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07 August 2011

Rules for Turning In Daily Work: The secret to effective collaboration

Solitude... the counterintuitive secret to effective collaboration.
Ever have a student miss every part of a homework problem because his free body diagram was incorrect?

Ever have a student ask, "How were we supposed to do the problem when you didn't give us the mass?"

The relevant question for these students is, "With what other student(s) did you discuss the homework problem?"
So many folks knowledgable about learning physics will emphasize the benefits of collaboration.  I have my own story about how the only A I earned in an undergraduate physics course -- I worked on the weekly assignments myself on Sunday night, then I had four separate scheduled meetings with four different other students during the week.  By Thursday night, I was so familiar with the problems that I was providing cogent explanations to the procrastinators.  These folks thought me to be really talented at advanced quantum physics; Thomas and Jen, who worked with me on Monday and Tuesday, knew better. 

I'm sure you have your own story about how you or an acquaintance discovered the usefulness of regular collaboration in learning physics.  Our challenge, as physics teachers, is to push our students toward their own epiphany sooner rather than later.

In recent years I've taken the bull by the horns, and simply required nightly collaboration.  Students must write down the name of the student(s) with whom they discussed the problems, or at least checked their answers.  No collaboration = not full credit.  Such a requirement is easily workable in a boarding school, where a classmate is guaranteed to live no more than 15 yards away.  It's workable in a day school, too, in the age of email and social media.  Discussion via facebook or twitter is okay by me.

Many readers, at this point, are staring at their computer screens skepticipickly.  "Sure, Greg, let's *encourage* our students to copy each others' answers.  Who cares about academic integrity, anyway!"  Ah, but read on... the secret to encouraging effective collaboration is...

...stringently requiring a brief, written, *individual* effort before beginning collaboration. 

Without guidance, students interpret "collaboration" as, "sit down in a group and let the smart guy tell us how to do the problems."  Just a few minutes of serious, solitary work -- reading and processing the questions, writing down the relevant equation, attempting to answer the first part -- provide significant context for later discussions.  Now the smart guy is going to face questions from his or her peers:  "Okay, I didn't think to try using energy conservation.  How did you figure that out?"  Or, possibly opposition:  "Didn't Mr. Lipshutz tell us that kinematics isn't valid here, 'cause acceleration is not constant?"  Since everyone has had a chance to process the questions, even those students who don't see physics instantly will develop confidence in their abilities. 

It's hard for someone to cheat on homework if he or she has put forth individual effort before collaborating.  The context for the solution was established by the individual work; other students are merely helping to fill in the details.  It is critical that the teacher avoid the appearance of being the cheating police.  Always assume good faith... I screwed up royally one year when I got overly frustrated with the couple of students who worked too closely together.  Sure, they cheated -- but by publicly expressing my anger and disappointment, I deterred all the honest and earnest students from legitamate collaboration for fear of punishment.  When a pair of students are working too closely together, talk to both of them quietly, and patiently help them understand your expectations -- even if you believe that they're willfully cheating.  Only go into punitive mode when the same students have three or four times openly defied you.  The goodwill you buy with the rest of the class is worth the occasional dumbarse who thinks he's getting away with something.

Fair enough, Greg, you say, but how in the *heck* can I enforce a serious individual effort?  Most of my students will not put forth that individual effort at home, and we're back to the smart guy carrying everyone through the course.

An effective day-school approach, described by several summer institute participants over the years, is to give studnets the last five or ten minutes of class to begin that night's problems, with no discussion or questions allowed.  When class is over, each student's "ticket out the door" is to show you his or her written progress.  You're not looking for correctness, and you're not offering suggestions or criticism.  No, you're just looking for some sort of physics-related writing on a page.  Early in the year, you might see simply the diagram redrawn and the problem rewritten -- fine.  As the course progresses, your expectations might also progress to seeing a relevant equation or principle written down.

I draw a red vertical line down the page on which I pose the nightly problem sets.  Individual work is required on the left; collaborative work goes on the right of the line.  I only grade the final answer, so incorrect individual work is not penalized.  Other methods can be developed as well -- let me know if you have a useful way to promote individual and collaborative work on nightly problems.

I've been most pleased over the years at the bonding that goes on among my students.  Since they have to work with each other, odd pairings sometimes emerge, leading to friendships.  Most importantly, though, discussions about problems with me can focus on settling arguments between collaborators, not on re-teaching yesterday's lesson.



  1. I think that my son, who is really looking forward to taking AP physics next year, would end up dropping the class if required to do nightly collaboration. Even weekly would be pushing his limits. He can collaborate with others when it is appropriate (he's been heavily involved in theater for 10 years), but prefers to do problem solving mostly by himself.

    And "Facebook" and "Twitter" are no solution---he doesn't use either and has no interest in doing so.

    Perhaps your boarding school selects for only very social kids, and those who have strong preferences for working alone do not apply to attend. That's fine (as long as prospective students and parents know what is coming), but I sure hope that the AP Physics teachers at my son's public school don't do the forced fake collaboration thing.

  2. Woah there... "forced fake collaboration?" That's a bit out there. It's totally fine to use different methods, or to tell me that you don't think mine will work in other situations. But it ain't fake, and it works.

    I understand that your son wants to work alone, and that's fine to start with. Are you saying he's not willing to check his answers with a friend before class? That he never asks *you* a question? (Collaboration with other faculty counts, or with students at another school.) That's all I'm asking for.

    What is your son going to do when he gets stuck on a problem? On one hand, he could stare at it for an hour and get frustrated. On the other, he could put it away until he has a chance to real quick ask someone, anyone, what to do next. That's collaboration.

    While I respect your skepticism, I'd be able to put you in touch with a large number of former students who were similiarly skeptical... and who were totally sold once they finished the course.


  3. I had a parent at one of last year's parent-teacher nights come up and ask me about their college students course load. I confirmed for them that in Physics (esp. college), it is acceptable for a group of people to spend hours on less than five problems. They were shocked!

    BTW love the 5-10 min exit idea. I do believe I'll be trying this this year in AP (with possible rollout elsewhere...)

  4. A simple well-designed quiz (2-4 justification/mc questions) based on the key concepts of the homework given the following day has worked well for me. It takes 2 minutes and I do it randomly, maybe twice a week at the beginning of the school year, less as it goes on. My students quickly learn that they are responsible for their own learning and will make the effort to collaborate properly.