Friday, February 17, 2012

Small Groups, Large Class Series (Part II)

Wow! How time flies!

That's what I thought to myself at the end of class today, after our "team meetings" session for this week. I had been moving through the classroom, talking to groups of students and answering questions, when I turned to see that half the class had slipped out. My first reaction was "Oh no! They're not using their in-class group time effectively - have I made a huge mistake?" Then I looked at the clock and realized that indeed, class was over for the day. I guess time really does fly when you're having fun!

At some point I want to talk a little bit about the mechanics of how I'm managing the group work - both what goes into prep as well as what I do during class time - as there are certainly some practical considerations to take into account when attempting team projects in a large class. But today I am thinking about to particular issues that have come up over the past few weeks during team meetings.

The first came up a few weeks ago, and I wasn't actually made aware of it until after class had ended for the day, so I didn't see or hear firsthand what had happened. A student dropped by my office hours later in the day to let me know that there had been a conflict in her group. It seems as though there were several things going on, including different perspectives as to what topic the group should focus on, differences in opinion in how the group should work together, as well as some clashes between strong personalities. Upon reflection, I don't think I handled this situation as well as I could have. 

  • What I did: I listened to the student's side of the story, and asked her permission to speak to the other student involved. I then spoke to him and heard his side. The next time the teams met in class, I made sure to visit their group and made some suggestions about different directions they could take in their project, but I did not mention the previous conflict in the team setting, and no one brought it up.

  • What I think I could have done differently: As one of my objectives for the team projects is to provide students with opportunities to develop and practice skills required for successful collaboration, I suspect that in addition to working with the team on their content, I should also have drawn attention to the conflict, and used it as a teaching moment. I think perhaps I am guilty here of not just trying to avoid conflict rather than learn from it, but also of placing too much emphasis on the product of the team work at the expense of the process of working as a team. Moving forward, I'll be watching this group closely (I checked in with them again today) and taking my cues from the students as to whether or not we need to revisit this issue.

Another issue that arose in class today I think I handled more successfully. As I mentioned in my previous post,  I had created student teams based on the interests students had submitted early in the semester. Perhaps not surprisingly in a class of over 100, some students didn't submit their interests. Perhaps without intending to, these students were communicating to me that they fell into one or several of the following categories: they were not particularly invested in the course, they were not attending class, they were not reading instructions, they were likely to continue to miss deadlines, and ultimately, they may not be particularly reliable team members. So what to do with these students? 

I had a few options. One was to randomly assign these folks to other groups, spreading them out throughout the class. However, I felt that this would be enabling in a way, allowing them to continue to do less than the barre minimum, and furthermore, I felt it could possibly disadvantage the groups they were placed in (as they seemed to be at high risk to become "social loafers"). So what I chose to do was place all of these students in a group together, with a "note to self" that I would need to keep a close eye on them.

For the most part, this has worked out as I expected. Several of the students placed in this rag-tag bunch are no longer enrolled in the course (as they had not paid their tuition by the due date), and at least one has yet to attend class. There is a core group of students who are reliably in class, and they have worked together to choose a topic and get organized. They, understandably, are raising concerns about the others who are inconsistent in their attendance. They want to know if the students who are not contributing will receive the same grade as the rest of the group, and conversely, will they be docked for not having the contributions of the missing students?

Assigning grades on group projects is something I had prepared for well in advance (and had already explained to students, but keep in mind, these are the students who weren't completely on board at the beginning of the semester). There are several methods of doing this, but based on past experience, I prefer Fink's method, which basically involves having students consider a set of criteria and then distribute 100 points among their fellow team members, and leave feedback explaining their evaluation. I then use these peer evaluations and my assessment of the group project to calculate each individual student's grade. This method, and others like it (see also Michaelsen's method, in the same volume), allows students the flexibility to differentiate between team members who contributed and those who did not, and ensures that peer evaluations impact student's individual grades such that they are more likely to take both their contributions to the group, as well as the peer evaluation process, seriously. I typically ask students to complete peer evaluations both at midterm and at the end of the semester, so that students who are viewed by their group as not pulling their weight have time to consider this feedback and improve their performance.

By the next time you hear from me, I will have reviewed the midterm round of peer evaluations, and provided teams with feedback on a substantial part of their projects. I'm sure I'll have plenty more to rant and rave about! 

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


  1. Oh boy. Michaelsen would frown on your method of assigning students to teams! Teams should all share the liabilities and strengths of the class members. Your bias hamstrung the alleged "social loafers" group.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Neal. I reflected on this when assigning the groups, but for many reasons (including what I talked about in the post), I decided against it. Another reason - and I don't know if I can explain this clearly - was that there were many students in class who didn't get into their "first choice" of group (based on topic), so it didn't seem fair to put someone who hadn't done their prep work into a group someone else really wanted to be a part of. I think that there was no perfect solution here, but it does end up being an interesting experiment - if these students were placed in other groups, they may have ended up being social loafers. However, putting them all in one group seems to have forced them to band together and perhaps better demonstrate their own strengths than they would have had they had other folks to rely on. I'll continue to update everyone on this group in particular in later posts.