It's been a while since I blogged about teaching, but for once I find myself with a little time so I shall use it to think about a class I taught today. I am teaching a fourth year/MSC course which requires a lot of group work which the students hate. Last year I had a weekly litany of studenty woes, with people weeping in my office regular as clockwork. People get frustrated about their group members for a variety of reasons, but it is a valuable skill for our graduates to have, so we can't just leave them to stew in their own isolated juices (what a curious metaphor). So how to help the students manage group interactions better?
I was reminded of the work on co-operative learning recently when I heard a teacher give a talk about it. If you plan co-operative learning carefully through structuring tasks in the right way you can promote positive interdependence. That is, the group sinks or swims together. If you make the task difficult or effortful enough the students realise they can't do it by themselves. They can only do it if everyone contributes, and so they have a vested interest in helping other group members succeed. There are various structured exercises around this (and a whole nice set of teaching patterns ). The one I used today was Formulate-Listen-Share-Create. I used it for an interface design task. The students individually formulated their own design ideas, then listened as group members presented them in turn and shared their ideas. Then they created a design as a group based on everyone's input. I insisted on the individual work first to ensure more equal participation in the subsequent discussion. During the discussion I gave each group member 5 opal fruits (sweets/candy for those without a sweet-toothed childhood in the UK). Every time a student took a turn to speak, they paid one of their opal fruits into the centre of the table. Once their 5 opal fruits ran out they were meant to remain silent until all the other group members had used their 5 sweets. At that point they could eat the sweets and talk as much or as little as they wanted.
I think this worked quite well for a group forming phase. It made them conscious of their input to the group but in a fun way (and they could laugh at me for coming up with such a stupid idea which is always good). I found it extremely useful because I could see at a glance how quickly people were exchanging ideas (sweets used up quickly), or if individuals talked too much (sweets used up quickly), or if some people were shy (5 sweets left when everyone else had finished). It's a good visual representation of group process for the instructor. The idea is that the other students encourage the people with sweets left to join in. This worked to some extent, although I was slightly concerned about the pressure it put on very shy people.At any rate, the groups did seem to work well together for the most part even although they had not all worked together before. Watch this space for further tales of(hopefully not pathalogical) group work later in the semester.