I was spending a leisurely early afternoon drinking coffee and catching up on some of the blogs I follow, when I happened across this post by Kelly Christopherson. He was thinking about something I often ponder… how to “do” collaborative learning effectively.
Kelly’s post was a review of / reflection on “Productive Group Work” by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove… a book I think I need to add to my to-read list. Like many teachers (I’m sure), I think collaborative learning can be a powerful and engaging learning experience. I also know from my own experiences as a student and as a professional, and from watching students, that working in a group isn’t all sunshine and flowers. Collaborative learning (the fancy term for group or team based work) is definitely “worth doing”, I’ve seen the young people I work with do amazing things when they combine their efforts… but if it’s worth doing, it’s also worth doing well. Kelly’s post got me to thinking about what that means for me and my students.
Just so everyone knows, my current teaching role imposes some complications that are rather unique. I’m not in the same room as, or even within 100km of, some of my students. My students are in 18 different physical locations, and while I don’t usually have students from all 18 sites in one class, often I have 10 or 12 physical locations… some with one student, some with 3, 4, more students. The whole “circulate, monitor, 30 second conversations” method is not going to work in this situation. That has ramifications for classroom management, classroom climate / culture, student engagement, student-teacher rapport, and pretty much everything else that goes on in a traditional classroom. I’ll probably write about some of this stuff in more detail later, but right now I’m focusing on groupwork.
My major question about collaborative learning is how best to grade group work. Not assess, grade. Assessing and giving formative feedback is easy. Peer and self assessing group process, their contributions, their learning, etc. is easy. Well, maybe not “easy”, but I know how to do it in a way that is meaningful. The challenge is converting this all into a number in a way that is fair, transparent, defensible, and non-onerous. It’s that last one that is the stumbling block for me… I really do not want to be collecting surveys from 25 students on each of the 3 or 4 people in their group and calculating scores based on their assessments… for one project, maybe I could manage it (25 x 4 = 100 surveys to tabulate)… but I teach 7 classes, and there are certain times of the year when I’ll have 3 or 4 collaborative learning projects all nearing completion. I try to be an organized person, but throwing hundreds of pieces of paper at me, from 18 different places, arriving at random times, sometimes poorly labeled or incomplete… and expecting me to make it all make sense… well, that would be pushing my organizational skills.
Then there’s the matter of what is an appropriate student contribution to a group? One answer is “doing your share”, but this strikes me as overly simplistic. I’m not sure equal contributions is always the right answer. Students have different talents and abilities, and should be empowered to bring those strengths to their group, and that means that not everyone is going to contribute in the same ways. Is a student who writes the script for a video doing more or less work than the student who films and edits the video, or the student who does the underlying research on the topic? You see the challenge. And editing a video is not a group activity, you don’t want more than one or two pairs of hands involved in a task like that, so it’s really not reasonable to say that everyone in a group should be involved in all aspects of a project. Plus, projects in real life don’t work that way. My current line is that everyone needs to “contribute meaningfully” to the group’s work. What does that look like? Well, to be honest, “meaningful contribution” is most easily defined by its absence. Not a perfect definition I know, but it’s worked reasonably well so far.
Then there’s the question of whether group process should even be part of a student’s academic mark. Right now in Manitoba, there’s a major emphasis on separating “academic performance” from “behavior”. I could write a whole post on that (and probably will at some point), but I can’t help feeling that sometimes this is a false dichotomy. Is attending class a behavior or academic? Is turning in assignments a behavior or academic? Is collaborating with others a behavior or academic? They’re all behaviors, but they’re also all academic, or at least they all significantly affect the academic domain. Tell me that a student who never attends class, completes assignments, or works on group projects can be successful academically. I guess in theory it’s possible, but in my experience it almost never shakes out that way.
So these are the things I think about. What about what I do? Well, I’ve had some good successes using wikis and other digital collaboration tools for groupwork across physical distances. I’ve got a good sense of what effective digital collaboration looks like, and can model and coach effectively using digital tools. I also get a lasting record of what everyone is doing in their group, and can digitally stick my head into group conversations, sometimes to ask thoughtful questions, sometimes to refocus a group on the task at hand, and occasionally to remind students about the standard for acceptable behavior. This is working very well so far, and I’ll probably keep doing it.
The grading piece, though… well, I have a “contributes effectively to the work of the group” category on my assessment schemes with reasonably good descriptors, I am able to get a good idea of this from students’ digital interactions, I’m reasonably comfortable with my ability to defend my assessments, and in the few cases where I’ve needed to, I have been able to deal with the most egregious cases of students not contributing to their group outside the rubric. Aside from the effective collaboration piece which is different for each student, though, I assess the product of the group’s work, and everyone gets the same mark for that portion. I can’t help feeling, though, that my line “I’m assessing the product of your group’s work” is a bit of a cop-out. This is something to definitely keep thinking about and tweaking.
So, thanks for provoking some thoughts on this issue of collaborative learning Kelly, and for the book recommendation.
As a final thought, I love how you refer to the teacher as “lead learner”. I haven’t heard that before, but I think it fits. The whole “what is the lens through which you view your role as a teacher” conversation, though, will have to wait for another time and another post (definitely want to come back to this in the future though!).