Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Please God, No Group Work!

The title of this post comes from a response to one of my midterm evaluations in which I ask students to allocate 10 points to three different activities that I do in most courses: lecture, discussion, and group work (I also sometimes include "other"). The allocation is supposed to correspond to how they would like to spend the class time. The particular response, "Please God, no group work!" actually came in a course in which we had not done any group work, so I don't believe it was in reaction to something in my course. In fact, I find that I receive many such comments and those who are most opposed to group work are usually my most motivated and brightest students. So the questions I want to throw out to others here at ISW are these: (1) What is the place of group work in the philosophy classroom? (2) In encouraging modern pedagogical values of teamwork and collaboration are we holding back or harming our brightest students to some degree? (3) If group work works well in your courses, what kinds of activities do you use (other than ice-breakers at the beginning of the course)? And finally (4) if there are undergraduate or graduate students reading this blog, what are your thoughts?


  1. I find that group reading works quite well. When we have a particularly difficult text (Aristotle works well), I will divide the text into chunks of one or two paragraphs and assign a group of 3-4 students to each chunk. The groups discuss their section for about 15 minutes. After they finish discussing, we go through the text group by group, with each group presenting their section. I draw pictures on the board or give additional examples to help tie the concepts together. The students feel like the text is far more managable and generally find these classes enjoyable.

    (I am a grad student teaching undergrads, BTW)

  2. I am an undergraduate student, and I find that group work is a valuable part of the philosophy classroom. I find that many of my classmates often have difficulty understanding readings, and if there are "brighter" students in the groups, they can often help guide the others. The ability to communicate ideas is also very important to develop, and it might help students very much to start with talking with a smaller group of students before speaking in front of the whole class, even if only raising his/her hand in response.

    I am senior, hoping to continue on to a PhD in philosophy next year. I enjoy encouraging students in small groups to all contribute, and find it challenging in different ways for me to encourage students to come forth with questions or ideas in a way that is comfortable and original for them. I usually end up leading group discussions, but I try to facilitate the others in discussion rather than "lead" the discussion. As someone who hopes to continue her education and indeed to continue IN education, this experience teaches me, as well, and I firmly believe that even students who are not going to continue in education but who are perhaps more easily inclined to process philosophical texts without others helping them would still most definitely benefit from learning how to facilitate discussion.

    It might even be beneficial to identify some of these "brighter" students early in the semester and meet with them and openly discuss the role they might want to take in discussion groups, and get their feedback. This would encourage the students to help those who might need it and to feel valuable for being able to do it.

  3. In my experience (as a student, trainer and TA helping to facilitate groupwork)
    the biggest challenge groups run into is
    social loafing

    Group work tends to cause anxiety because students are rarely trained on how to do it well, and many professors assign group work without providing any tools, guidance or feedback.

    Facilitating team building activities, helping groups establish clear ground rules, and setting up a good process of peer evaluation and feedback can help everyone to get the most out of the process.

  4. beccaboo makes a number of good points. In my experience, even more talented or capable students benefit from group work by having to explain complicated philosophical ideas or insights aloud. And to echo Seth, there's a lot of research to support the value of group work in promoting student learning, but I think a lot of instructors have never received much guidance about how to design effective group learning experiences. It's not enough just to assemble students and groups and tell them to "discuss the article."

    I've also noticed some of my students have begun to show the group work fatigue Adam points to. It's not as novel as it once was, so I think a lot of students are weary of it by now. But again, that just underscores the point that instructors have to know how to construct group learning experiences students enjoy, regardless of their academic abilities.

  5. People who endorse group discussions cite the benefit of having students elucidate texts and arguments for their peers. While I agree that students gain a lot when the teach one another, I don't think that group discussions are the best way to encourage this. Surely we needn't break a class into squads in order to have students talk to one another. A professor may simply ask: "Does anyone have a response for person X?" The risk of group discussions is that students sent off by themselves will simply idle; teacher-led discussions are beneficial because they encourage students to exchange ideas while preserving the benefit of having a professor to structure the discussion. I just don't see any benefit of group discussions which couldn't be had by restructuring class discussions.

    As an undergraduate, one activity I'd like to see implemented more often is peer reviews of essays. This does two useful things:

    (1) It helps refine student essays. Undergraduate writing is notoriously spotty, and few classes reveal this fact more acutely than philosophy courses. It generally seems difficult for professors to really improve their students' writing. Often, students will write no more than two or three papers for a class, and the comments on grammar and usage they receive for these are rarely sufficient to really reform their prose (nevermind the pedagogically lazy professors who simply ink their "B+" stamps without taking time to give feedback). Whereas in high school English students meet with their teachers four times a week or more, the setup in college, where teacher-student contact is much more infrequent, makes it hard to adequately address something as complex as writing style. Having students read one another's essays dramatically increases the amount of comments they receive. It's instant feedback: A student can't help but write more clearly if he must make his thoughts comprehensible to his classmates; if you can't understand one of your student's arguments, there's a good chance that his classmates can't, either. In fact, I find that students are uniquely suited to help one another here. Many students are oblivious to how unclear their writing really is; struggling with a classmate's prose (and having him struggle with yours) helps drive the point home.

