Collaborative Learning and Teaching

Over the last few years or so, whether I was teaching a composition class or some other course like tech writing, I usually incorporated a group project that involved a group writing assignment (for example an essay or brochure). Students usually resisted this–heck, I would have not liked it back in my undergraduate days. And even now, I find it hard to let myself rely on others to do their work or at least up to some sort of standard that comes to me while looking at their work… But having worked in the world outside of academia, the corporate world, I found that many minds help to not only solve problems but also help to develop creative approaches to begin with–approaches I may have been resistant to, had I even been lucky enough to think of them myself. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Personality, personal agendas can get in the way. However, good or bad, all of these group projects, at the very least, always had the one benefit of making us actually start a project. And there is much to be said for starting. In writing terms, that means dirtying that awful blank page staring back at us. I’ve found that in college, especially the 101 and 102 composition courses, such group writing had the effect of showing less than good writers examples of better writing and how it worked down to a sentence level–at least if they happened to be paired with a better writer. And if they weren’t, the group dynamic still helped because they were able to challenge one another, speaking out when the sentences or ideas didn’t make sense–they may have not known how to fix them, but it gave them enough of a feeling of solidarity as well as confidence of having honestly tried, to come ask for my advice–which is another difficult thing to get students to do at the beginning of the semester.

I had planned on doing the same thing this semester for my Early American Literature class. However, the weekend before classes started, I happened to read Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  I thought her Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America was an excellent piece of scholarship. Now You See It was more of an evangelical piece, particularly promoting education reform, for which it does a terrific job, and I recommend it, especially for teachers. Basically, it inspired me to try more collaborative work for this class, even for setting up the class itself, where the students decide what to do for class projects as well as the midterm exam and Final.

I thought about implementing the crowdsourced and contract grading system Davidson discusses on the HASTAC blogs. At first I was really resistant to this idea because I couldn’t see how quality control fit in. But finally, I realized that the crowd sourced part was the quality control part of it, using the contracts as the measuring stick (however, I’ve still to come up with a good response to a fellow teacher’s response to the contract part : “Well, isn’t that really how the normal grading (a,b,c, f) along with a description of that grading system works?”). The trick is, I think, to make sure all work is open to all students. And so at first, I had planned on using Moodle forums to make it easier for that visibility to occur (hoping that would also motivate students to turn in better work than they might otherwise do).

In this spirit of collaborative learning/teaching, I got my students’ opinion about this setup. Almost without fail, students said that they wanted a way to make this anonymous. And they had cited good reasons:  negative feedback from fellow group members, as well as other people in the class, might could create a hostile environment. I explained to them that that was part of the course goals—learning how to give and receive feedback in ways that helps everyone—skills also needed in the business world (dept meetings, team projects, etc.). But the push-back was unanimous. And so, I switch to individual uploadings of these  assignments to Moodle so that I could gather/collated evaluations then distribute a compilation in order to keep them private. Because of this, I decided to drop the crowd sourced/contract grading. I still am interested in the idea, and will try it out next semester, hopefully—it’s just that I needed more planning than the weekend before classes!

Originally, the assignment schedule looked like this: I had a set of readings assigned for each class. Instead of giving reading quizzes, the students would be responsible for uploading to Moodle, one question (and its answer) about the author (sometimes two authors) we were discussing that day.  For each class day, two groups would present a particular author/text we were covering (based on our reading schedule). Although I would have preferred to have only one presentation per class where I could spend more time with setting up contexts, there are 38 students in the class, necessitating that two group per class presented (so as to have a grade beside homework grade before the midterm).  The rest of the class was also responsible for filling out an evaluation form for each presentation, consisting of ranking from 1-4 the areas of Subject Knowledge, Organization, and Delivery. Additionally, they were required to give comments on specific things that they found helpful to understanding the text/author as well as suggestions on how the group might have improved the presentation. And to help the students with paying attention, they were also to include one question with its answer based on the material from the presentation. They were to upload these evaluations to Moodle by the start of the next class. The members of the group presentations obviously did not need to fill out the form. However, they were given a week to upload to Moodle a 3-5 page evaluation essay of their experience of the project, discussing what their goal was, how each of the other people’s contributions helped or hurt the presentation, as well as their own contributions, and what they learned or might have done differently.

All of this was happening every class. Although this seems like a lot of things for each student to be responsible for each class, I thought they were fairly small in scope and manageable. I was looking for ways to engage them in the texts as well as discussions of the texts beyond the typical reading quiz. However, I forgot that I had to provide comments for everything. The grading was based on completion rather than quality, but even so, commenting on their comments, etc took much time that would have been better spent elsewhere.  I quickly decided that we were going to do things differently once we were through the midterm, though I am willing to keep on due to the improvement.

My Moodle setup has been somewhat of a nightmare—in terms of my keeping track of everything. So no matter what, this part is going to change.

Here’s just a snapshot of the schedule but it should illustrate the management issue I created:


The Midterm assignment was a 3-5 page compare and contrast essay of two authors/texts we had discussed so far (anything from writing/rhetorical styles, to evolution of belief systems—or anything else). As I mentioned, the class was involved with coming up with their assignments. However, for the midterm, they showed no imagination–everyone want a traditional test of sorts. This was disappointing (I really don’t believe literature ought to be about memorization of facts). So I decided to give them an example of what to expect on such a test. They changed their minds, but still refused to suggest anything in place of it. So that’s how we ended up with an essay. Looking back, it wasn’t a bad idea. But still, I’m surprised at the resistance to move from one form of education to a new one.

How has all this worked so far?

