Collaboration helps to develop many of the key skills that will be required of students for their future success. Students can develop many of these so-called “soft skills,” or Essential Employability Skills, by engaging in group work and other forms of collaboration (Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development 2005). Collaboration leads to greater retention, improved student achievement, and increased self-esteem and metacognition, and it can be used to facilitate active learning and to promote inclusion by increasing contact among diverse groups (Bossert 1988; Bowman, Frame, and Kennette 2013; Hennessey 1999; Kennette and Frank 2010; Kramarski and Mevarech 2003; Rajaram and Pereira-Pasarin 2007; U.S. Department of Education 1992). Despite the many benefits of group work, instructors are sometimes hesitant to use it due to some of its well-known pitfalls (social loafing, disputes, individualized grading, student bemoaning, etc.).
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The line between collaboration and cheating is fuzzy. It’s still clear at the edges, but messy in the middle. When students are working in groups, searching for a solution to a problem, looking through possible answers for the best one, or sorting out material to include in a presentation, that’s collaboration. When one student in the group solves the problem and everyone else copies the answer, that’s cheating. When one student fails to deliver material she or he’s been assigned and the rest of the group covers, that’s cheating.
In this ongoing series focused on flipped and active-learning classrooms, we’re taking a deeper look into how to create successful learning experiences for students. We’ve examined how to encourage students to complete pre-class work, how to hold students accountable for pre-class work, and how to connect pre-class work to in-class activities. Now let’s focus on the challenge of managing the in-person learning environment.
Many college courses today incorporate some form of group assignment, such as a project, presentation, or a collaborative paper or report. However, instructors are frequently met with resistance from students who don’t like working in groups and don’t want their grade to be affected by peers who may not pull their weight. Nonetheless, research shows that there are many benefits to group work, in terms of both active learning and expanding teamwork skills. Other benefits include better communication skills, critical-thinking abilities, time management, problem-solving skills, cooperation, and reinforcement of knowledge (Forrest & Miller, 2003; Hammar Chiriac, 2014; Kilgo, Ezell, & Pascarella, 2015). Furthermore, since the use of work groups and teams in the workplace has increased, it is important for students to have prior experience in group work. Certainly, a collaborative attitude and the ability to work with others are important at most places of employment.
Is this situation at all like what you’re experiencing? Class sizes are steadily increasing, students need more opportunities to practice critical thinking skills, and you need to keep the amount of time devoted to grading under control. That was the situation facing a group of molecular biology and biochemistry professors teaching an advanced recombinant DNA course. They designed an interesting assessment alternative that addressed what they were experiencing.
Research on the effectiveness of Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL) continues to accumulate. In part, the findings are impressive because the method is highly prescribed, which means it’s being used similarly at a variety of institutions, with different student cohorts and in a range of fields, although most of the research on the method has been done in chemistry.
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.
Last week, a student named Mary visited me during my office hours and presented me with an interesting dilemma. In one of her classes, a professor had distributed a study guide with a series of questions to help the students prepare for an upcoming exam. Mary, being the millennial student that she is, decided to upload the study guide into Google Docs and invite the rest of the class to contribute to the document. Students answered the study guide questions from each of their individual notes and then refined the answers from their peers.
Glenda Hernandez Baca, professor/coordinator of teacher education at Montgomery College, Takoma Park Campus, encourages the use of collaborative learning throughout online courses. In an interview with Online Classroom, she offered the following ideas for facilitating collaborative learning in group projects and in threaded discussions:
When you first start teaching online, there’s the temptation to put on your Superman cape and try be ultra responsive and ever-present. So intent on ensuring that each and every student has a successful learning experience in your class, you answer student emails at any hour of the day or night, respond to every discussion board post, and design elaborate assignments that take advantage of all the latest technology tools available.