Tuesday, September 6, 2011

'Interaction,' experts, and learners

One of my reservations about group work (and many other techniques that turn on students interacting with students) is that there's a fair amount of evidence that when non-experts interact with other non-experts, learning suffers. Faculty Focus reports on a study of interaction in online courses:

The value placed on interaction in a course is second nature to anyone familiar with student development and pedagogical theory. The authors note that five of the seven principles identified by Chickering and Gamson relate to interaction in learning. (These include high levels of contact “between students and faculty, reciprocity and cooperation among students, prompt feedback, emphasis on time on task, and communication of high expectations.”)

However, as time has passed, some research has begun to question the value of interaction, suggesting that there could be too much interaction required in a course. Summarizing 2007 findings by Arbaugh and Rau, the authors report, “learner-instructor interaction had the strongest correlation with perceived learning; learner-learner interaction actually had a negative correlation with delivery medium satisfaction. The more participants a learner had to pay attention to, the less satisfaction they had with the learning environment.”

It is possible, in other words, that requiring students to read and respond to posts and conversations from many different classmates may actually cause a good deal of frustration and dissatisfaction with the course experience. 
To me, this captures a lot of what students tell me they dislike about discussion, group work, peer collaboration, and the like. A conscientious student tries to mimic expert performances (which, as we know, is tricky and can give rise to the illusion of understanding), but with lots of non-expert voices in her midst, how can she distinguish expert guidance from non-expert guidance that is likely to stymie learning? And as we noted in our discussions of Academically Adrift, studying alone seems more productive than study groups.

In today's climate, we're encouraged to be 'student-centered,' which is often misinterpreted as a simple imperative not to lecture. But the important truth behind 'student-centeredness' is that we learn more when we discover via engagement than when we are told something passively. Student-student interaction, done well, fosters engagement and discovery.

But there's the rub: done well. As we've discussed here before, there is an art to leading discussion or organizing students for group work. What these studies about student-student interaction tell us is that a central element of these arts is how to integrate the student-student interaction, which is supposed to bring about engagement and discovery, with a role for the instructor as expert guide, so as to ensure that the student-student interaction generates something more than an echo chamber of misinformation and misunderstanding.

So how do we do that — what can we philosophy instructors do to create environments of guided discovery? How do you do it?


  1. I believe what these studies about group work online are about is supporting online education where the student memorizes material and is never challenged by anyone to have an original thought. I've been told by proponents of online courses that the teacher develops a closer relationship with students online than they would in the classroom. Really? What kind of piss-poor relationship did such teachers have with the people they were talking to face to face. —Sorry. I know I've failed to address the question. But it's Twain three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sometimes it's too easy to prove what we want to believe.

  2. My first reaction? They're only reporting on "perceived learning" and "delivery medium satisfaction." Do we have reason to think that this is related to ACTUAL learning? It seems that this is exactly what we would expect students to report if they were at the Dualist stage of Perry's Intellectual Development scale. They think the teacher has all the answers and that's all there interested in--not in thinking not in learning.

    That said, I think that too much group work/student interaction is done very poorly. I'm not teaching at the moment, but I do work with college professors, and we have a lot of people (including philosophy professors) using Team Based Learning to increase student engagement with the course (in particular with large courses).

    TBL isn't for everyone, but some of the focus there is that groups have to PRODUCE something--a statement, a particular answer, a decision. That can then be given a formative assessment by the instructor. There are four things emphasized in team work (the 4 Ss): Signigicant problem, Same problem, Specific Choice, Simulateous Report. The problem should be a legitimate application of ideas (significant), all of the groups should work on the same problem, they should make a specific choice and report out simultaneously (using cards with letters on them for a MC question, or some # of teams writing answers on the board at the same time). By having to come to a specific choice, they have to talk about the reasoning and the details of the topic. By simultaneously reporting, they become quite interested in what other groups wrote--and it avoids the dread "we said the same thing they said." It actually is interesting when a large percentage of the groups say the same thing. As groups defend their choices, the instructor has the opportunity to correct mistakes and add additional material. Student interest is higher then, because the mini-lecture is relevant to something they did.


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