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Topic: Group learning getting started
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Posts: 133
Registered: 12/6/04
Group learning getting started
Posted: Jul 22, 1995 3:28 PM
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I received the following post on another list which I though provided an
excellent summary of things to look for when starting out doing group learning.
Interestingly it was written by a Chemical Engineering professor. Additional
comments and observations would be appreciated.

Ted Panitz

From: "Richard M. Felder" <felder@EOS.NCSU.EDU>
Subject: student resistance to group work
Sender: "Forum for Teaching & Learning in Higher Educ." <>

I've been enjoying the exchanges on this subject and thought I might
throw in my two cents worth by passing on one of my recent columns from
Chemical Engineering Education. The bottom line message is that if you
use group work you can expect some degree of student resistance and
hostility, but if you're careful about how you structure the work and
patient with the students as they learn how to deal with it, the
benefits are worth the struggles.

Richard Felder


Richard M. Felder
Department of Chemical Engineering
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7905

(Reprinted from Chemical Engineering Education 29(1), 32-33, 1995)

OK, here's the scenario. You go to a teaching workshop presented by
Woods or Wales or Stice or Smith or that joker from North Carolina who's always
ranting about this stuff. The presenter instructs you to immerse your
students in real-world problems without routinely providing all the
requisite facts and formulas. He also tells you--repeatedly--to stop
doing so much lecturing and instead get the students to work in teams and
teach each other. Once they realize they can no longer count on you
to tell them all they need to know, they'll start to rely on themselves
to figure it out--which is to say, they will learn to learn.

Whether the instructional approach being promoted in the workshop is
called guided design, problem-based learning, cooperative learning, 4MAT, or
whatever, it's based on the reasonable premise that students learn more by
doing things than by watching lectures. The presenter cites hundreds of
studies showing that compared to traditional lecturing, active/cooperative
learning leads to deeper understanding, improved attitudes toward the
subject, and greater self-confidence. It all sounds like just what you've
been looking for to counter the apathy and poor performance that have
characterized an uncomfortably high percentage of your students lately. You
leave the workshop fired up and ready to switch to the new approach in your
very next class.

You may be in for a rude shock. It's not that the methods don't
work--they do. I've had great success with some of them, particularly
cooperative learning, and I do my fair share of missionary work on their
behalf. The success is neither immediate nor automatic, however, and the
awkwardness and frustration and student resistance and hostility you may
experience before you get to the payoff can be formidable. It's tempting to
give up in the face of all that, and many instructors unfortunately do.

The problem is that doing anything new and nontrivial always involves a
learning curve, and the curve may be particularly steep for both you and your
students when you try an active learning approach for the first time. The
students, whose teachers have been telling them everything they needed to
know from the first grade on, don't appreciate having this support suddenly
withdrawn, and complaints like "Meachley never teaches us anything--we have
to do it all ourselves" start echoing through the corridors. It's even worse
if you use cooperative (team-based) learning: students then gripe loudly and
bitterly about other team members not pulling their weight or about being
slowed down by having to explain everything to that lemon they've been forced
to team with. Sometimes instructors who are effective lecturers get lower
student ratings when they start using active and cooperative learning

My goal here is to assure you that these initial glitches are both
common and natural, and that they may be a cause for concern but not for
panic or discouragement. The trick is knowing how the process works, taking a
few precautionary steps to smooth out the bumps, and waiting out the
inevitable setbacks until the payoffs start emerging.

Consider the students. Woods[1] observes that students forced to take
major responsibility for their own learning go through some or all of the
steps psychologists associate with trauma and grief:

(1) SHOCK: "I don't believe it--we have to do homework in groups and she
isn't going to lecture on the chapter before the problems are due?"

(2) DENIAL: "She can't be serious about this--if I ignore it, it will go

(3) STRONG EMOTION: "I can't do it--I'd better drop the course and take it
next semester" or "She can't do this to me--I'm going to
complain to the department head!"

(4) RESISTANCE AND WITHDRAWAL: "I'm not going to play her dumb games--I don't
care if she fails me."

(5) SURRENDER AND ACCEPTANCE: "OK, I think it's stupid but I'm stuck with it
and I might as well give it a shot."

(6) STRUGGLE AND EXPLORATION: "These other guys seem to be getting this
stuff--maybe I need to try harder or do things differently to get it to work
for me."

