I received the following post from the POD Professional and Organizational Development discussion list in response to my last posting from Richard Felder on tips for beginning group learning. Ed Nuhfer has some excellent tips on initiating group learning and the pitfalls and possible solutions. I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did.
Ted Panitz firstname.lastname@example.org
"Edward B. Nuhfer" <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Understanding group learning Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org Tue, 25 Jul 1995 14:14:
Richard Felder and Huan Ngo are describing a very common experience of professors who initiate cooperative learning for the first time. Their experiences cause me to air a criticism of cooperative learning workshops I have experienced in a number of presentations and short courses which hard-sell the benefits of structured group learning (cooperative/collaborative, etc.) without telling participants what will actually occur if they return from such a seminar to "spring" this onto their classes of students who have never experienced much other than the lecture method. In my experience with engineering students versus the other disciplines, I had more hard-core resistance to group learning from my classes of engineering students. I wondered why this was the case -- whether it resulted from the kind of student attracted to engineering or the core philosophy of the profession itself which exerts strong influence on academic units in engineering. However, Karl Smith, the third author on the Interaction Press book cited by Felder is an engineer who has dealt successfully with these problems. I have attended many cooperative learning sessions, and to his credit Karl is the ONLY presenter I've witnessed who honestly informed instructors that their evaluations could likely go down as they begin employing active learning methods for the first time. Knowing this, I did not get discouraged and give up when that very thing happened to me -- my evals went down lower than they had ever been, and the comments that students wrote were exactly like those described by Felder and Ngo. However, as I got less awkward with the non-lecture approach my evaluations went back up, and two semesters later they were higher than they had ever been in my classes of engineering students.
Here are some suggestions that might help minimize the problem the first semester. (1) Don't come back from a POD, Lilly, etc. conference in the middle of your term and "spring" these "new" techniques onto your ongoing class. Instead, wait until a new class begins, explain clearly in your syllabus the nature of what you are going to do that may differ greatly from their conditioned expectations of being lectured to.
(2) Be prepared to explain briefly, but often, why you are adopting active learning techiques and how you expect these to benefit your students.
(3) Be prepared to keep your finger continuously on the pulse of your class with frequent assessment techniques such as 1-minute or muddiest-point papers or through an ongoing continuous dialogue with a student management team. Never wait to find out what's happening in your class through just an end-of-course student evaluation (good practice in any class actually, but critical when you're shifting through new gears).
(4) Be prepared to teach the social skills to students that are required for successful team work in groups.
(5) Start slowly and with simple techniques; don't switch from a 100% lecture class to 100% active learning just because an "expert" says the latter is always superior. Start by making active learning just a part of your delivery, and master those simple techniques well before trying more complex approaches. Remember that (a) cooperative learning isn't ALWAYS superior and (b) even the most accomplished users of cooperative learning still utilize a certain amount of lecture; they don't use active learning just for the sake of doing it. Rather they know when it's more appropriate to lecture and when to use a structured group experience.
(6) Keep notes on rough spots that occur as they occur. Restructure your lessons and your syllabus for next class so that you don't have to re-live the uncomfortable experiences.
(7) If your evaluations do go down after your first experience, don't give up and say "Group learning doesn't work." It DOES work, but it takes time and practice to do it well. Those of us who are very accomplished at lecturing are also prone to forgetting how bad our first attempts at lecturing actually were, and how much time and practice it took for us to do lecturing well.
(8) If your evaluations are going to be critical to your tenure or rank, it is advisable to let your chair and possibly dean know of your plans to make a switch in your teaching style PRIOR to doing it. Inform them that there is an anticipated risk to such change that may include a temporary lowering of student evaluations and that you are taking that risk.
(9) Purchase a good reference book such as Active Learing - Cooperation in the College CLassroom by Johnson, Johnson & Smith to use when you design your lessons and review students' comments about their experiences with these lessons.
(10) If you use a mid-term formative evaluation, be certain that it includes questions that apply to active learning formats. Although most offices of teaching effectiveness are encouraging employment of active learning techniques, some of these same offices are still trotting out the same old lecture based questions for formative evaluations. Formative evaluations now need to test for other things, particularly the presence of the "Five Basic Elements of Cooperative Learning" (see above book by the Johsons and Smith) in group learning experiences. Sorry to be so long-winded, but Felder & Ngo have raised a particularly resonant chord and have made worthwhile contributions in the process. Ed Nuhfer email@example.com