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18 December 2011

Group work and in-class problem solving

How do you arrange for effective group work in class?
Last week, at the tail end of my class's study of static fluids, I had to miss a class for a debate tournament.  I decided to borrow a page from my colleague Curtis Phillips, who has been patiently teaching freshmen how to collaborate effectively in physics.  Occasionally, he puts his students in pre-assigned "pods" of three desks each, and assigns a problem for the class to work on.  He collects the assignment from everyone; however, he randomly chooses a single paper from each pod to grade.  All three members of the pod earn whatever score is earned by the random paper.

Now, I remember being furious at such arrangements in middle and high school.  Too often, I'd get an idiot in my group who didn't give a rip, and so was unwilling even to make an attempt; or occasionally I'd have a "partner" who enjoyed doing a poor job just to make me angry at him -- he didn't care about a silly score on a class assignment, but he thoroughly enjoyed watching me blow my top, then impotently appeal to the teacher for help.

And there lay the problem with such an approach.  The teachers who attempted this "group learning" method were not invested in the idea -- I found out that these teachers had been directed from above that they were to employ group learning methods, which of course would improve the performance of the lower-end students.  In practice, the teacher would assign the assignment and then sit at her desk grading papers.  My complaints about disinvested students fell on deaf ears... "I'm sorry, Greg," the teacher would say condescendingly.  "In the working world you will be forced to deal with different types of people.  You must learn to get along."*

* In the working world, of course, the analogous situation would result in either (a) the idiot being fired by a competent boss, or (b) me leaving for a different job where the employees and bosses do their respective jobs.  Interestingly, now that I've been in the "working world" for a quarter-century, I've been involved with both situations (a) and (b). 

Despite my own crapulent experiences with "group learning," the approach Curtis proposed can be sound.  The teacher simply must, must, must be personally invested in the students' work.  

I have seen Curtis perform his magic.  His groups of three are usually either hunched over, hard at work; or they are engaged in animated discussion.  And where's Curtis?  In the middle of the room, his wide eyes manically scanning the class as if he were at Helm's Deep watching for the approaching Orc army.  A student slumps in his desk; Curtis asks him a question about the problem.  A student starts talking about the upcoming semiformal; Curtis's adroit verbal manipulation lets him know, in so many words, to shut up and get back to work.

More importantly, he has no tolerance for the student who just doesn't care.  Now, you can propose what to do with such a student.  Give him an automatic F; remove him from the classroom; call his advisor or his parents; give him 50 lashes with a wet noodle.  I honestly don't know what Curtis would do with such a student, and neither does his class.  Everyone knows that Curtis has nuclear tools at his willing disposal, and so they try to avoid making Curtis resort to them.

But effectively moderating a problem solving session requires more than just a state trooper-style presence.  Especially since he teaches freshmen, Curtis is continually teaching the students how to collaborate effectively.  He's showing them skills we take for granted in our own or our seniors' academic lives.  For example, he'll say, "You look like you're stuck.  You haven't written anything down for ten minutes.  Why not ask your neighbor there for help?"  Or, "Okay, Joe, you've told John how to do the problem.  Now, John, you try it for a few minutes by yourself.  Don't ask Joe for help again until you are well and truly stuck."  Or even, "All three of you are working together.  So you should either all have the same final answer, or you should be arguing vehemently.  Which is it gonna be?"

What I did: In my own 11th and 12th grade college-level class, I gave them a fun problem (see the post about the soda bottle raft.)  I insisted that everyone work silently for 5 minutes until everyone had written down a reasonable approach.  After 5 minutes, collaboration was unlimited amongst the entire class.  They were told that I would collect a problem from everyone, but that I would grade only one, chosen randomly.  Everyone would earn the same score.

Afterward, I graded the randomly-chosen problem, cut off the student's name, and posted his work on the bulletin board with the grade.  Two of my sections earned essentially full credit.  One section earned just 1/10, though.  And interestingly, that student's work has been simply fabulous over the past week -- I think he took a bit of ribbing from his friends.

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