Wednesday, June 07, 2017
The Groupwork Dilemma
Also remember that, even if the district is good, the teachers are not all of the same quality or that one is just burned out and doesn't care what happens during the last week of school.
I agree with CCPhysicist on #2. A colleague pointed me to the methods described in this article, "Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams" by Oakley, Brent, Felder, and Elhajj.
Specifically, I have the students submit peer evaluations that I use in a spreadsheet that is similar to what is shown on p 23 of the linked pdf file. Including a mandatory "comment" field (in which students explain why they assign a teammate or themselves a ranking of excellent, very good, good, etc. has led to peer reviews that usually seem honest. Team members who do a bit of the work get a higher score, and team members who annoy others by not doing work end up with a lower score.
The scores get a bit skewed if one person does a large fraction of the work _and_ the team gets a high grade.
Setting up the spreadsheet is quite annoying the first time, but copying it for reuse is (relatively) easy.
You do really put students in a bind if you ask them to rat on other students. They still have to deal with the people they give negative reviews to in other classes and so they have to decide whether it's worth the hassle to have one of their classmates offside with them or instead curry some favor by giving a more positive review then deserved.
I'm not personally in favor of group projects unless the tasks are clearly delineated and there are lots of check-in points with the grader to make sure that the work is being completed.
1. The group decides who does what. I ask them to identify their individual strengths and use those strengths to develop a strong project. I have found that if you require students to do something that they do not know how to do (create PowerPoint slides) or something they do not feel comfortable with (public speaking), they are less likely to participate at all. If developing those skills are important, we work on those at the individual level, not in a group project.
2. Half of the grade comes from peer evaluation. I have found that students have no problem accurately describing the contributions of their group members. I have had no one complain about a low grade on participation. If a students participates, the others usually give them a high grade. If they don't, there are multiple students providing corroborating evidence about their lack of participation.
3. Students may get kicked out of a group for not doing the work. However, the participating group members are required to discuss the issues with the nonparticipating member prior to giving them the boot. This usually takes care of the problem because the nonparticipating member would be required to complete a project on their own if they were to be kicked out. Few want to do that.
Groupwork is difficult. But, group work is part of most professional's work experience and we need to learn how to deal with those who do little to nothing. I tell my students that they will be dealing with these kinds of people for the rest of their professional lives, so figuring out productive ways to deal with them now will make their work lives easier later.
I think the problems usually stem from the way that instructors build their group assignments. It's not appropriate to expect a group of middle school students to police each others' behavior. That's part of a teacher's role. I'd argue that this extends through high school and, yes, into undergrad work. So if the instructor is trying to "teach" group work, the assignments need to be structured to reinforce *that* rather than emphasizing content mastery or presentation skills or etc. And the grading needs to be based on observable group-working outcomes, not content outcomes. That's where the problem comes in. With respect to Cynthia Reeves above, I think it's not the responsibility of the students to figure out how to handle each others' behavior. It's the responsibility of the instructor to set clear expectations, monitor progress toward those expectations, and address students who aren't meeting them.
For the specific case of the chatty boys, I would recommend TG go to the teacher and point out the acute issue for her friend. (as an aside- I would recommend to *not* address the differential handling of misbehavior/"saltiness". However you might mention to TG that teachers *have* to come down harder on saltiness that is likely to subvert the class more... which means that the more *on the nose* your saltiness is, the more need for the authority to shut it down).
The teacher should realize that the kids can see what is happening here. The critique of the contributions of certain group members might mean more to the teacher coming from an impartial third party, and really TG should make sure she understands the teacher's pedagogy here. Is the goal to accomplish a more complicated final product than any one could do alone? Is it to learn to "get along" in groups? Is it to learn to *participate* as a group? Each suggests slightly different approaches for the friend.
For middle and high school students, the best thing is to start by giving them smaller projects completed in class in one or two days. Then, the teacher spends the entirety of "group project time" circulating the room and giving feedback on how well the groups are working rather than looking at the content, to make sure students are getting the message that working as a group is the important thing right now. ("Participation quiz" is one common strategy for this - basically scoring each group on how well students are working together in real time as they work.) I pretty much don't sit down for the entire work time if I've given students a group project to work on unless they've been really successful with other group projects in that class already that year.
I also used to do things like have each group member use a different color of marker and only allow them to use that single color on their group poster (we did a lot of our short group assignments as a group presentation of a worked-out math problem on a poster or whiteboard). A lot of my dialog as I circulate the group would be in the form of "I see a lot of red and blue on this poster, but it looks like green needs to get on the poster more. [green student], what ideas do you have to contribute to the poster? Where can you add something?" Color-coding like that makes for a really easy accountability system for short in-class groupwork. There are lots of other little accountability tricks along those lines, but that one seemed to work particularly well with my high schools students for some reason.
After they get used to working in groups for things that take less than a class period and realize that they will get caught out if they don't pull their weight, then you can try bigger projects, but starting out with one is probably not going to go well.
The main solution in my applied electronics course, where we have 10 projects to be done in partners is to require the students to change partners for every project. If there are an odd number of students in a section, one must work alone (no threesomes), but no one works alone more than once.
The forced rotation mens that no one is stuck with a flake on every project, no one gets to freeride on every project, and the pattern of grades clearly shows who the flakes are. Students get the experience of working with both strong and weak partners, and some appreciation for different strengths (the projects require skill at electronics design, at careful construction, at debugging, and at writing—few students are good at all of these). Having had 10 different partners also helps them later on in forming teams for senior design projects—they have a better appreciation of who they can work with and who to avoid.
The forced rotation also results in more class bonding—the students have to mingle more than is usual in a large lab class, and at least get to know the rest of their section.
If TG is the sort of person who documents well in 7th grade, then she can document and you can bring it to the teacher. If she isn't, like the vast majority of humans, then she's best off keeping her head down and doing her own time.
More importantly, she'll have learned that some people can't be trusted at all. And the others will have learned that some people would rather let the whole boat sink than do another's share of the bailing. Damn it.