by Doris Carey, Faculty Member, Faculty of Academic and Career Preparation, VIU

doris shoesWhen designing a course, writing a syllabus, preparing assignments and deciding on assessment strategies, I try to remember how I felt about my instructors’ design decisions when I was a student.

I can’t think of many times that I felt comfortable in a group situation. I certainly didn’t think I learned much from cooperative groups either.

That isn’t to say that I love a competitive environment. I never have understood why any part of education had to be competitive. Many teachers love to set up classroom groups in competition with one another. If not for my innate Canadian manners, I would have happily walked out of the room on those days.

My main problem with cooperative learning situations, though, was that group members slowed down my thinking and learning with their recaps and low-level questions, their summaries and their clarifications. I just wanted to say, “We get it, we get it. Move on!” But everyone had their roles to play out and we all lived in fear of getting a low score from our peers if they had nothing on which to base a grade. None of it felt authentic.

My discomfort with snail-paced group experiences has been somewhat echoed in Maryellen Weimer’s (The Teaching Professor, February 1, 2014) article titled Cooperative Learning Structures and Deep Learning. She concludes that students don’t trust instruction that leaves questions unanswered and they dread having to turn in group projects when students don’t trust one another to prepare well and meet deadlines.

I hear horror stories every day from my own students who are upset that they may fail an important class because group members didn’t come through on time.

As I reflect on these experiences, I also recall how much my deepest learning has, in fact, been in group situations: not the contrived, controlled, scripted classroom environments with roles assigned and readings handed out. I’m referring to a group of students and instructors animatedly discussing and debating, thinking on their feet, and bringing up clever points. I love the mental sparring, the twists and turns of a conversation going its own way, and the very stimulation of academic discourse in a natural setting.

I ask myself what the essential ingredients are for a satisfying group discussion. I speak only for myself, but I think many students might agree: (a) Group members don’t have to agree philosophically or politically, but they cannot be in the dark about the topic. Clearly, those who don’t know the topic won’t participate (and we hope they won’t) and expert knowledge or experience are welcome, such as when one of the enthusiastic participants happens to be a teacher; (b) The topic arises spontaneously and leads to many other threads. If anyone wants to go back to a previous topic, they’re welcome to lead the group back, but it’s done out of interest, not out of obligation to a script; and (c) The discussion doesn’t have to end. It can continue on Facebook, in e-mails, in person, at the pub . . . as many interesting conversations do.

The spontaneous format isn’t practical in classrooms, but it teaches me one important point. The discussion follows the stimulus and not the other way around. In other words, an arbitrary topic won’t become interesting when it’s turned into a group experience. An interesting topic can become a group experience when it’s already exciting and learners clamour to participate.

You don’t have to do all the reflecting in advance either.  Much of my deeper learning occurs as I discuss a topic and refine my ideas.

Weimer cites Herrmann’s research on cooperative learning (2013). The main conclusions from the research were that student opinion was divided according to how participants felt about the tutor conducting the intervention: they wanted the tutor to ” clarify which answers were correct and do more teaching.”  Also, the students “won’t engage in deep discussions with peers unless they see the value of those exchanges in terms of their own achievement.”

As instructional designers, we should keep those concerns in mind when using group activities in our classrooms. Somewhere in the equation, we need to find a niche for passion.

Reference: Herrmann, K.J. (2013). The impact of cooperative learning on student engagement: Results from an intervention. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14 (3), 175-187.