Wednesday, January 7, 2009

'On Course,' Part 6: Teaching with Small Groups

I consistently use small groups in my classes, but share some of the skepticism about their value alluded to by Lang at the beginning of the chapter. I have wondered whether there is much value in such work, and have seen the discomfort it produces for some students. In this chapter, Lang offers an argument in favor of the value of small groups, as well as some very useful practical advice related to this form of collaborative learning.

Lang offers three reasons in support of teaching with small groups. First, it helps prepare our students for their future careers. It is very likely that they will need the type of communication and interaction skills that are potentially developed in small group work. I think this is an important point. Given that the vast majority of our students (or at least my students) will not go to graduate school in philosophy or another discipline, it seems that we are obligated to help prepare them for what they will do after graduation. Second, Lang claims that there is research which shows that collaborative learning is an effective teaching method and fosters student retention better than other instructional methods, especially for those students at the lower end of the grade range. Third, Lang argues that by engaging in small group work, students gain a better understanding of the nature of knowledge. On p. 109, he states that "Collaborative learning...models for students the idea that we construct knowledge together, and thus that they can construct knowledge together in their small groups."

Some philosophers would object to the third point above, if they are anti-constructivists about knowledge (as I am). For someone who holds to a version of the correspondence theory of truth and some sort of fallibilistic foundationalism (as I do), there is value in small groups. Students can come to see that collaborative learning is conducive to discovering truth, or at least getting closer to discovering it. Knowledge is best pursued in community, so to speak.

With respect to the practical advice offered in the chapter, I will highlight a few points that seem particularly relevant:
-Some small group work should be designed that requires students to practice the skills that they will need on other assignments and tests. In the philosophy classroom, this could involve students evaluating an argument in groups, or constructing an argument for or against some position. I often emphasize this to my students, in order to provide motivation for being an active participant. If they believe it will help them on their papers and exams, they are more likely to actually work in their groups.
-The instructor should provide supervision, but it should be minimal in order to prevent the groups from feeling inhibited by the presence of the instructor (pp. 114-115 provide specific advice on the types of situations that may arise and how to deal with them).
-Instructors need to provide some type of feedback, or engage in some sort of processing of the results of group work. I find that this is important, so that students feel that small group work is not mere "busy work".
-It is important to give formal groups, such as a group working together over a period of time on a presentation for the class, time to work together in class. I did this once when I required a group presentation of all of my students in an environmental ethics class, and students were appreciative of the in-class time.

Finally, I'd like to suggest a couple of resources that many may already be familiar with, but which I've found useful. I occasionally set aside 15-20 minutes of class time for case studies in small groups, and have found the book Morality Play, and this section of Ethics Updates to be useful.


  1. Mike,

    Thanks for your post. There's certainly been a vogue for small groups in higher ed in recent years, but as with any technique, it's far from foolproof. I think the main problem with group work is that very often students are not given a clear sense of the task being given them and how the task relates to the larger learning objectives of the course. There's a tendency to not give enough structure to group activities, in my estimation. It certainly won't do simply to assemble groups and tell them to "discuss"! So I've tried be conscientious about making small group activities have an objective that students can appreciate. This also helps them to see that group work isn't supposed to be just a diversion from other class activities ("busy work" as you say) but is supposed to be a worthwhile learning activity in its own right.

    I think one of the great advantages is that small groups get students communicating who are otherwise reticent. If a student who is unwilling to speak in the full class is also unwilling to speak in a group with 3-4 other students, then the instructor is up against something that he or she can't be expected to tackle.

  2. Thanks for the post, Mike. I also balked at Lang's statement that we "construct knowledge together," though I appreciated his larger point in that passage: group work helps students see that we learn by figuring things out, not by hearing things from someone else.

    In my experience, one of the most important things you can do to ensure that a group activity is successful is to ask the group to make a collective decision, judgment, or product at the end of the activity—and make it clear from the beginning what that product is and how it will be shared with the group. It helps students understand what they're supposed to be doing.

    I've also found it useful to put basic directions for the activity on the board or overhead and leave them there throughout the activity, so that students can refer back to them.

    BTW, there's an article in the New York Times about MIT turning Intro to Physics into an entirely small group course.


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