evidence for collaboration
Here’s the scenario: Students are taking a chemical thermodynamics course. The instructor solicits clicker responses to a conceptually based multiple-choice question. Students answer individually, write a brief explanation in support of their answer, and indicate how confident they are that their answer is correct. They are then encouraged to discuss their answers with two or three (self-selected) other students. After that discussion, they have the opportunity to change their answer if they wish, write another explanation for the answer, and once again indicate their degree of confidence in their answer. Do you think that discussion would make a difference—particularly, would it make a difference in their understanding of the concept?
The evidence that students benefit when they talk about course content keeps mounting. In the study highlighted below, students in two sections of an introductory zoology course were learning about the physiological mechanisms of RU-486 and about emergency contraception medication. They learned about the topic in three 50-minute lecture periods. Students in both sections were given supplementary reading that reinforced the content, and they were encouraged to ask questions and discuss the content during lab. In addition, students in the experimental bioethics section read and discussed essays that addressed the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with use of emergency contraception. Students in the experimental section then discussed these readings. They managed the discussion, asking questions and raising the issues they wanted to talk about. The instructor intervened only when there was confusion about the content or when prompting and follow-up were needed to advance the discussion.
Although letting students work together on exam questions is still not a common instructional practice, it has been used more than might be expected and in a variety of ways. Sometimes students work together in groups; other times with a partner. Sometimes those groups are assembled by the instructor and sometimes students are allowed to select their partners or group members. Sometimes the groups share multiple exam experiences; other times they work collaboratively only once. Sometimes the group submits one exam with everyone in the group receiving that grade; other times students may talk about exam questions and answers but submit exams individually.
Students don’t always like working in groups. Ann Taylor, an associate professor of chemistry at Wabash College, had a class that was particularly vocal in their opposition. She asked for their top 10 reasons why students don’t want to work in groups and they offered this list (which I’ve edited slightly).
Have you ever used any sort of group testing activity? The approach is not without benefits. Most students find exams enormously stressful and abundant research documents that high levels of test anxiety can compromise performance. Said more bluntly, students can know the information, but be so anxious they can’t summon it for the exam. Letting students work together on test questions reduces that anxiety considerably. It could be a case of “misery loves company” or the “two heads are better than one” scenario.