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:
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Why take “Introduction to the College Experience?”

Online Learning

My question is why everything have to be done online?

The short answer is “behavior.” You don’t NEED to do things online, but if you don’t have that behavior and it is an expectation in the rest of your academic career, then I would have failed by not giving you the opportunity to practice while you are in this class.

Content, as we talked about on the first day, is delivered online. We will be practicing using Connect, LearnSmart and SmartBook in addition to BlackBoard. Many of the classes you will take will have these components and you will be expected to have a level of comfort using them. Your other classes will be diving into the content. We will actually make sure that you know how to use the tools.

And why cannot we bring back traditional way of learning back in school?

I am not sure there is a reason why we couldn’t bring back the “traditional” way of learning back in school. But I am not sure whose tradition we would be talking about. What might seem traditional way of learning to you my be vanguard to me.

I think we shouldn’t abandon tradition for the sake of thing that are new. But I think the measure we should use is that of effectiveness. Teaching/learning in school should be about about becoming more effective in how we learn and teach.

We could make the same demands of other professions. We could go back to a more traditional form or medicine and amputate limbs or apply leaches to let the bad blood out. But our understanding of the human body and the human mind was changed and developed over time so we probably won’t do that.

How is this class important to me?

You will need to decide that for yourself. The good thing about this class is that I will give you the chance to decide for yourself about what you think you need to get from this class, so you grow your ability to direct your own learning.

In terms of your comments about whether or not you need this class. I can honestly say that I don’t know what you need. I don’t know you that well and I am teaching skills you might already have and you could teach me something about them. But the college has decided that this is a good course and one that students need to take in order to prepare them for greater success as they pass through the college. Most student tell me that they learned more in my class that they thought. You have decided to attend PBSC and you are in my class. You are going to have to trust that we know what we are doing. Ask questions along the way and I am sure there will be things you can learn, people you will meet and skills you will acquire or refine. I know that I learn new things about this course every semester.

How to ask better question, divergent thinking and personality inventories

How can one be more inquisitive?

Hang around with some 3-5 year old. Seriously. They want to understand the world around them and they question or mess with everything. Not because they are trying to create trouble, but they want to know, They don’t know NOT to ask questions and they will poke and prod until they get what they want. Once kids get into school, they learn that asking questions makes them a problem for the teachers. They learn that the things they think are important are not the subjects they deal with in school

How can you ask effective questions?

Human beings get better at what they practice. Make lists of questions that you might find interesting. If you can’t think of things that interest you, first check your pulse, then Google lists of questions. Short list from NPR’s Story Corps:

  • Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her?
  • What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
  • Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
  • Who has been the kindest to you in your life?
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?
  • What is your earliest memory?
  • What is your favorite memory of me?
  • Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
  • Are there any funny stories or memories or characters from your life that you want to tell me about?
  • What are you proudest of?
  • When in life have you felt most alone?
  • If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
  • How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • Do you have any regrets?
  • What does your future hold?
  • What are your hopes for what the future holds for me? For my children?
  • If this was to be our very last conversation, is there anything you’d want to say to me
  • For your great great grandchildren listening to this years from now: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
  • Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?
  • Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

Is convergent or divergent thinking better?

It depends on the situation. When do you think it would be more appropriate to use convergent and when would you think it might be better to use divergent? (See how I slipped some questions in there?)

Why take a personality inventory?

A personality inventory is one tool we will use to get you thinking about yourself:  your likes, your interests, your values, your personality, your interests.  Sometimes it is hard to see ourselves in meaningful ways. As the Chinese proverb states: The fish is the last to discover water.

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

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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.

The Trouble with Textbooks

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Students hate buying textbooks. Let’s get that out on the table right now. Professors know this and most of us sympathize with our students. We were students too (that’s one of the usual requirements for us to become professors).  Students will do all kinds of things to avoid buying books or paying full price for them, so let’s have a frank conversation about textbooks. If it is an issue for you or it has been this semester and you want to do better next semester, let’s talk

“I don’t have the textbook”

I just want to say, if and this is and IF and I am not accusing you of anything. IF you didn’t buy the book and you are having trouble affording a textbook or you just thought you could get through the course without a book, you need to just be honest  about that. You would not be the first student a professor has encountered who has been in one of those situations. Just make sure you are honestly telling him/her about what is going on. Keep the communications clear, they might be able to help you. So let’s look at some of the things students say about NOT having their textbooks.

1) “I just lost the book and I have no record of the purchase.” As a professor who cares, I am going to want to know how you came to lose the book and what strategy you have for keeping stuff like that from happening again. As you know, books are expensive and if you are the one paying for them, you don’t want to make losing them a habit.

2) “Okay, I didn’t lose it. I never bought it because I thought I could get by without buying a book for this class. I just didn’t want to waste my money on a book I would not use.” To which I would tell you that I have been working on the affordability of textbooks because I know that is an issue for students. You might need to make friends with the idea of buying books for your classes. Think of it as a cost of doing business. Let’s say you were going to become a business person and everyone in your profession wore suits and and similar professional attire, but you said “Yeah, suits are too expensive and I am not going to do that, but I still want to be in that group.”  You might see where that is a problem.

3) “Okay yeah, I didn’t buy the book, because it was buy the book or buy groceries.” To which I might say that I totally get that. Books are expensive and I really have worked to get the price down, but sometimes even the little extra expenses are too much.  I get that and I want you to know that the book for my class is one of the cheapest. SO if affording textbooks is going to continue to be a problem for you, you will need to know how to address that problem. Professors have some latitude in what they do, they might even have ways to help you get some of your books or access to web content at a greatly reduced cost, but you need to talk to people about that rather than not buying textbooks and hoping for the best. There are options to rent or buy used, but this might be a problem since a book, like ours, might come with online content.

Main thing: Talk with your professors early in the semester about what is going on and see if there are strategies to get access to the books you need at prices you can afford.

Oh and by the way, if you are going to buy electronic copies of your textbook and put them on a tablet, consider getting insurance for your tablet or computer that will protect you in the case of loss or theft. Just like they have insurance for your car in case you are in an accident, your technology is something that needs protecting too.