Thursday, March 20, 2014

Clear objectives are a must for group work

Earlier this week, I stumbled across the tools and tips offered by The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University while looking for insights on structuring effective group work.  At the time, I was on the hunt for info about roles for group members but took note of the other group-related advice, especially this document that addresses a series of commonly asked "How do I...?" questions.  The first question on the list is a particularly important one:
How do I decide which assignments/activities to make collaborative?
The authors point out that some assignments and activities are better suited for effective group work experiences than others.  Insights from IDEA Item #5 also reiterate this point with an argument that students will simply divide up, not discuss, the work when asked to address knowledge-type questions.  Instead, "the issue or problem should challenge the groups and demonstrate that there are no easy answers within the area of study."  Some follow up questions from The Schreyer Institute include:
What is the objective or goal of this assignment or activity? 
How will that objective be furthered by asking students to work in groups? 
Perhaps the students will benefit from discussing possible ideas with one another, working together to arrive at a solution to a problem, or reflecting on information that was just presented - the exact purpose of the group approach will depend on the details of your lesson.  The reason(s) for working in a group must be clear to the students as this helps to establish a structure for positive interdependence within the group.  The purpose of the assignment or activity must be such that the team members need one another to achieve it!   The remaining follow up questions get at this important point:
Is this project complex and challenging enough that it would be impossible for an individual student to complete it alone?  
Will this project require students to synthesize their work in true collaboration, rather than just complete work separately and turn it in together at the end?
In addition to designing the assignment, activity, or project for collaboration and synthesis, this must also be clearly communicated to the students.  Nilson (2010) points out that unclear, imprecise group assignments create confusion for students about expectations and the intended purpose; as a result, this lack of clarity is a major reason that group work experiences fizzle.  Note that making an assignment longer, for example, is not necessarily a recommended way to transform it into one for a group.  Instead, working in groups is an opportunity for deeper (higher-level) thinking.  Maybe instead of recalling information, you want students to work together to apply or analyze information - a group may be better equipped than an individual to tackle a topic at this level.  If you are a fan of Bloom's Taxonomy, then you may find this wheel version with action verbs and student products helpful when designing and communicating clear assignment objectives (wheel created by Emily Hixton at Purdue University).

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching At Its Best. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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