viernes, 7 de junio de 2013

Designing Effective Group Activities

This posting borrowed from Simon Nash at:

What can you do to effectively engage your students in discussions in class? How can you encourage students to prepare in advance so that time taken on group discussions in the tutorial or lecture is productive and not just spent on remedial preparation?

A summary of an article by Michaelsen, Fink and Knight (see this website: Team Based Learning). The authors have done a great deal of work on how to best engage students to actively learn in teams. You can download their article here: Designing effective group activities: Lessons from classroom teaching and faculty development

Image from Michaelsen, Fink and Knight.

The authors argue that most problems with group work activities, such as discussions in class, stem from these "symptoms of a poorly conceived group task":
  1. One or two vocal individuals dominate the discussions so that quieter members are sidelined.
  2. Groups have difficulty staying focused and get side-tracked on inconsequential matters.
  3. Some group members become 'social loafers', doing little.
  4. Even when the group discussion went well, when groups report back to the whole class, the discussion "falls flat".
Michaelsen, et al, argue that the design of group assignments and activities (such as discussion and report back exercises) needs to focus on maintaining group cohesiveness. Effectively functioning groups are those where group cohesiveness is achieved, so that (1) members trust and understand one another enough to ensure that "even naturally quiet members are willing and able to engage in intense give-and-take interactions without having to worry about being offensive or misunderstood" (p.4); and (2) "members see their own well being as being integrally tied to the success of their group" (p.4).

The authors set out a broad prescription for designing group activities. You might want to modify aspects of this 'recipe', so, you can treat it as a set of ideas/guidelines to modify to suit your situation rather than something set in stone. Essentially, group tasks should be designed to comprise the following four elements:

  1. Require high levels of individual accountability to group members, e.g. give individuals a task to complete in advance, such as thinking through an issue and writing down their ideas the night before group discussions in class;
  2. Motivate lots of discussion among group members, e.g. "require members to make a concrete decision based on the analysis of a complex issue" (p.6), and to report back to the wider class on this decision and the reasoning behind it;
  3. Ensure that group members recieve "immediate, clear, meaningful feedback" (p.4), preferably involving direct comparisons with the performance of other groups, e.g. providing feedback on the group decision compared with other group decisions;
  4. Provide explicit rewards for good group performance, either in the form of assessment or through 'social validation', e.g. having the group decision "scrutinized and challenged by peers from other groups".
These four elements are presented diagrammatically by Michaelsen, et al (reproduced below).

Key points to take away from the article are: 

1. Design group activities to "reinforce the norm that everyone is expected to provide input to the group" (p.5). In other words, individuals feel the pressure to contribute meaningfully. 

2. Design group activities so that groups need to make a specific choice or concrete decision on which they will be compared and judged by their peers/other groups. This will also motivate individual members to prepare their positions well in advance and to be ready to defend their input. 

3. Cohesiveness is built when groups know that their choices/decisions will be compared with those of other groups. The 'external threat' motivates group members to try hard! 

4. Make the final output (the 'decision' or 'choice') as simple as possible, and its reporting back as quick as possible, so that it's easy for groups to compare themselves with other groups. Otherwise, the end product gets swamped in the detail of reporting back (e.g. just 5 minutes for each group to report back, then the remainder of class time on formulating and conducting discussions).  

So. What do you think about effectively engaging your students in group discussions and activities?

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