April 9th, 2014

Creating Learning Environments that Help Students Stretch and Grow as Learners


The March 12, 2014 post raised issues about those students who really don’t want to work with others in groups … “lone wolves” as they’re called in the literature. Your responses raised a number of issues. I thought it might be worth exploring some of them a bit further.

Many of the comments defended the lone wolves, pointing out that their good academic performance could be compromised by having to work in a group. Did anyone comment about those social learners (whose existence is also well documented in the research) who do well working in groups? We require those students to spend time listening and learning alone, experiences that potentially compromise their academic performance.

There were also comments about introverted students. If you look at the references at the end of that post, I don’t think introverts and lone wolves are always one and the same. A lot of lone wolf behaviors aren’t all that introverted. However, I do understand and endorse current interest in introverts and our need to help them they find their places in active learning classrooms.

The issues raised by our exchange are larger than lone wolves, introverts, and groups. The diversity of learning needs present in every classroom (physical and virtual) confronts teachers with a sizeable challenge. How do you respond to different learning needs in shared learning spaces? The obvious answer is by providing a range of different learning experiences, not expecting learners always to demonstrate their mastery of the material in the same way.

  • But how balanced is our response?
  • Do we tend to require more learning experiences that mirror our preferred approaches to learning or those endorsed by virtue of being widely used?
  • Do we tend to favor learning approaches that work best for the bright, capable students?
  • How often do we select approaches in light of learning needs?
  • How regularly do we analyze our choices?

I’ve also been thinking about the extent to which learner preferences should be honored. Introverts will likely find their way to places and professions that don’t depend on group collaboration, but that doesn’t mean they never will have to work with others. And what about those students who would rather be told than have to read, is reading a skill they can do without? I guess I’m still of a mindset that college is the time to be developing a wide range of learning skills. It’s not about changing innate preferences, making introverts into extroverts, or turning hands-on-learners into abstract thinkers. It’s about equipping all students with skills that prepare them for a future of learning lots of different things under lots of different circumstances.

We already have a pretty strong educational commitment to taking students out of their comfort zones. We require them to learn content they don’t like or think they need to know. We make them work on skills they don’t have and do activities they don’t think they’re going to be very good at. Students with serious test anxiety still take tests. Shy and reticent students get called on in class. And some of us make introverts and lone wolves work in groups.

Most of the students we’re teaching aren’t particularly aware of themselves as learners. They don’t have strongly established learning identities. In others words, they still have much to learn about themselves as learners. Will that learning occur if we defer to preferences and let them learn as they think they learn best? How many of us had experiences in college where we developed an interest in content we’d never heard of and developed skills we never knew we had?

I think we owe it to our students to put them in environments that cause them to stretch and grow as learners. Those aren’t always comfortable places, but they are a necessary part of the process. I also think we should create classrooms that give all learners the best chance of succeeding. Everyone reaches for the same high standards, but there are different paths that lead to the top.

I like how that sounds in theory, but I’m not sure how it works out in practice. We respond to the diversity of learning needs in large classes as we teach multiple courses, continue our research, and provide service to our institutions and professions.

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  • Gerald Grow


    Teachers are often positioned between helping restricted students find greater freedom and helping self-directed students find greater discipline. And helping both expand their range of learning.

  • SED

    Good discussion. This is a balancing act, to be sure. Stretch the students, but don't cater. Offer new experiences, but don't demand that their preferences be abandoned. The pendulum is always in danger of swinging too far in one direction or the other. The conclusions here seem well balanced. I'm not sure that's the case in all the literature. Current trends seem to lean toward catering, in my view, and the absurdity parallels a football player who tells his coach, "I'd be an excellent player if we could play this game with chess pieces and a checkered board." In education, we sometimes need to have the fortitude to tell our constituents, "That's not the game we're playing."

  • Maria

    I completely agree with your statement that we need to provide them with the set of skills and make/help them grow. I rather them be uncomfortable but learn while they are still training that have to face the same situation when they are already in the professional world. I have encountered students very resistant to work in groups and we have discussed pros and cons of group work. It was required for my course so they had to do it. I learned that they don't have to like what they do and that my goal is just to show them that there is other ways you may need to achieve success, even if they are not your most comfortable situation. It is also my goal for those who do not want to work independently and always need to be in a group or guided. I think helping them to break that wall that they create is necessary for their personal growth.
    I can only see this approach in small portions of the course at a time. I want to expose them to different styles so I do different sections of the course in a different way. Some times it will favor some students and some times others but it will open new possibilities for the students or at least I want to see it in that way.

