Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Understanding group learning

In its most basic sense, group learning (GL) refers to the small-group activities done in the classroom. Even though GL is more than just simple team work done by the students, the idea behind it is simple: the students form "small teams" after having received instructions by the teacher. Inside each team, the students exchange information and work on a task until all group members have understood it and finished the work, learning through cooperation.

When comparing this work method's results with the traditional learning models, it can be seen that the students learn more when using GL. They remember the content longer, develop superior reasoning and critical thought skills and feel more confident and accepted, both by themselves and by everyone else. (Millis, 1996).  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Part 2: tips to improve teamwork

- Having the desire to improve your work, without disrespecting the opinion of the other members of the team.

- Having the ability to negotiate and/or give up, relationships are far more important than insignificant details. 

- Eliminating pedantry, arrogance and vanity

-Always use the magic words “Please”, “thank you”, “well done”, etc…

- Always have a good sense of humor, which helps alleviate stressful situations.

- Talking about things in a direct, transparent and unambiguous manner, yet be soft spoken and diplomatic. (Avoid gossip and “stabbing others in the back”).

- Favor unity, comradeship and inclusion of all the members of the team. This way, alienation or disintegration will not occur, neither the creation of “small groups” that would only “do/talk/live/watch out for or work for their own people”, which opposes the concept of being part of a team. (In professional environments, distancing or separation is unforgivable, however, in a private environments, to each his/her own…)

- Giving preference to the team’s common interests and professionalism in entrusted duties must come before our personal interests. Whoever gives preference to their selfish and individualistic interest within the working environment, ought best to resign and leave their job, so someone who is far more engaged and committed to the cause and project, which is the reason they are being paid for.

- Having a direct and positive attitude. Or like they say, “you may forgive an employee anything, because everything can be mended: ability, training and ignorance, but not forgive their attitude”.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Preparing for GL

Another important responsibility of a GL teacher is to guide the students through the experience of active learning. This requires a clear communication of the teacher's intentions, a proper design of social skills and a constantly monitoring of the group's activities. The teacher should redefine his role and responsibility, but the teachers must do it as well. This transformation can't be done without preparation.
When preparing a group learning class, teachers can follow these steps (Johnson and Johnson, 1999):
Take decisions before giving instructions. Before each session: formulate your goals, decide the size of the teams, select a method to put the students into teams, decide the role each team member will have, arrange the classroom and organize the material needed by the teams to do the activities.
Explain the activity. In each session, explain to the students: the activity, elements that will be evaluated, behaviors expected to be present during class.
Supervise and intervene. While you're running the session, supervise each team and intervene whenever it's necessary in order to improve teamwork and to help them understand the content.

Evaluate. Evaluate the quantity and quality of the work that's been done. Ask the students to evaluate their team and to write an improvement plan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Roles and responsibilities of the teachers and the students

An important part of the teacher's role is to balance lectures with team activities. In classrooms where GL is used, the teacher is not just someone who talks and provides information. The GL teacher is considered a facilitator or coach, a mentor or colleague, a guide and a research partner.
During the activities in GL classrooms, the teacher has to go from team to team, watching them interact, listening to conversations and intervening whenever it's necessary. The teacher has his eyes on the teams and makes suggestions about how to proceed or where to find information. To supervise the teams, the teacher can follow these steps (Johnson and Johnson, 1999):
Plan a route in the classroom and calculate how long it will take to watch each team in order to guarantee that all teams receive supervision during the session.
Use a formal record filled with observations of proper behaviors.
At the beginning, the teacher shouldn't try to count too many types of behaviors. He could focus on particular skills or he could simply keep a record of the people who talk in the group.

Add notes about the students' specific actions to these records.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Editing: a Team effort/work

The typical character of an editor is usually that of someone on the phone, coordinating processes and efforts in order to maintain and mediate all sides. Of course, he/she must have a large desk filled with books, references and plenty of red pens for corrections.

