May 4, 2009

Reflecting on Collaborative Learning

A few weeks ago I had a tantrum about having to work with others in my grad class. Pat over at Successful Teaching asked about what the instructor could do to iron out some of the problems. She's going to be teaching grad classes this summer, so it looks like my issues gave her some food for thought.

Collaborative learning is one of those areas where I have a love/hate relationship. I believe that my students should learn to work together, and in the English classroom having students work together is a justifiable practice in communication. I tell my students, "You have to learn to communicate and work with others. This is a life skill." I mean it, too.

But, it is a pain for sure! No matter what I do to form groups, there is always inequality. There is the person who does more. There is the person who does little if nothing. There is the person who is too shy to say anything. There is the person who doesn't care. There's the person who takes everything home to "finish up" and then doesn't come to school for three days.

And there are the complaints. Group members who hate each other. Disgruntled worker bees who hate having to do all the work while others get credit. Parents of worker bees who think it's unfair that their students are doing all the work.

And how do you evaluate those situations?

One of my colleagues uses self and group evaluation forms. At the end of the project, students reflect on what they have done in relation to what their group mates have done. The collaborative projects she does in her class usually have checklists where each student is responsible for providing something. These methods hold students accountable and if nothing else gives them an opportunity to rat our their lazy group mates.

Making decision about grades based on self and group evaluation is still a complicated business, though. Group members do not always assess themselves accurately.

Over the years I've all but abandoned collaborative projects where the failure of a group could cause the failure of a student. It's a bit tricky considering I work in a school and program that encourages collaboration.

I haven't completely abandoned collaboration, though.

I try to build in collaborate activities once a week, and often those activities are in the form of group discussion. Students bring their ideas to a small group, as a group they share and synthesize, and later they might choose to share out as a whole group. This often occurs with homework review or in sharing writing. This isn't even a graded activity. It's often simply a way for me to make sure that every student shares their ideas and work in a situation where sharing with the whole class isn't feasible.

Other times, I ask students to create small assignments. These assignments are pretty quick and dirty, so students have little time to fret about who is and isn't doing work, and ideally, the assignment has parts enough for each student to do something. For example, we recently addressed persuasive techniques in the class. I had two activities:
  • In the opening activity, I randomly divided students into groups and told them they had 10 minutes to create a presentation where they had to persuade me that their groups deserved to earn a prize. The prize was a forgiveness pass--that is, a pass where they could have missing assignment forgiven. High engagement, low risk. Winners got a reward. Everyone else had a learning opportunity, as we held a class discussion about what the winners did that was so convincing.
  • In another activity, I again randomly divided students into groups of 4 and assigned each group a persuasive technique to research. (Like emotional appeal, band wagon, etc.) Students had one class period to create a poster that defined the technique they were given and gave three examples that teens would understand. They also had to create a 1 minute skit that demonstrated the technique. This required that students had to communicate what they researched with each other, but there were enough tasks that everyone really needed to do something to finish on time.
In the second activity, students probably deserved to earn some sort of grade. Perhaps a participation grade? Honestly, though, the students wouldn't even miss the grade. It was a learning activity that was a lot more interesting than me showing a PowerPoint presentation where they took notes--and I would not have given points for their notes, either!

If I were to assess what students learned about persuasive techniques, I would give individual assessments. Each student had an opportunity to learn about a specific technique. Each students had an opportunity to learn about other techniques by watching the presentations. If I really wanted to know what they learned, it would have to be assessed individually.

Since my nightmare group experience in my grad class, I have been thinking about how I'd like to see collaboration used in my own classroom. Over the years, collaboration has come to be used for low-key, low-risk-to-grades assignments. I'm not going to lie when I say it's because I don't like the hassle from students and parents about the inequality of grading. Unconsciously, this is what collaboration has come to in my classroom.

What I'd like to do is consciously do more reflecting on my collaboration practices and use it even more in my classroom.

At this point, I think students should collaborate to enhance their learning and thinking. Discovery and discussion are excellent uses for collaboration. Assessment of knowledge should be individual. It can be formally on a test, or it could be informally in a reflective journal. But in the end, students need to take responsibility in their own learning. Collaboration is an opportunity to learn. What one takes from it is personal.

Any thoughts?

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