Why Work in Groups? Three Tips for Success

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“Students fail silently and alone.”

My students hear this phrase from me every semester. My course has built in group assignments and students ALWAYS want to know how they can get out of doing group assignments. I ask them: “Do you want to increase your chances for success in college? Why would you ignore this simple thing that person can do to be successful?” I am perplexed.

Would you go to the doctor and listen to the doctor’s opinion. Pay for that opinion and then IGNORE what the doctor told you to do? As a college professor, I am here to tell you that you should learn to work and study in groups.  If you want a really cool job one day, you should learn to create in groups.  If you intend to be employed at some point in your life or you are employed now, you are working with others in a group.

The Problem with Groups:

Students report that they don’t like working in groups for projects at school. Most of them claim that they “had to do ALL of the work.” First of all on that: some of y’all lyin’, quit playin’. It cannot be that the majority of you do MOST of the work. It simply cannot be. But I do think it is the FEAR that we all have; we will be stuck doing the work and other people won’t do their parts. That is a legitimate fear, but it is not the problem of the people in your group or the work. It is a problem of TRUST.  That means you need to be able to trust each other.

Working for a Company is a Group Project:

Most of the college students I teach have some kind of job. Most of them say that it is important to work well with others on the job. Working for a company is a group project. They understand this, but they cannot translate that to academic work. The reason is not that they are bad or stupid people. My students have come up through an educational system that rewards individuals with correct answers.  The more correct answers the individual has, the smarter they are, apparently. But in most employment situations most people have to work well with others. They understand that a big part of their job performance relies on the work of others and the ability to manage the relationships and communications with those others. In short success is not about “correct answers” as it is finding solutions and creating value.

So What’s The REAL Problem?

Most students in groups have not been managed well. Teachers and professors, frankly, do a poor job of preparing students to work successfully in groups. Students don’t know what is expected of them and many lack the skills needed to resolve problems arising from doing group work. So while that lets students off the hook a little, it won’t change the problem that confronts students trying to work in groups. Furthermore, as I have said many times, humans get better at what they practice. If you keep doing the same kind of bad group work, you will get exceedingly good at it.

So what makes a good group experience?

ONE Know why you are there. Often, I start our the semester by giving small groups of students decks of playing cards. I give them no other instructions than to use the materials I gave them and do an activity that everyone can participate in. They all look at me strangely, but wind up playing GoFish or Blackjack or Spades. They instinctively figure out: “We are here to play cards.”

TWO Know the rules. One of the first things they do in groups is to make sure everyone knows how to play the game they have selected. That mean they know when to take turns and how to keep score. That keeps them on track and they refer to it when they get off track. If you need to select a leader who can keep things moving, do that. Just make sure everyone knows who that is, why that person was selected and what the process was for selection. Good groups make that an open process and change leaders or leadership styles if the first one they picked isn’t working.

THREE Understand the objective. When playing a game or working in a group, one should keep firmly in mind what they are trying to accomplish. In groups, students should establish what they are trying to accomplish. All members should be able to say what they are doing and have an idea of what the end result you are looking for.

“Researchers report that, regardless of the subject matter, students working in small
groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same
content is presented in other instructional formats.”
                                         –Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching, Stanford University
Further reading:

My Passion for Learning & Google Drive

Carl Sagan Quote Learn

Forgive me for prying if I am, but what fuels your obvious passion for learning?

You are not prying. It is an interesting question and one that I am happy to take a stab at. Besides, I asked you to come up with questions that you had. It wouldn’t really be fair of me to NOT answer a question like this. And thank you for saying that my passion for learning is obvious; that is a real compliment.

I think that I have always liked learning but I was always sort of ambivalent about school. When I was younger, I was interested in classical knowledge: science, Shakespeare, classical music, because I wanted to understand why everyone thought those things were important. But I was afraid that if anyone knew that I was interested in those things I’d be FORCED to take a bunch of classes that were difficult and boring. So I snuck into the library in my hometown and read books and listened to recordings in the library study room. I wouldn’t even check these materials out.

As I got older and began to have a wider sets of experiences I discovered that I never tired of learning new things, meeting new people, eating new foods, traveling to new parts of the world, listening to new music etc. Some people want to fill their lives with money or things that money can buy and that is common in our society, but I find that I don’t really care about these things as much as I care about learning and being open to the knowledge that unfolds. Things that money can buy can be replaced, but things that feed our souls and our minds are unique to us.

I would encourage you to keep your curiosity alive by pursuing new interests and learning things. Doing this and being thankful for what you have and what you have learned will bring more happiness than all the wealth or power or status one might accumulate in a lifetime.

Would it be possible to use i cloud storage as oppose to google drive since i only have apple devices?