However, one person does not perform editorial work, on the contrary, this is the convergence of many actors/actions that make it all possible. In literary editing, the writer finds him/her self at the beginning of the process. In technical editing, and within the niche of academia, the process is initiated numerous years prior reaching the editing/publishing table. As this work will be used for didactic purposes, it will be done at a school, college, university, ministry or any type of academic institution.  The planning of some of the contents, the methodology and focus will be the first step in forming a scheme of what will actually be the didactic work.

This work will then go through many hands before it reaches the editorial, in which writing and revision become simultaneous, parallel and continuous processes. Together, these will help form the didactic work, taking into account the design of the curriculum. Several participants must provide specialized content, for example, linguists, graphic designers, and in the modern world of media, any collaborator who may provide multimedia products, whether they may be electronic or audio-visual, that may be linked or used for the didactic purposes.

What are the implications and challenges faced when many people are involved? In such cases, it is necessary to “form a team” (beyond just having a group of people), and then work together “as a team”. Each team, once they have been formed, should remind their members “what” and “why” they are doing this. If they are editing didactic works (teaching material), they should make sure this will serve the purposes of a particular institution, and through this, it will serve its students. Thus, the task is not for our personal use or of individual property, but rather, we are doing this as a service and of higher purposes than our own. The editor and his/her team should never forget for whom they are working, because it is certainly not for themselves. 

How can I prepare my GL classes?

Teachers who are experienced in GL have had students who don't want to cooperate and who complain constantly. It's easy to lose the motivation to try these techniques when this happens. Before starting a GL activity in class for the first time, tell the students that you plan to use these activities regularly because research shows that students learn better by doing than by seeing or listening.
Richard M. Felder, from the department of Chemical Engineering at the University of North Carolina, and Rebeca Brent, from the School of Education at the East Carolina University, suggest that teachers reinforce this idea by incorporating one or more of these (Felder and Brent, 1994):
“They've had the opportunity to experience sitting down at a lecture where the teacher is the only one speaking, and they think they understood the subject. But then, when they try to do the homework, they realize that they didn't really understand. By working actively in class for short periods of time, they can start doing the homework because they understand the lecture as it's being given."
“Even the most dedicated students have trouble focusing in a class for longer than 10 minutes. Their attention starts decreasing, first for short periods of time, and then for longer periods. After 50 minutes, they remember less than 20% of the content. Exercises done in small groups during class reduce boredom and increase the amount of information they pay attention to."

 "If you ask any professor, "When did you learn... (a certain subject)?", in most cases the answer will be "When I taught it." Let's suppose you're trying to explain something and your classmate doesn't get it. You try to explain it in a different way and then you think of an example. Then, you might make an analogy with a familiar subject. After a few minutes, your classmate might still not get it, but you will." 

How do I prepare students for GL?

Putting students into teams doesn't guarantee GL success. The students have learned that school evaluates individual work, so their concept of learning may be based on the idea of competition. After years of competition-based learning, it may be difficult for students to think differently and to learn to think as members of a team.
Usually, it shouldn't be assumed that students know how to work in teams. Some don't know how. Start by introducing the students to GL from the first day. Some successful GL instructors use the first day to explain to the students that they'll use GL techniques and activities.
Brenda Larson, from the Chandler Gilbert Community College, on the first day of class uses an activity called "syllabus jigsaw". She puts students into teams, gives each team a different page in the syllabus and asks them to look for answers to questions about the class.
Robert Melton is an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In his class, students start with an interesting task. He gives the teams uncooked spaghetti, tape and 30 minutes to build a structure as long as they can that's capable of sustaining itself. (Enerson et al, 1997). This fun project gives the students the opportunity to watch other team members and know how they think and work. 

