Monday, September 19, 2016

Pondering assigning groupwork...

The summer semester is over!  Well, it's been over for several weeks now and the fall semester is in full swing, but I am not teaching this semester (focusing more on projects that have been on the back-burner for a while). Taking a break from teaching actually makes me think more about teaching in an odd way (I guess out of sight, but not out of mind).

One of the courses that I teach is an intro course to instructional design and learning technology (INSDSG 601, or just 601).  Since this is a course that introduces students not only to the discipline, but also to the program of study at my university I though that it would be a good idea to give students some foundations in group work since this is something that they will encounter both in the "real" (aka working) world, but also in subsequent courses in the program and they need to be able to work effectively with one another.

The way the course assignments work is that there is a big project that last the entire semester which is individual, and there are several (4) smaller projects that are team-based.  These are a jigsaw activity and it allows students to become experts in one smaller area and teach others about it.

The first time around (summer 2015) I had students switching teams throughout the semester.  The idea was to give students more choice as to their group projects and the groups would be self-forming that way. The feedback that I got was that this was tiring to the students. I think that forming/performing/adjourning 4 groups during the span of 13 weeks was tiring, and it also didn't give students the space to actually get to know people beyond the scope of the project (which would have been useful as peer review for their projects!)

This past summer, I changed things up a bit and I formed the groups myself (an idea I picked up from Rebecca H.). Luckily I seemed to have a balanced group of K-12, Higher Education, and Corporate students in the class which made group creating a little easier. Taken one of each, wherever possible, and create a group. This way groups needed to negotiate which topics they wanted to be undertake as a group which potentially limited choice of topics for individual students, but on the plus side they got to know their team-mates, and there were semester-long pods which could in theory support peer review throughout the semester.  I didn't require it for grading, so I wanted to see if groups just shared individual semester projects amongst each other for review.

This worked out OK.  I would say that 50% of the class loved their teams...and 50% either passively disliked (you know, the mild groan) or actively disliked their team-mates. Whereas in the first attempt (2015) people seemed tired of the process, this second try at teamwork made people either love or hate their team-mates.  Those who loved their team-mates seemed to coordinate future classes together, and those who hated their collaborations...well, I didn't hear much more about it from their weekly reflections.  Those who seemed to dislike groupwork also had things happen in their groups; some things which were just not avoidable, like "like happens!" type of things, like unexpected family or work things.

One of the things that came up in both positive and negative experiences relates to empathy. In some cases of teams that didn't work out well, I got the sense that people were thinking along the following lines "I get that xyz happened to  student_name but that's does not concern me much, I am here to learn abc and I've got my own problems to deal with, so too bad for them, but I need to be done with some project here".  I think that if students could empathize more with one another they wouldn't have such negative reactions to groupwork.  On the other spectrum, even in well functioning groups, I got the sense that there were some people who had more time than others (just 'cause), so they tended to overwhelm the rest of the group with their eager excitedness.  That's cool (I like eager people!  I relate to them :-) ), but  at the same time it can create this feeling among some group members that they aren't performing at the level they should. The group level performance is much higher than what the project requires and this can create feelings of not failing your team-mates.  I think this is an empathy issue too.

While, on the whole, I think if I were able to control for those (uncontrollable) life issues, I think creating groupwork-pods for the semester worked out better.  But I am still looking to tweak the group experience in the course.  How do we increase communication, understanding, and empathy?  Do I require groups to meet weekly and submit meeting minutes (to make sure that they met)? Do I undertake a role-play at the beginning of the semester in a live session to increase empathy? And, how can groups be leveraged to support their fellow team-mates who might be falling behind for reasons that exist both inside or outside of class?


Thoughts?
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