Introduction, Notes from the Collaborative Classroom pt 1

This posting is broken out into sub-postings for sake of readability:

  • Intro
  • Group Work
  • Workflow and Mechanics of Evaluations
  • Projects


I’ve slowly been expanding collaborative learning within my courses, from testing out group essays within Freshman Composition classes, to group projects within Early American Literature classes which included projects (and presentations) on specific short stories as well as creating a video essay on larger topics such as, what is American Literature. In addition to my own earlier attempts, my interest in group projects was further fueled after having read discussions on collaborative learning and general education reform within the HASTAC community forums. While I was at first skeptical of contract grading, the concept was intriguing and seemed like it could possibly fit in with my previous class group work. So I decided to give the idea the proverbial “old college try” and last year, conducted a larger classroom experiment by building the entire semester around collaboration–not just for students, but for myself as well.

Teaching Style

Being able to integrate your teaching style/philosophy into whichever pedagogical camp subscribe to is of primary importance. My own style requires less straight lecturing and more student interaction. You might call it a cousin to the throw-students-into-the lake-and-let-them-swim approach. That is, I feel students learn best by struggling with the material themselves more than by lecturing alone. Of course, I do lecture, but generally by way of asking questions and playing devil’s advocate in order to get a discussion going regarding the day’s particular topic, slowly getting students to develop themselves the connections between the material.

It seems to me that no matter the subject, the courses are really about critical thinking skills, that is, slowing down all the information or processes we take for granted, and holding them up to a magnifying glass. And while I cannot physically pull and poke students’ thoughts, I am able to ask questions during these struggles that help students discover a direction in which to take them.

In terms of collaborative learning (well, any learning) the trick always seems to rest with the How of incorporating these questions into assignments and projects that can also be evaluated in a way that is useful to the student (beyond a numbered ranking) as well as to my own skills.

There is much more to collaborative work within a particular class than just having students work in groups. This posting is about sharing last year’s experiences within my Technical Writing courses in regard to the class structure itself as well as the group work.

Whereof what’s past

The first time I taught a Technical Writing class was back in 2009 and began somewhat awkwardly. I had at first tried following chapter by chapter the assigned textbook, which was more centered on business writing than that of the larger field of technical writing—that is, they were more focused on particular formats and elements in sort of a recipe approach rather than larger discussions on why or how the ingredients worked alone and with others, which only encouraged students to throw in such ingredients without much consideration for why they used them (“It looked nice” was the typical justification). I also made the mistake of trying to teach HTML in order for students to create their own websites. We spent a week at the beginning of the semester going over basics, and then they were to turn in a first version of their websites for their midterms, then revise them for the Final, incorporating principles they learned during the semester. In the end, many students “cheated” by using pre-made templates which removed all of the design decisions they were supposed to be focusing on for that project. While I believe learning HTML basics is valuable for other courses, there are so many tools and platforms available for document design projects, such as WordPress, that learning HTML only gets in the way for this particular course. If this were a Digital Writing course, for example, starting off with coding their own websites would be invaluable before moving into other platforms in that students would learn what those other platforms would be “helping” them with as well as gaining insight on how they might customize such tools.

One thing that worked really well was the workshop format of the class in that it fostered critical thinking skills from both the individual as well as the group aspects. Groups organized a very short presentation of their projects (three minutes) focused not so much on the content goal of a particular subject, but rather, on the details of the project itself, such as why the student chose one font over another. Or the size of it. Or color. Or placement. The presentations were to focus on the choices the groups made with their particular audience in mind as well as the goal of the document. After the presentations, the class would then workshop the project, while the particular creators took notes,  remained silent until after we were finished with the discussion (here, my poetry workshop roots show). At the beginning of the semester, I usually would start the discussions in order to demonstrate the sorts of details and issues I was trying to get them to focus on—as well as to steer them away from comments like, “Oh, I like the colors she used” and instead concentrate their comments on why the element in question was effective or not (again, in terms of the project’s stated audience and goal of its document). After only a few classes, the classes began leading the discussions.

As with all classes, I’m always discovering areas that need improvement. What follows are notes and examples about what I changed or added as well as issues I came across that I hadn’t before considered. In the next post, I discuss group work.  pt 2

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