slackers, and no one person does all of the work.

Finally, little things like assigning roles within groups - or rather letting the students do the assignment - competition of some type with other groups, and interesting activities will all help make cooperative learning more productive.

The teacher should explain that students must have positive interdependence - something like giving each member of a group part of the total information to complete the whole assignment can be implemented. Another example is division of roles where there is a reader, checker, encourager, and elaborator.

Manage groups effectively - Monitor!

The suggestion that I have for teachers who plan to use cooperative learning is to monitor the groups. Make sure that each person in the group are equally participating. You can do this by having each member of the group evaluate each other. This will tell you who is doing the work and who is not.

The teacher of a group situation has to act like a manager. A good manager gets involved, interacts with the group, and is able to provide some guidance. A bad manager, on the other hand, sits back and waits for questions which can inevitably lead to a distance or barrier between the workers and the manager. At the same time, this "teacher" has to lead without taking over the situation.

I would tell teachers that they should go around when the groups are working and talk to each group to get feedback. Then, if there are problems of people not getting along, they might be able to be help the team solve the problem. I think that it is very important that a group needs to get along well.

I think it is necessary for the teacher to closely observe groups and be able to pick out groups that are not working well together.

Also I would suggest that they spend their time equally making sure that each group understands the assignment and focus on any particular one group.

Teachers should remember to save plenty of time at the end of class so the groups can all share their ideas.

Attend to grading

Teachers need think about how they will grade each student in the group. Some sort of method needs to be used that will give students who spend more time and effort a better grade.

Another thing for teachers to think about beforehand would be how they plan to assess the work of the group and make sure the students are aware of this.

One reminder I would give teachers about cooperative learning would be to make sure people give their own separate reports of what the group did. That forces all group members to either participate or at least pay attention to what is going on in the project.

Give individual grades to each person in the group some of the time instead of always giving out a group grade. This would help prevent one person from getting stuck with all of the work or, if this was inevitable in a certain situation, the people who refuse to work would be penalized.

Finally, try to de-emphasize the grade as being the most important goal. The intrinsic value of learning far surpasses a printed grade, but, that may be a little harder to teach.

I would suggest some flexibility and independence within the groups, so that each student's work is indicative primarily of his/her individual effort and/or contribution to the group.

A peer-grading system, where group members confidentially grade each other's efforts in the group, would enable a teacher to get a good idea of the group happenings. This, in addition, would motivate a student to do more-- knowing that much of his grade depends on those around him.

When testing for personal or individual knowledge, group work should not be used.

For teachers who plan on using cooperative learning in the classroom, I suggest that the students evaluate one another privately. That way, if one student is not working, he/she will not be given full credit for participation.

A suggestion that I would give to teachers about cooperative learning is to grade fairly. In order to do this, they need to try to watch the members and see how much each of them are doing. Or maybe somehow assign different jobs to students, although, this sounds awful childish. Give a group grade based on how well their group worked together and how much they accomplished. The teacher then can give an individual grade on what the student did.

For teacher planning to use cooperative learning, I can offer a suggestion to solve the problem of group in which the work is not done equally. The teacher can give the group a certain amount of points for the final product. Then, the group members must divide those points among themselves according to how much work each person contributed. This way, those who did more work will me awarded more points. This system can also be used to divide up points equally, if each group member contributed the same.

Know when to use cooperative learning

I would suggest that the teachers think about what activities are made for group work or partner work. I don't think everything should be done with partners or groups. There are some things that should be learnt by the students individually. An example of this might be quizzes or exams. This is a test to see what the individual student knows not what a group of students know. The score would not reflect all the students evenly if doing it in a group.

If the class is actively adverse to the concept of group work, it may be best to avoid using it as a primary teaching method.

Another consideration a teacher might like to make would be to be sure group activities were not a waste of time; there were times in discussion group when we could have been doing some better review activities or had question sessions when in fact we were stuck in groupings with perhaps relevant but not pressing matters. I suppose I'm saying that if there's a test coming up, the students may prefer a review from the TA instead of a group activity that doesn't help too much in exam preparation.

Some students will learn and receive more from group work and others will learn more from just individual work. The teacher needs to keep this idea in mind when planning a lesson plan. A good mixture of the two should satisfy the need for every student and should be a success. I personally enjoy group work, but often find that I learn more when I have to struggle to come up with the answer myself.

One thing that the teacher should consider is whether or not working in groups will be the most effective way to learn the material.

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