Ted Panitz is an algebra instructor at Cape Cod Community College, and he prepares his students for GL before the first day of class. A few days before classes begin, he sends the students a letter, welcoming them and giving them some motivational words. In the letter, he asks them to buy the textbook before going to class, and he asks them to start working on chapter one, so they are prepared to learn on the first day, which also prepares them to work together. He also asks them to write a math autobiography and to bring it with them on the first day of class. His intention is for students to start thinking about math so they can feel more comfortable when he asks them to discuss their thoughts with others.

Active and equal participation

To assure there will be active and equal participation where everyone has the chance to participate, the students can play roles in a group. Any number of roles in any combination can be used for a wide variety of activities, depending on the size of the group and the task being done. These are some of the roles:
 SUPERVISOR: Monitors the team members and how they understand the subject to be discussed, and stops the work when a team member needs clarification. This person asks, "Does everyone agree?", "Is this the right answer?", "Are you saying we shouldn't continue with the project?", "Are we differentiating between these two categories?" and "Do you have anything to add?"
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE: Questions the ideas and conclusions, offering alternatives. For example, he says, "Are you sure that subject is important?", "Do you think it will really work?"
MOTIVATOR: Makes sure everyone has the chance to participate in the team's work and praises members for their contributions. This student says, "We didn't know anything about you", "Thanks for your help", "That's an excellent answer", "Can we ask for a different opinion?"
MATERIALS ADMINISTRATOR: Provides and organizes the material that's necessary for homework and projects. This student says, "Does anyone need a projector for our next meeting?", "Pens are next to the table, in case you need them".
OBSERVER: Monitors and records the group's behavior based on the list of behaviors they previously wrote. This student makes observations about the group's behavior and says, "I noticed there's less tension now" and "This seems like a great subject we can use for research, can we add it to the agenda for our next meeting?"
SECRETARY: Takes notes during group discussions and prepares a presentation for the whole class. This student says, "Should we present this?", "I'll read this again to make sure this is right".
REPORTER: Summarizes the information and presents it to the whole class. This student says, "I'll present what we've worked on" and "This is what we have accomplished so far".

TIME MONITOR: Monitors the group's progress and efficiency. He says, "Let's go back to the subject", "I think we should move to the next item", "We have three minutes to finish this" and "We're on time".

The GL process

Guiding the students through the GL process requires for the teacher to take many responsibilities. Professor Domínguez Hills and the AC researcher, Susan Prescot, (1997), from the University of California, mention these:   
MOTIVATING the students, catching their interest and attention before introducing new concepts or skills. Some motivational strategies can be: asking the students to explain something, sharing the individual answers relevant to the subject, using visual or auditory stimuli, guessing the answers to questions that will be asked again at the end of the class, etc. 
 PROVIDING the students with a specific experience before explaining an abstract idea or procedure. It can involve doing a demonstration, playing a video or audio, bringing material or physical objects to class, analyzing data, registering observations, inferring the critical differences between the information in columns such as "efficient vs. inefficient", "right vs. wrong", etc.
 VERIFYING the students have understood and that they're actively listening during explanations and demonstrations. Ask the students to show, talk or ask about what they understood. Active listening strategies during a presentation are: completing a phrase, finding an internal mistake, thinking about a question, creating an example, looking for notes that back or contradict what's being presented in class, etc.
OFFERING the students the chance to think about the new information, concepts or skills and to actually apply them. These sessions may include creating arguments in favor or against a specific subject, writing summaries, analyzing information, writing a critique, explaining events, explaining their agreement or disagreement with arguments presented or solving problems.  
REVIEWING the material before the exam. This is the students' responsibility. Ask them to write questions as if they were preparing an exam to specialize in the subject and then to ask each other questions. They may also design a review of the subject or write summaries with important information so they can use them during the exam.
COVERING enough textual information. The students may help each other through reading, writing summaries with blanks or questions that the rest of the students should fill out.

 ASK FOR A SUMMARY after an exam to make sure the students have learned from their exam or project. Direct review sessions after an exam and ask the students to help each other understand alternative answers. It's each student's main responsibility to help his or her classmates.  