  • Kelley

    While I strongly agree with most of your article and with the general concept presented, I must take issue with one statement near the end, "Everyone reaches for the same high standards, but there are different paths that lead to the top." This may be a nice touchy-feely, politically correct, new-age sentiment, but it is simply not true. The belief ( or desperate hope) that this sentiment is true, is and has been contributing to the steady decline of the quality of our K12 education system in this country.

    Too many people are perfectly content with the status quo, desire only the mediocre, and dream of achievement without effort.

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  • Iris B

    Maryellen, thank you for this article. I agree with the general premise of the article, but I take slight issue with group work (and grading based on group work) within a certain context. Let me explain — Professors are aware that there are students without the drive, ability, and desire to contribute positively to their own individual learning experience, let alone a group learning one. I am all for group work if professors work a little harder and with more forethought to ensure that group assignments are truly experiences that motivate and enhance students, rather than purely frustrate. I am an adjunct professor and obviously am a proponent of the importance of different learning modalities, but when I know that I have students who are not properly engaging with my course (e.g., turn in assignments late, won't respond to MY attempts to communicate, or skip assignments altogether), I am not going to foist this behavior on other students in a group learning environment. I only ask that teachers consider these types of dynamics as the intent of group learning can be completely overridden by the actual experience of it. It is obvious that many, including myself, negatively reminisce on these type of experiences ourselves. Help me here — Am I wrong in expecting to see a certain level of mature learning behavior from students individually before introducing a group learning (AND grading) modality?

    • Akilah

      I was in a program that required group work, and the students received both a group grade and an individual grade. The individual grade took into account work finished as well as how they worked within the group.

    • Kelley

      I agree with what you are saying, Iris. Group work in the educational setting can be productive, engaging for the students and a great learning tool; but they need to be very well crafted and directed for many of the reasons you noted. In the work place, even with the anchor of a true real-world purpose for the group work, we encounter many of those same issues: Take-over dude, never show person, never produce person, and my personal favorite – the "I disagree with everybody and every thing" person. In an education environment that lacks that authentic anchor (yes, I know we try to make our projects authentic, but our students and we know better), those problems are only magnified. I am guessing from your last sentence that you teach K12, so I wanted to let you know that I work in the community and technical college environment and ours school's demographics have an average age of 37, and you won't find much maturity here, either.

  • mada

    Maryellen you indicated at the end that you like how it sounds in theory, but wonder how it is in practice. I'm towards the end of my graduate degree, and two of the program's mandatory courses require groupwork. It has been the worst experience of my academic path. I work with people in my salaried job with no problem, and my self-assessment is that I'm a bit of a social-introvert but an efficient communicator. When working on a graded project the following dynamics occur: there's always who somebody grabs the reins and "has no problem in doing more" essentially hogging the stage and dictating the outline. There are always previous affiliation dynamics, which again negatively impact the contribution of "outsiders".
    My conclusion from personal experience and from observing the results is that when group work is mandatory it is imbued with social injustice. If the grouping is to happen of its own accord, first the affiliation groups will form and those that join them are in an inferior status and their ideas are not readily accepted (they have to be grateful that they were accepted to the group). The second item is that when grouping is left to class dynamics, there will be an uneven distribution of talents and knowledge. The result is that there are groups with more abilities and groups with much less abilities–a skewed "pollination" scheme. Finally, there are those that enjoy being free-riders. My take is that groupwork should never be mandatory, and that any course that requires group work should be an optional course.

  • Nicola Winstanley

    Employers tell us that the ability to collaborate is one of the skills they value most highly. I think it's important, therefore, to teach students how to be in groups, not simply use group work to cover material through active learning. If being able to work effectively in a group is a learning outcome, then teach that skill. For instance, students can explore different group models. Teachers can supply class time for group organization, or even for working on the project. Following the group work, students should reflect on their group experience in some depth so they become better group participants in the future, and possibly the bulk of their grades for the project should rest on that reflection not on the material the group produces.