Most of the reading questions/answers came right out of the Heath anthology introductions at first, rather than from the text.  I really wanted to grade them on quality to motivate them, but as the semester progressed, and as I commented heavily on them, the questions greatly improved, and so I feel satisfied with how most students were progressing with their critical readings:

 

Here’s an example of the evaluation forms the students used for the group presentations:

I would then add all of their responses to a spreadsheet:

Notice the grade at the bottom. This was my version of crowdsource grading. It included not only my own evaluation but the rest of the class’s as well. I noticed that students consistently either wanted to not ever say anything negative (“I wouldn’t change a thing” along with “Great job!” variety), or they tended to be very critical of the performance part of the presentation. Much more so than myself. Again, with lots of commenting on their evaluations from me, these evaluations started to focus more on the content and what helped the student understand the author or text better–and what didn’t.

I would then make a copy of the spreadsheet, removing the students’ names, and print it to a pdf file, which I then sent to the group members:

As I expected, the presentations improved with each group. It was rewarding that their peers noticed this as well:

Again, I was surprised though, that given they could do anything–and I mean anything (i.e. put Thomas Paine on trial over his Age of Reason), everyone one did the exact same thing:  a PowerPoint presentation, beginning with a bio, and then using quotes, along with some questions for the class. And that’s a perfectly reasonable way to do it. However, I was hoping that being not only allowed but cheered on to do anything out of the box, it would have inspired more people to try different things. My guess is that everyone settled on the idea of what constituted a “presentation” based on what the first group did. But that aside, some things that I noticed about the presentations, was that most groups in the beginning, focused on biography–usually lifted directly from the Heath introductions, as well as, giving a plot summary–rather than digging into the text itself. But I honestly expected this. What works well about these presentation formats, though, is that it allows me to lecture during their presentation based on what points they bring up, providing context and explanations of issues that the groups might not have brought up, or elaborating on the importance of points they did bring to the class’ attention. I noticed that this sort of movement, these shiftings of attention, help keep the class engaged (as opposed to my lecturing the whole period while they try to stay awake–it’s an 8am class). And for the group members, it gives them the opportunity to learn a lot more about (at least one of) the works.

When it came to the groups evaluation essays (of their presentation experience) as well as the Midterm compare/contrast essays, they were a disaster. It was as if they had forgotten everything from their 101 and 102 classes about what makes an essay an essay, or even how  paragraph works. They also tended to be very general–so much so, that often it was unclear that the evaluation’s topic had anything to do with a presentation of an early American writer. Having said this, though, there were a couple of outstanding essays. But for the rest, instead of marking them with poor grades, I decided to let them revise them. Although I provided a lot of feedback, both on essay mechanics as well as content, I also advised them to work with our Writing Center before resubmitting them. It’s not that I’m an overly-kind teacher (I normally wouldn’t want to regrade two sets of 38 essays), but I don’t believe poor writing ought to prevent passing a class on literature–it’s not the goal of this particular course (which is to see how the different belief systems have evolved and still are present within our culture), though it’s one of the few tools by which I can evaluate whether or not they’ve reach that goal. It was also a chance to remind students that the structure and mechanics they learned in 101 and 102 aren’t just there to torment them, but to help make their ideas clear. I’ve only started to grade their revisions, but so far, they look much, much stronger. In retrospect, I think what happened was that they believed since this was not a writing course, they didn’t need to worry about their writing. Along with their revisions, I received many notes thanking me for the opportunity to make those revisions. Gratitude goes a long way.

The original plan for the semester was to two group presentations (before and after the midterm). And I’m still all for them doing that, however, I wanted to be able to slow down after such a flurry of activity during the first part of the semester. I opened up the question of what our next project should be to the class asking them to submit ideas. Only one person responded–doing some sort of skit (which could be fun and informative). I could just say “Okay, since only one person responded, we’ll just do the same thing as the first presentation.” Instead, however, I’m trying to get them to explore different methods, to be inventive, imaginative. And though I’m greatly nervous as to what people will come up with, I’ve decided to put the creative ball back in their court, and ask them to each submit a proposal for a group project. The reason why I am nervous is that I’m guessing many will want to do the same thing as they did for the first one. But, honestly, this is still okay. What it also does, though, is to open the doors for some people to try, if they want, something different.

Given their own resistance to things new, I also decided to help them be creative for the Final. Instead of a written exam or essay, they are going to make a 10-15 minute video, interviewing people. That is, they are treating this as an experiment based on a question they have developed from our readings. I gave them a base question that I myself am interested in:  what makes American literature American? But they could also develop their own. For instance, one group is thinking about exploring the idea that, given we believe our country was founded on religious freedom (they could pull ideas from Winthrop, the Declaration, etc…),  are we really free to believe as much as we think we are? I think given the nature of the current Republican debates, it’s a great question. Some have already prepared a proposal and met with me to make sure they were clear on what the project was about as well as help them narrow down their question and possible methods for exploring it.  They are actually becoming excited (whereas at first, they let out a collective groan…).

I’ll post later on how things work out…

For now, a final thought on collaborative learning/teaching: it takes planning and time. However, even though I decided on this setup at the last second, there is something to also be said for the forced organic nature of it. I’m tickled with how this class is shaping up and how the students’ critical eyes are developing. But this kind of approach is more than just about teachers being willing to try something new; it’s also about overcoming students’ own resistance to new ways of teaching/learning–which is something I haven’t heard discussed before. It seems that, generally, it’s assumed students are demanding new ways of instruction–and that may be the case; but for me, it seems that that’s only the case when it doesn’t involve any changes on the students’ part. If so, there is a lot of resistance. In this sense, the collaboration seems to need to to occur even in the decision to collaborate.

UPDATE or the Rest of the Story:  a followup to an ealier post on Collaborative Learning and Teaching…

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