Of course you can use whatever storage you’d like, but I am going to ask you to create a Google Account for this class. Just so you know, the Google apps work on Apple products as well. I have mine linked with my iPhone so it talks to my calendar and I can view and edit documents on any computer or on my phone. It’s pretty cool.

Important Things to Learn & Handwritten Notes

What is the most important thing you want students to take away from this course ?

The most important thing for students to take away from this course is that they are the ones who are responsible for their learning. They need to follow what is interesting to them and they need to challenge those who would stand in their way. I also want you to be able to monitor and gauge the effectiveness of your behavior. We will do that in a systematic way.

As I have said from day one, this class is about your behavior. If you are aware of your behaviors and you can direct your will to control your behaviors, there will be a good chance for you to accomplish your goals.

Syllabus questions : 1. Will you be grading our notes?

I typically don’t grade notes, but I will want to see them because I want to know how you are organizing your thoughts.

  1. Will we be working in groups often?

If you haven’t noticed the other people in the classroom already, let me be the first to let you know that there are other people besides you and me in there. Okay, I an being sarcastic and I will stop, but I want you to recognize that you are already in groups. I want you to formally work with those people and I will help facilitate that process. You affect the others in the room and they affect you already. We are going to “ride the lightning” on that.

  1. Do you prefer printed or handwritten work ?

That is going to depend. Research shows that it is better to take handwritten notes than it is to make them on a computer, but with tablets and electronic drawing/writing pads, that’s a tougher call. I would say for assignment, think about getting those done on an electronic device unless otherwise instructed.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/to-remember-a-lecture-better-take-notes-by-hand/361478/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2014/06/princeton_university_study_finds_students_more_likely_to_learn_by_taking_handwritten_notes.html

What if Asking Questions is Difficult?

I appreciate your honesty about having a hard time getting your brain to ask questions, Traditional school doesn’t value question-asking as a skill. Think about some subject that you find interesting or fascinating. Think about an activity that you do that makes you lose track time. Could be reading or cooking or talking with that special someone or whatever.

Think about something in your life like that. Do you want to know more about that person or thing? What is it that you still want to know? How do you want to improve your experience or skills or knowledge or relationship? This is how you want to behave when you ask questions about subjects.  What is it that you can know about art or poetry or history or science that you don’t know? Some people spend their whole lives specializing in a particular area. We call those people “experts.” How do you become an expert? Ask more questions than other people about something, read about it and experience it because you are interested in it.

Theorists:

You can look at some of these people if you are interested in some of the educational theorists who have influenced me:

Kohn, Alfie, –Gatto, John Taylor, -Gardner, Howard, –Ravitch, Dianne, -Feldman, Robert, -Lev Vgotsky, -Dewey, John, -Piaget, Jean

Organizing Principles for a Diverse Group:

We will practice behaviors and reflect on the things that brought us here.  We will learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses. This usually results in students learning that they share more in common that they have in differences with on another.  It also gives us the space to discuss and understand our differences.  We will be able to learn from each other in a way they is more productive than from everyone just trying to learn from me.  I hope that makes sense and answers your question.

Connect or BlackBoard?

Assignments are posted on BlackBoard (Bb) and Connect. I an import assignments from Connect into Bb so when you have work to do in Connect, you won’t need to do anything extra to turn it in. Cool?

More Opening Week Questions

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What will students find motivating about this course?

I am never sure how to answer a question like this. Since I think all motivation is internal, I don’t know what experiences will cause students to resonate. Frankly, some students won’t be motivated by the course. These are typically the kinds of students who want to know if what I am saying will be on a test, ask how many points something is worth etc.

On the other hand, I do a lot of discussion. I do a lot of activities. You will be working in groups; the way I do it, people have told me that they like it. They like the skills I am teaching. So my honest answer is that I am not sure what you might find motivating. Remember that you bring that to the table too.

What is unique about the course?

The reference number. The make-up of the students. I am not sure what you are asking here. You want to know if I teach it differently than other instructors, probably. I am not sure what others do. I can tell you that I don’t rely on lots of quizzes or tests. I do rely on assignments and the effort you put into them. I rely on you bringing your authentic self into the classroom to engage with what we are doing, whatever that is. I’ll try and make it worth your while.

 

Will there be a curve?

I will throw a few curves, yes. If you are talking to me about grading on a curve then, no. I know of NO ONE who grades on an actual curve. That would be 3% A, 24%-B, 39%-C. 24%-D and 3% F, with grades starting with the highest score. That seems like a silly and meaningless competition among classmates who need to collaborate more than compete.

Will there be extra credit?

Why should there be extra-credit? Why not do the things I asked in the first place?

