Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Classes without Borders: Group Work without Grouping

By Courtney Gibbons

My Basic Writing students have been griping about group work since the second week of class this semester. You see, in Fall I discovered by the middle of the semester--to my chagrin-- that we had been doing so much individual work that the students hardly knew each other. So this summer I put together some excellent questions for students to discuss the main texts of the class. Then it turned out that THIS class just does not like to work in teams at all. *sigh*

Before you write to tell me about the latest strategies for group work, let me tell you I pretty much tried All Combinations Known to Man: informal, formal, with assigned roles, without assigned roles, etc. In the process, I discovered their particular issues were a) some students feeling they were doing all the work; b) personality differences and shyness; c) a reluctance to part with their space (a.k.a. "their" computer in the lab).

This last issue intrigued me. As one student explained to me, in a regular classroom she did not care about moving her chair for group work because she brought all her stuff with her, but she did not like having to leave her station to go sit at someone else's place, especially if it meant logging out from her computer, logging in to a new computer and then having to complete both steps again after we were done with group work.

As I was mulling about what she said, it suddenly struck me: I was doing group work as if it were a regular classroom, but the computer classroom is not a regular classroom. So I decided to try a way of doing group work that took better advantage of the online environment:

I created separate Google Docs, one per group, with questions for the group. I assigned each student to a group. Each student read the questions, answered them individually from her computer (no grouping), and signed them so we could recognize her contribution to the discussion. If the student finished her work early, she was to check the work of the other groups (all questions and Docs were posted on my blog).

When everyone in the group was done (and I could check their progress every few minutes just by clicking on the Google Docs), each student read her group mates' answers and considered what she wanted to say about what she had read to the class. Only then did we open the discussion to the whole class, with different members of the group explaining the group's ideas and acknowledging their group mates' ideas by using phrases such as "As Y explains in the group document..." and me writing their main points on the whiteboard for everyone in the class to take notes.

The discussion is to be followed by each student writing a blog entry for homework that answers one (any) of the group questions by incorporating and acknowledging the ideas from group members into the entry.

While on the surface it would seem that I merely reversed the traditional order of group work (discussion leads to writing), what happened was a bit more complicated, as the individual answers at points doubled as discussion when students edited their responses to connect to their peers and later, when they acknowledged each other's contribution in the large group discussion.

Also, my students' feedback on the exercise was overwhelmingly positive: pretty much every single student gave it a thumbs up, though their reasons ranged from "I can get other people's opinions easily and I can really work with them because we write it at the same time so that we can help each other" to "Now we don't have to do work for other students who are lazy" (?!)

So, I am going to tweak the activity and try it again next semester. In the meantime, I invited Jason's classes to use my group Google Docs  for their group work. I can't wait to see if my students incorporate his students' answers into their blog entries. :-D


  1. Intriguing idea - sounds more complicated to set up than it probably is. I'll be in a lab in Fall so I'll have to try it then. Now I spend too much time online and the only lab time is dedicated to Digication!

  2. sorry about the double post but Blogger said it couldn't publish my comment so when I hit the back button there were now 2 comments - I think you can delete comment as administrator but I don't have that access

  3. Hey ProfSusan--

    Nae problemo. (I think you are allowed to trash your own comments forever, however).

    What I was trying to say earlier is more like this: this online group work can also be done in stages (since Docs works sort of as a wiki), with students revising their responses in time. Then when the class is ripe for a discussion, we get together and discuss.

  4. This was my first time using a shared Google Doc with the whole class and they found it really cool to see others at work. I think I will try to use Google Docs more in the future. It has a completely different feel from Google Groups.

  5. Don't do the whole class at once, though--too much overload for the doc. Of course they could cut and paste from MSWord, but then the fun of seeing people write is gone.

    Also, I chatted with two of the students while they were working with the Docs chat function. :-)

  6. I appreciate the way you're constantly thinking through both the objectives and the execution of your online activities, and I expect that your experimentation with group work using Google Docs will yield positive results. At the same time, I'm still thinking about that student who projected ownership over "her" space. I've encountered students with different, but what I'd classify as similarly immature responses to classroom directives ("I don't like to do that," "I don't want to work with him," etc.), and it seems to me that they require not only the immediate learning intended in the activity (say, improved critical skills, or a more focused essay) but also learning about HOW to learn and to interact with others--professionalization, socialization, that kind of thing. In other words, the student who won't do X needs to learn that, in the world outside of LaGuardia, whether at a transfer institution, in the workplace, etc., "I don't want to" is generally not received warmly and is often outright unacceptable; practically speaking, the Bartleby act won't take one very far. SO... (and sorry if I'm sounding roundabout and obtuse here) I wonder whether the process of altering the form to build the better online assignment--while meeting your immediate goal--might be indirectly reinforcing this student's (and possibly others') grossly mistaken sense that her "likes" are always going to be valued. With increasing attention--on campus as well as nationally--to transfer as "preparation for later success" (as opposed to just thinking about destination), it seems to me that there's still an important place for developing these skills among LaGuardia students. Does that make any sense?

  7. @ C: Well, we did do a lot of the regular group work for much of the semester, much to the students' vocal dislike, and I did have the exact discussion about teamwork in the workplace you mentioned (see? I said I had tried All Combinations Known to Man). Trust me, a few whiny students are not going to stop me from completing perfectly decent group activities.

    BUT I wanted a) to listen and consider to what the students had to say and b)really think about how the computers labs (which are NOT, nor ever were designed to be classrooms) may be better used to engage students in group work.