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Group Work in Active Learning Classrooms

The Active Learning Classrooms were designed specifically to support student group work. However, it’s important to remember that the arrangement of rooms—round tables with students facing each other—will not, by itself, lead to effective student collaboration. In order to make best use of the affordances offered by the ALCs, instructors must design assignments and activities with group work in mind, while students must be taught how to work effectively together. What follows are some guidelines for supporting student collaboration in the ALCs.

Tips to encourage productive group work in the ALCs

The more intentional you are, the better student groups will function. Provide students with clear expectations on collaborative work as well as resources on collaboration and teamwork, including roles and responsibilities in the team and strategies for how to work with challenging personalities and cultural considerations.

Create student groups purposefully. Students do better problem solving in heterogeneous groups. Students can be assigned to groups randomly or they can be intentionally grouped for differences in expertise, e.g., experience with technology, and other variables, such as age, gender, year in school, etc..

Take advantage of the table organization. When photocopying handouts for everyone, provide only one copy per (small) group of students. This strategy forces individuals to collaborate and is a good way to improve group cohesion. Likewise, you might require small groups of students to share a single laptop computer during class; sharing laptops has the added benefit of minimizing the distractions of technology by discouraging off-task behavior such as web surfing or viewing social networking sites.

Have students work in groups to review difficult material discussed in lecture immediately after the material is covered. In a biology class, for example, one professor discusses a number of cell biology experiments and then has the students work in their groups to diagram the experiments and teach each other about the methods used and main findings. This kind of activity offers an opportunity for students to identify confusing parts and ask questions about them.

Grade on both individual performance and group performance. For example, students might first take an on-line exam individually and then re-take the exam or a portion of the exam as a group during class. Individual scores can be raised by a predetermined percentage or number of points by the group exam score. For more on this strategy called “cooperative quizzing,” see the Cooperative Quizes tutorial.

Teach students how to work in groups effectively. Instructors too often provide little or no guidance to students on how to work together. Knowing how to work effectively in a team is not something that comes naturally to anyone. It is hard work, and it is especially essential in a collaborative process. Besides attention to the recommendations above, have students reflect together on the quality of their team work regularly and provide feedback on how well they are doing as a team. Learning effective team work is a process, not a one-time experience.

Approaches to Group Work

We recommend using the principles of Cooperative Learning or the methods of Team-Based Learning when designing group activities.

Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is the intentional use of student groups to facilitate learning. There are five elements considered necessary for successful cooperative learning. They are

  • Positive interdependence (each individual depends on and is accountable to the others)
  • Individual accountability (each person in the group learns the material)
  • Promotive interaction (group members help one another)
  • Social skills (leadership, communication)
  • Group processing (assessing how effectively they are working with one another)

For more on cooperative learning, including guides to using it in the college classroom and research on its effectiveness, see the Cooperative Learning Institute web site: http://www.co-operation.org/.

Team-Based Learning

This strategy was developed by Larry Michaelsen in the 1970's. Teams of students prepare individually and work together to apply important concepts during assignments that last a few weeks. TBL has several critical features:

  • Teams are permanent, i.e., they persist for the entire term, and should be diverse in terms of various student characteristics. This provides enough "resources" for students to complete challenging assignments and allows a group of students to develop into a cohesive team.
  • Students are held accountable for both individual pre-class preparation and team contributions. This is reflected in the system of assessments and grading used.
  • Team assignments must promote both significant learning and team development. To do this, the assignments must be based on application of course concepts to complex, authentic situations and require group discussion and decision-making, rather than a series of tasks that can be parceled out to team members. All teams get the same assignment.
  • Students receive frequent and timely feedback. This is accomplished in several ways:
    • At the beginning of each segment, students individually take a Readiness Assessment Test based on the pre-class preparation assigned.
    • Immediately after this, they take the same RAT in their teams, with the ability to discuss each question and come to consensus. Using special scratch-off answer sheets, they can see if their first choice is correct. If it is, they earn full points for that question; if not, they discuss and make a second choice. If it is correct, they get fewer points for that question; if not, they repeat the process until they no longer get any points.
    • At the end of the segment, all teams present their solutions in class and get immediate feedback and assessment.

This strategy generally requires rethinking one's approach to course material and pedagogy, but seems to be very effective in promoting learning. Learn more at the Team-Based Learning web site: http://tblc.camp9.org/.