Group Work

By Ruth Frickle - Spring 2016

So Jack Harton, as ‘curator’ (that word really needs a rest) of this site asked me to write about how I use group work, why I use group work, and more along those lines.

I have, depending on the course, always used group work in my classes to some extent.  In the human relations class (PSYCH120), group work predominated (yes, right, you must relate to humans in the human relations class), while in general psychology (PSYC&100) and other courses I tended to use group work as ancillary to lecture.  What I am now doing in general psychology is actually a very specific approach with strong research underpinnings, which is called ‘inter-teaching’.  There are a lot of similar models out there, including the moderate/high structure model that is used by Sarah Eddy and her colleagues.  The inter-teaching model has been developed and used in psychology classes for several years, and assessed for effectiveness.  The strength of the model enticed Sue Frantz to give it a whirl, and she in her quiet but infectious way got me thinking about it.  So, between the power of Sarah Eddy’s research, which shows the positive impact on students of color that this approach can have, and the proximity of Sue’s work with it, I have implemented a version of it over the past year.  It is a work in progress, but I’m excited about it.

The model is this: students have a set of guided reading questions to answer before they come to class.  In class, they discuss their answers, try to clarify concepts for one another, and identify what concepts are troublesome enough that they would like me to lecture on them.  Students get points for doing the reading questions, but their answers are assessed for depth rather than accuracy.  The idea is to for them to wrestle with the content by reading the text in a focused way before I talk about it.  They’re bound to grasp some stuff but not other stuff, and that’s good for learning.  The discussions give them a chance to explain concepts to one another, and challenge each other for clarity.  Discursive practice has value that we as teachers understand well, as most of us report we understand our content better after we’ve taught it.  They also earn points for participating in discussion.  I briefly lecture on the concepts they are most challenged by as a supplement to the work they’re already doing and hopefully ensure depth of understanding.

I’ve been very happy with the level of engagement that I see from students.  They do the work and submit it on time, they are active in discussion, they attend, and they stick with it pretty enthusiastically.  The level of mastery (as reflected in their means on exams) is somewhat better than with my previous approach, but I can see that they could get even more from the process and perhaps do better.  I think that greater improvements in mastery can come if I work with them on building some skills that most of them don’t currently seem to have.  One of the things that I would like to help them with is better discussions.  Their approach to discussing the reading and the questions tends to be each reading their answers to the questions to each other.  Many (most?) don’t seem to know how to think about someone else’s answers, to explore examples, or to reflect on their own understanding.  I’ve begun to dig around for ways that I might begin to help them develop these skills and found some possibilities, but I want to ask you for your help.  Have you encountered this issue?  What do you do to remediate?  What possible interventions have you heard of or think of as promising (but perhaps have not used)?