FULT ePortfolio Blogs #6 part 1: group work

This week was the first face to face session of the FULT program, in Sydney. So I got up at 0600, fed my pig by torchlight (she was confused, but is pleased to get food at any time of the day or night), and headed for the airport… to wait an hour for my delayed flight.

The session had a lot of familiar stuff, and there was a big overlap with activities I do in the Graduate Teaching Training Program (GTTP). Which is good, because it makes me feel more comfortable about teaching FULT, and also more confident that what I’m doing in GTTP is not completely mad.

I made notes through the session, including things I wanted to come back to in this blog. The first was a comment by one participant that “some people learn better on their own than in groups”. This is also something that regularly comes up in GTTP and amongst my undergrads. And I often wonder how true it is. There is certainly good evidence that for most students, some group work works. There’s a heap of literature based on social constructivist theories to back that up, and solid experimental data too. But still many students claim they prefer to learn by themselves and this works better for them.

I suspect that for some people the initial content acquisition is faster and more enjoyable if they can read / watch the content. And this is probably what they mean by “learning” on their own. And then they work through problems, etc, and only work with others when they get stuck. This may well work for some tasks in some disciplines. But I think group work still has a value for people who like to learn alone like this. And the value is in testing their new found learning – trying it out on someone else and getting some feedback. This also forces them to clarify and articulate their understanding. And it’s through doing this that deeper learning is likely to take place. The higher level stuff in the Bloom’s taxonomy or SOLO taxonomy – evaluation and synthesis. I believe almost everyone benefits from group work, even when they don’t like it.

Plus, group work isn’t just about learning content, it’s about learning how to collaborate, negotiate and get along with others… Any good learning activity should address multiple learning outcomes – content, skills and affective. In GTTP we always have two whiteboards being annotated – one on content and one on process, and we look at what generic skills and affective effects an activity might give as well as the content covered. For example, last week we did a Jigsaw activity using Fox’s personal theories of teaching. Students start in their “home group”, the people they normally sit with, then get split into “expert groups” where they read and become experts on one particular theory. They negotiate a consensus summary of the theory. They then return to their home groups and present the consensus view of the theory.

There is no doubt at all that they could acquire the content of all the 4 “personal theories” by reading on their own, and do it much faster. But this way they build connections with people they don’t usually sit with, which helps build rapport in the group for later activities. They discuss and negotiate with others to write a consensus summary – using team work, negotiation and literacy skills. They return to their home groups and practice oral presentation skills, in a psychology safe way (presenting a group consensus view, not their personal view) – building confidence, to help them speak up in class in general.

The “content” is only a minor part of the task. And sure, they could get that faster on their own. But they wouldn’t get all the other stuff.

The almost in almost everyone benefits from group work is important. And this is an example I talked to my GTTP students about. When I was a PhD student I was employed for a semester to act as a sort of lab assistant for an autistic student. He was not able to work in a group with other students, and to try to force him to would have been inappropriate. My job was to sit with him in labs and help out as needed, so he could work by himself while the other students worked in teams. He would simply not have been able to engage in the Jigsaw activity in the GTTP.

I think group work should be compulsory in at least a good scattering of subjects, unless there is a genuine just cause for not requiring it. We’re not just teaching content – we’re teaching skills and attitudes as well.

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