Fostering Collaborative Critical Thinking through Online Group Quizzes

Looking for a way to get your students to collaborate and think critically? Consider group quizzes, a technique that Ida Jones uses in her business law courses at California State University, Fresno.

Jones divides the class into groups of no more than six. “I want students to feel that they have a commitment to each other to do the work so they can learn together,” Jones says. In addition to building a learning community, Jones wants her students to engage in active learning. “I want students to become engaged in learning so that they own the whole learning process rather than me as the instructor telling them, ‘This is what you are supposed to learn.’ I want to structure the classroom so that students are involved and engaged in active learning.”

To that end, Jones sets up group quizzes so that students have to explain concepts to each other, which research suggests helps learning.

Part of that teaching process is posting comments and reading what other students have posted and critiquing or adding to them. To accomplish this Jones clearly articulates her expectations in the grading rubric. An individual student’s quiz grade is not based solely on the content that the student submits individually but also on whether the student provides constructive feedback to other students. “I start with the grading, which is always the hard part—figuring out how you want to structure the grading so that it matches what I hope to get out of the exercise,” Jones says. One way that Jones helps students meet her expectations is to provide examples of what a well-done finished product looks like.

Not all students pick up on this approach immediately so she sends individual emails to students, reminding them if they haven’t posted to the group discussion board and providing other feedback. “Especially in the first couple of weeks of the semester I spend a lot of time emailing students individually about their comments. If they post a comment and it’s a definition I probably won’t say anything, but if someone posts a comment as a response to the definition then I’ll post a comment and send an email to students who posted additional comments, saying, ‘That was a good comment. Was there anything else you would like to add?’ I spend a lot of time behind the scenes encouraging students to participate. Then at the end of the first quiz I post a summary of how the group did and ask group members what they will do differently the next time so that they can succeed. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really exciting to watch the groups form and work well together,” Jones says.

When a group works well together, they help each other and pay attention to group processes such as internal (group-established) deadlines. Jones makes it a point to foster collaboration rather than competitiveness among her students. “I want them to think about what they have contributed to the group individually and then work on contributing even more. Part of the learning process is learning from what you did and then improving how you worked so the next time you do it you do an even better job. I really want students to feel a sense of commitment to the success of the other students in the group as well as contributing to their own success,” Jones says.

Thus far, Jones has found that this structure has reduced the issue of social loafing. “As part of the group quizzes, if someone doesn’t contribute they couldn’t just take the group’s answer and use it to answer the quiz questions. So there was this sense that they were really working together, and they were contributing equally. That’s why it was so successful.”

Jones does not place restrictions on how students collaborate, but students typically work on the discussion boards. “If they decided they really wanted to spend time on the phone or send emails that I couldn’t see, I would have to step in and say, ‘I’ll have to have a copy of them because I’m evaluating your performance based on your contributions, and I can’t see your contributions if you’re doing them some way other than on the discussion board.’ I have also given them the option of using the virtual [synchronous] classroom. My undergraduate students haven’t taken advantage of that, but the graduate students have,” Jones says.

Based on a 2008 survey, Jones’s students have had positive feedback regarding the group online quizzes. Among the findings of this survey:

  • 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed that group quizzes were an effective way to learn the material.
  • 69 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the members of the group helped to keep them participating in productive dialogue.
  • 80 percent of the students agreed that the members of the group were helpful in identifying areas of agreement and disagreement on course topics in a way that helped them learn.

Excerpted from “Group Quizzes—a Strategy for Fostering Collaborative Critical Thinking.” Online Classroom (Oct. 2010): 5,8. Print.