Should I intervene when some students complain about other team members?

The teacher should occasionally intervene in the process if the tasks haven't managed to keep the team members together. (Emerson et al, 1997).
The best advice is to guide the team and to let the team resolve their differences independently. Direct intervention requires private meetings with students, with the teacher describing the observed behavior and asking them to make some changes. The teacher can also take the team into his office and discuss the situation to create solutions. Someone should be reassigned to another team only when a solution can't be found. Learning how to resolve group conflicts is part of a successful group's dynamics. Changing a team's members is not a helpful strategy and it can break the balance in the team. When students ask to be swapped, the teachers should warn about a "goodbye" or "divorce" where the team members formally discuss the reasons why there is a problem with that person. The student is responsible for finding a new team.

The teachers should remind the students that conflict can be helpful and can prepare them for similar situations they may have to face in their professional life. Negotiation skills are part of the learning they acquire in GL activities. Groups become stronger when they learn to resolve their differences. Teachers can identify the team's problems by monitoring their progress through reports, group homework, etc. When stating that he's confident about the teams being able to resolve their differences, the teacher will be inspiring confidence in them as well.

Other Questions

How can I group the students if they sit in rows in a big classroom?
Answer: small-group work in a big classroom requires patience and understanding from both teachers and students. While movable tables and chairs are ideal for GL activities, the restrictions caused by the furniture shouldn't interfere with team work. There can be groups of four formed by two people from one row and two from the other row.  
Question: Is it common to find some students who dominate teams and others who don't participate at all? How can this be avoided?

Answer: promote equal participation in the groups by making all the team members feel like they have unique roles within the group and that their role is essential for the group's success. Some of the strategies used to accomplish this are: asking for only one result per team, assigning roles and swapping them, giving each member different critical resources, choosing a team member to explain and summarize the results and the methods used, and then giving a grade to the whole team. 

All of the team members should give a list of participation expectations and group behavior. The students:
Should create ideas about behaviors that could interfere with team work.
Can create a behavior code for all members.
Define acceptable group behavior.
List the behaviors expected from each person, pair, group or from the class in general.
Help the instructor and students portray specific behavior, making everyone feel included and expressing, for example, their disagreements in a constructive manner, offering help and support, asking for clarification and avoiding negative comments.
The instructors should constantly monitor group activities taking place in the classroom, writing down who contributes a lot and who doesn't. It's good to meet the team members in private to communicate any observations. These talks should be friendly and should offer support, showing specific strategies to solve a problem. In the case of teachers who use LS to document an activity's results, this task is simplified because they have access to each team member's contributions and their characteristics, facilitating an intervention if necessary.

How do teachers form small teams?

To divide students into groups, teachers should decide:
The size of the teams.
The duration of the teams.
The way to assign students into teams (Johnson and Johnson, 1999).
Teams can be formed randomly or the team members can be chosen by the students or the teacher. Those who have participated in GL teams agree that the most effective teams are heterogeneous and are chosen by the teacher and not by the students. Some teachers who have successfully applied GLs ask their students to fill up questionnaires on the first day of class. Through these questionnaires, they can get useful information like: gender, average grade, experience and areas of study, most relevant skills, weakest characteristics, etc. These questionnaires can help teachers make groups in a more balanced, varied and compatible way.
What are the functions of teams?
A function of small teams is solving problems. Some typical problem solving procedures are (Enerson et al, 1997):
Each team writes a question and a solution in a piece of paper and makes sure that each member understands it and is able to explain it.
Some students are selected randomly and asked to present their model or solution.
It's expected for all members of the class to discuss and ask questions about all models. The discussion alternates from the whole class to a small group.
Groups evaluate their effectiveness by working together.
Each team prepares and submits a report of activities.

Preferably, groups of students should be small and helpful. They should focus on consensus, negotiation and the development of social and teamwork skills. Still, they could eventually run into some problems.