    (2) Reviews of student essay will almost always be more substantive than group discussions. Group discussions suffer because many students are ill-prepared for class (they haven't given the reading much thought, or haven't read it, etc.). Really, it's sometimes amazing how clueless professors and TA's can be; they often have no idea how little goes on when the class is split into groups, how idle the exercise really is. In writing an essay, though, students must present thought-out theses and textual interpretations. If you have students review one another's essays, you ensure that discussions ensue in which everyone is prepared with some developed thoughts (no such guarantee in group discussions, where it's very easy to simply say nothing and wait until the lecture reconvenes).

    For each major essay, I'd recommend that professors have their students trade papers, exchange feedback and revise accordingly. Professors should ask that students hand in their first draft (with comments attached) and the revised, final draft. Grades should take into consideration (1) the final draft, (2) feedback given to one's partners (3) revisions made in light of feedback.

  6. Lots of great points. In my Ethics and Professional Life courses, I assign a semester long group project that includes a presentation to the entire class. I assign students, usually 4-6 depending on class size, at random. They may pick their own case study/topic and they must provide both the pros and cons of at least 2 possible options, utilizing at least 2 different moral perspectives on how to solve the moral issue they are discussing in a debate format in their presentation. I assign them at random because I want then to learn what it will be like for them in business having two work on long projects with people they do not know and with whom they then have to develop relationships with in order to be successful. to date I have done this since @ 1997 and have had very little problems with group dynamics. I do set parameters and guidelines and monitor group interaction during the in-class discussions. If someone is acting like a 'free-loader' I let the group handle the problem. I only enter into the discussion if invited, or I strongly sense, based on observation, that some external guidance is needed. These research projects and presentations end up being probably the most important, and enjoyable, learning tool in the course for the students and me.

  7. I've been making a serious effort to incorporate group work into my introductory level classes for the past few semesters, and I've had some definite successes and some definite failures.

    To answer Adam's three main questions directly:

    (1) I think that group work has two main functions in a philosophy classroom.

    First, it's a way to generate "active learning," which helps improve student comprehension and interest. Second, it's a way to help students, especially those who don't ask questions in class, to understand the material better by talking about it with their peers. This gives them instant, individualized feedback on their comprehension.

    But group work will not achieve either of these goals if it is not carefully structured. As the students who responded to this post pointed out, saying, "Discuss this in small groups," is like saying, "Discuss your weekend in small groups."

    (2) I have mixed thoughts about the effects of group work on the best students, but there are two reasons to think it helps them.

    First, the chance to teach one's classmates is genuinely educational, even if students don't think so or don't enjoy it.

    Second, assuming that group work does help the slower learners grasp the material, it enables the class to move on to slightly more advanced topics. That's good for the better students.

    (3) The kinds of activities depend somewhat on the course. I'd have a lot to say about this if anyone is interested in hearing it.

    I may have mentioned this book before on this blog, but I'd suggest getting ahold of Collaborative Learning Techniques by Barkley, Cross, and Major. It has lots of detailed ideas for structured group work.

  8. If you're interested in the Collaborative Learning Techniques book, you might want to take a look at it on Amazon or search for nearby libraries that have it.

  9. My perspective is that of an ex-graduate student.

    In my experience, the sort of group assignment that John Alexander describes (the group homework assignment) was always my least favorite throughout my education. Such assignments always ended up with the hardest-working student taking on the majority of the work to ensure that his/her own grade/GPA was maintained, even if that meant he or she was doing two or three times as much work as the other students in the group, including bringing all the members of the group and parts of the paper/presentation together into a whole. (And then, sometimes, it would just become a game of chicken to see who was willing to risk waiting the longest to get started.) As a teaching assistant, I once was in the situation of trying to determine which of the members of a group plagiarized Rawls in their group paper, not the most pleasant task.

    The suggestion of group reading has its advantages, not least in that it gets those students who don't read at home to be at least slightly conversant with the material (and as David said above, that's good for the better students, too).

    I'd like to echo junior's remarks about the value of peer editing. While I was reading the comments here, I was wondering whether it might be an effective group exercise to split a class into half a dozen groups and give each group an anonymous "low B" or "high C" paper to dissect. This alternative is surely not as valuable as giving and getting multiple feedback on individual papers (which is doable and very helpful in a class like "poetry" where the assignments are short), but I wonder if it might be an effective substitute given the time constraints in a typical class.

  10. I'd like to thank everyone for the excellent thoughts on improving group work. The points about structure have really hit home. I definitely need to be better at teaching students how to work in groups.

  11. I just attended a workshop by Larry Michaelsen, author of a book on Team Based Learning.

    I think his approach is a fantastic one that really gets around the problems of social loafing, and helps to get quiet students to participate. A nice outline of the method is here:
    --> The video on this page is of a workshop VERY similar to the one I attended.

    Michaelsen's site is here:
    There are some interesting discussions in the video section.

    I'm just not sure yet how I would structure projects for the "applications of course concepts" part in an introduction course (I already have ideas for logic and ethics courses). I just need a little more time to think of it.

    I also think that it might be a good way to use Clickers (the instructor would need one for each of the groups in the course--which would be unwieldy in a large course).


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