(7) RETURN OF CONFIDENCE: "Hey, this is starting to work. I think I can do it."

(8) INTEGRATION AND SUCCESS: YES! This stuff really works--I don't understand
why I had so much trouble with it before.

Just as some people have an easier time than others in getting through
the grieving process, some students may enthusiastically dive right into
active learning and short-circuit many of the eight steps, while others may
have difficulty getting past the negativity of Step 3. The point is to
remember that the resistance you encounter from some students is a natural
part of their journey from dependence to intellectual autonomy, and if you
provide some help along the way, sooner or later most of them will make it.

So what can you do to help them and yourself get through the process?
Out of painful necessity (and believe me, my observations about student
resistance are neither theoretical nor speculative) I've developed an
arsenal of strategies. For whatever they may be worth, here they are.

SET THE STAGE. When I plan to use active or cooperative learning in a
course, I explain on Day 1 exactly what I'm going to do and why. I assure the
class, for example, that I'll be making them work in class not to make my
life easier (quite the contrary), but because research shows that students
learn by doing, not by just watching and listening. I reinforce the point by
citing some of the research; as always, McKeachie [2] and Wankat and Oreovicz
[3] provide good general summaries and Johnson, et al. [4] cite results
specifically for cooperative learning.

students complain (or make evident in other ways) that they don't know how to
set up problem solutions or prepare for tests or work effectively in teams, I
try to offer some guidance during my office hours and occasionally hold a
miniclinic in class. Woods, Wankat and Oreovicz, and Johnson, et al., are
rich sources of methods for facilitating development of learning and teamwork

GET FEEDBACK AND TRY TO BE RESPONSIVE TO IT. Especially when many students in
a class seem to be spending a great deal of their time hovering around Stages
3 and 4 of the trauma scale (loss of confidence, anger, and withdrawal), I
grit my teeth and conduct a midsemester evaluation, asking them to list
things they like about the class, things they dislike, and things that would
improve the class for them. The first list often surprises me: the complaints
I've been hearing tend to monopolize my attention, clouding my awareness that
what I'm doing is working well for many or most of the students. The things
they dislike are not exactly fun to read, but I learn from them and the
students seem to appreciate the opportunity to vent. The suggested
improvements may include some that are unacceptable to me ("Stop assigning
problems that you haven't lectured on." "Cut out this group garbage.") but I
may be able to act on others without seriously disrupting my plans or
compromising my principles. When I respond positively to some of their
suggestions (like easing off on the length of the homework assignments, or
giving them the option of doing a few assignments individually), it usually
goes a long way toward getting them to meet me halfway.

BE PATIENT. I expect many of my students (especially those I haven't
previously taught) to be frustrated and upset in the first few weeks of my
courses. I deal with it now better than I used to, knowing from experience
that most of them will turn around by the final exam.

GO BACK TO THE REFERENCES PERIODICALLY. When some of my cooperative learning
groups seem to be disintegrating halfway through the semester, I look back at
one of Karl Smith's monographs (or, for that matter, at my own workshop
notes). I'm usually reminded that I've been neglecting one or another of the
recommended CL practices, like having the groups regularly assess their
functioning and work out what they need to do differently in the future.

DON'T EXPECT TO WIN THEM ALL. In the end, despite my best efforts, some
students fail and some who pass continue to resent my putting so much of the
burden of their learning on their shoulders. A student once wrote in a
course-end evaluation, "Felder really makes us think!" It was on the list of
things he disliked. On the other hand, for all their complaints about how
hard I am on them, my students on the average earn higher grades than they
ever did when I just lectured, and many more of them now tell me that after
getting through one of my courses they feel confident that they can do
anything. So I lose some, but I win a lot more. I can cheerfully live with
the tradeoff.


1. D.R. Woods, Problem-based Learning: How to Gain the Most from PBL.
Donald R. Woods, McMaster University, 1994.

2. W. McKeachie, Teaching Tips, 8th Edn. Lexington, MA, Heath & Co,

3. P. Wankat and F.S. Oreovicz, Teaching Engineering. New York,
McGraw-Hill, 1993.

4. D.W. Johnson, R.T. Johnson, and K.A. Smith, Cooperative Learning:
Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity, ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report No. 4, George Washington University, 1991.

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