  • cmjohansen

    As a graduate student in an online program for MSN-Ed, this topic has been discussed in many of my classes. I prefer to work independently from others, and have successfully participated in many group projects for a paper and PPT presentation. I believe my preference to work independently stems from self-awareness, self-direction, self-motivation, and good schoolwork and study habits developed during my primary education years. I am also categorized by classmates and friends as a "brainiac", and find this amusing because it give me the impression that others have the concept that I don't need to work hard on my school assignments because I'm a "brainiac".

    Nothing could be farther from the truth because I work towards a goal of excellence in my academic papers and PPTs, and this requires spending time and effort to produce an excellent assignment. I am willing to make this commitment to myself and my academic journey, and I should be able to do so without having to deal with flack from classmates unwilling to make a similar commitment to their own academic journeys.

    It seems as though striving for academic excellence is not an acceptable academic goal for me to have if I want to have collaborative relationships with my classmates. The acceptable goal for many students of today seems to be to do as little as possible and get a good grade as the outcome. Mediocrity is the acceptable academic goal for many of my classmates, and I don't believe that students who strive for excellence in academic work should suffer resentment from other students who don't want to put in the time and effort required to earn a good grade.

  • Mimi

    When I reflect on my years as student in a formal classroom, I realize that I studied mostly on my own. However, I subsequently discovered that I learned better within a supportive group. I'm unsure whether you could have convinced me of that when I was a young college student. I was an introvert and lacked self-confidence. However, as I matured, I found that I could contribute as well as learn in a group setting.

  • Joyce Fischer

    The learning is uncomfortable at times. The discomfort promotes the growth. In groups, I learned be quiet and listen to others more. It has been significant in my growth both professionally and personally.

  • Cynthia Johansen


    I also believe that students who are not actively engaged in discussions may be using active listening and observation to learn from the observed interactions. I also believe there is a cultural component to this as well; as an undergraduate BSN student, I noticed this behavior occurred more in cultures that value women in a subordinate role to men. Another dynamic I discovered with my undergraduate BSN classmates is respect for their peers as a group, which means that one individual providing a response to the instructor is a selfish act that brings attention to the individual at the expense of the other group members.

    I also believe that many learners across age, gender, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic status simply enjoy the quiet solitude that enhances the learning process for students who prefer to study independently of others. As educators, we must be aware that we only scratch the surface of an individual we establish an instructor-and-student dyad, and understand that we will not be able to understand the life experiences that contributed to a student's preference to work independently of others. The same is true for our colleagues; we have relationships with each other that are developed because we are educators who network with colleagues. Everyone has additional roles beyond student and educator. For example, we are also sons, daughters, friends, siblings, parents, and grandparents to name a few roles we play that may not intersect with our work role as educators.

    This dialogue about group work and independent students reminds me of the issue of being left-handed instead of right-handed, which was the acceptable norm in my grade school days. I recall observing teachers force a left-handed student to write with the student's right-hand in front of the class, and the disastrous and traumatic fall-out from this practice on the student. In time, we recognized that some people are left-handed by nature, and stopped trying to make them into something they weren't to satisfy societal expectations of acceptable behavior in students.

    My MSN-Ed program ends in June 2014, and I will begin my journey as a nurse educator. My goal as a novice nurse educator will be to ensure the students in my class are learning the course material. To accomplish this goal, I understand the need to identify the learning style of each student, and use a variety of teaching methods that meet the students' learning needs. For me, part of each student's learning style includes the student's preference to work in groups, or to work independently. Group projects will become collaborative projects to facilitate collaboration among the members produces a paper or other deliverable. Above all, I will not force any student to fit into a role that is not the best fit for the student.

    I'm also very curious about the rationale for educators' concern about reaching out to "lone wolf" students and introverts. In my opinion, this is an attempt to "change" introverts into extroverts, just as we attempted to "change" a left-handed student into a right-handed student. A nurse educator has one purpose: to provide nursing students with the course material in a manner that facilitates learning in the students. It is the learning process of the individual student that facilitates "change" in the student, and nurse educators would better serve nursing students by providing nursing student room to grow academically without requiring conformity to be part of that process.