Forming teams

Why do students learn in small groups?
There are many variations of GL, from pairs of students who work together for a few minutes during class to formal teams who do a semester-long project. Between these two, we can find many activities done in many of the ITESM classrooms.
Small groups give the opportunity to exchange ideas with several people at the same time, in an environment free of competition, since discussions with the whole group tend to inhibit shy students from participating (Cooper, 1996). A formal and carefully-constructed group helps students learn how to work hard and in teams, in a safe and stimulating environment. In order to be effective, teams should be created in open, trusting environments so that the students feel motivated to speculate, innovate, ask and compare ideas as they solve problems. In contrast, in a traditional classroom, students listen to what the professor says – it's the vehicle through which all information is transferred – and then they replicate that information in tests.

Apart from developing social and team work skills, small groups should fulfill academic activities associated with solving problems, which include: making analyses, testing comprehension levels, building work flows and graphical organizers, making estimations, explaining written material, asking and creating questions, making lists and predictions, presenting information, reasoning, gathering references to previously-reviewed material, solving problems, summarizing and thinking creatively.

Classroom transformation through GL

What used to be a lecture has now turned into an open forum for dialogue between students and between students and teachers. Passive students are now active participants in interesting and demanding situations.
In GL classrooms, activities are structured in such a way that students have to explain to each other what they learn. Sometimes, a student gets assigned a specific role inside the team. This way, they can learn from other people's points of view, they can give and receive help from their classmates and help each other research what's being learned.
Terms such as passive, memorization, individual and competitive are not associated with GL (Johnson and Johnson, 1997). On the contrary, the elements that are always present in this type of learning are: 
1. Cooperation. The students support each other to accomplish two things: becoming experts in the content and developing group work skills. The students share goals, resources, accomplishments and understanding from each person's role. A student can't be successful unless the whole team is successful. 
2. Responsibility. Students are individually responsible for the share of the work they have to do. At the same time, everyone in the team should understand all of the tasks assigned to the rest of the classmates.
3. Communication. The members of the team exchange important information and materials. They help each other efficiently and effectively, offering feedback to improve their future performance, analyzing conclusions and thoughts to get better quality thoughts and results.
4. Team work. The students learn to solve problems together, developing leadership, communication, trust, decision-making and conflict-resolution skills.

5. Self-evaluation. Teams should evaluate which actions have been useful and which haven't. The team members establish goals, evaluate their activities periodically and identify the changes to be done to improve their work in the future.

Group Learning

In modern education, group work is an essential ingredient in all teaching activities. We can assert that all projects that use innovating teaching and learning methods or techniques incorporate this type of work as an experience where the learner grows as a person.
Throughout the history of education, we haven't paid much attention to this element. Many authors today are making social intelligence, feelings and affection a priority when it comes to the development of mental activity. This perspective considers that the characteristic feature of the human species is not their ability to understand how the world is organized, but rather the constant interpretation of other people's thoughts, manifested in different ways: with words, actions, and by creating things. This ability allows us to learn from others and helps us understand ourselves. This is the root of the meaning of comprehension: "understanding another person's mind and understanding oneself within that ability." (García Carrasco, 1999)

This agrees with the thought that the socialization process is the essence of education and the essence of the development of human beings' mental abilities. We understand socialization as a growth process for students working in groups.
It might seem that the whole learning process is focused on transmitting knowledge or transferring information. However, the building of knowledge is a process that involves adapting minds. This makes us think about the processes through which our students learn. If communicating with the group helps with the development of a person's mind, and it strengthens group work skills and answers to the type of work it's expected for the person to do in the following years, then educational processes will have to change and go from individual learning to group learning.

This document tries to answer several questions about this learning process: what challenges does the teacher face in this situation, how should he prepare to follow the process, what experiences help group work, what are the roles and responsibilities of students and teachers, and what are some common thoughts on learning environments revolving around this learning process.