Are groups assigned for projects and presentations?

Groups are assigned. Selected by you and your fellow students.

Do we have to use Sketchnotes?

Yes. You will all be trying Sketchnotes.

Re: Asking Questions, Attendance and Exemptions

confused-freshman

1) Do we always have  to comment and questions even if we don’t have any?

I require students come to my Introduction to the College Experience class with questions.

Questions: Ever been around a 3 yr-old? They are question asking machines. You were 3 once. You could be that machine again and you would learn like you did when you were 3. Think about how many things you were taking in because your mind was set to question. I would say that if you cannot come up with any questions, you are on your way to dying. Questions are the things that keep us alive and make us strive. They send us to the moon. They solve crimes. They make art. They create cures for disease. No, questions are the most important thing you can have. They will keep you alive, never doubt it.

2) What will happen if we miss more than 3 classes because of being sick? What can we do if something came up at the last minutes and we cannot make it to class?

My class requires a 90% attendance rate in order to pass. We meet about 27 times so they can miss like 3 times. Students have some bad habits about class attendance they’ve acquired in high school, which this question seems to suppose.

Absence – You fail, automatically. Period. If you are too sick to show up for classes you need to ask yourself how you expect to pass classes.  If you have a major illness, by all means take care of yourself and we can see you next semester. What do you think would happen to the class environment if some people just decided not to show up.  Would that work in a workplace? What happens to people who don’t show up in the workplace?

If something comes up at the last minute, you need to do what adults do and decide what you are going to do about it.  Don’t expect the other adults to accommodate you. If you need to miss, you miss.  If you miss too many, you fail. That is the consequence. Adults get that. Kids expect to have an adult with authority fix the situation for them.

3) Can we be exempt from finals if we have a good grade?

Final Exemption:  No. My final is a actually a self-evaluation where you look at your own work and behavior and evaluate what you did well. Why would you skip that? If my class was a big Easter Egg Hunt for the right answers and you had a full basket of eggs, perhaps that would make sense. But it isn’t and so, no exemption.

A Word About Sending Emails to Your Professors

Students send me email all the time. For many of them, it is the first time they have had to communicate with someone professionally. It can be difficult for them because they bring casual conversation habits and poor communication skills with them into the experience.  Recently, I had a student with whom I had an exchange.  One thing to note is how little thinking or work when into the student email and how much I had to craft a response. While I know I am teaching, it still shocks me that adults would not read information before sending email. Perhaps my expectation that people try to answer their own questions first is too high: Below is the communication between us:

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Student: You have not emailed me my url for the online book.

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Me (professor):

Thank you for contacting me. Actually, I have sent you the URL. If you look at the email you got from me the same way you got the email you are responding to from August 21, (where it is still available to you. See the VERY FIRST course announcement, August 21,  2015 See the attached picture) you will see the code and an updated ISBN. My expectation is that you are reading the announcements that I email. If you have not, perhaps you should do that first.  My questions for you are:

  • Did you purchase the book?
  • Did you open the book?
  • Why is it that you are asking me about this 3 weeks and 2 days into the course?

If you don’t have the book code: It is in the paper book if you purchased one or you can buy it where the area for your online registration shows a place where you can 1) Use the 14-day trial 2) enter the code that came with the book 3) or use your credit card to purchase it. The bookstore still has copies if you need them.

I need you to know that the tone of your email  sounds like I am a customer service person who has not done his job. It’s not clear to me that you intend to come across that way, but that is how this sounds to me. I can assure you that I have sent you the information that you need. Since I don’t recall having a conversation with you about this before and then you send me an email with an accusatory tone, you might be able to see where I am coming from.  Perhaps you should come at this with a question, rather than an accusation about what I have not done.

If you have a question about the process, then you should ask that question rather than to assume what the process is and that I have not done what I needed. If I have done something that needs to be corrected, I will apologize and take the appropriate action. That is not the case here. As this is an intro course and I an trying to teach you some things about how to behave as a college student (and sending emails and messages to professors is a behavior), I advise you to take the words to heart and know that I don’t hold this kind of stuff against you. I am just asking you to learn and encouraging you to do this to get better results with your professors. Please take the time to go through the process of looking through the information that you have before contacting someone (like a professor) to see if you can answer the question on your own and then come to the conversation with a question, not an accusation. Even if I hadn’t sent you the URL, it would not create a good starting point to say, “You haven’t…”  You might instead say:

  • “I am having trouble finding the URL, can you help me?”
  • “I looked in several places for information regarding the login for Connect. Can you tell me where this information is?”

If I hadn’t sent it I would be able to respond. If I had (and I have) I would be able to direct you. You end up looking like a student who needs assistance.

Peace,