SIGCSE 2013: Special Session on Designing and Supporting Collaborative Learning Activities

Katrina and I delivered a special session on collaborative learning activities, focused on undergraduates because that’s our area of expertise. You can read the outline document here. We worked together on the underlying classroom activities and have both implemented these techniques but, in this session, Katrina did most of the presenting and I presented the collaborative assessment task examples, with some facilitation.

The trick here is, of course, to find examples that are both effective as teaching tools and are effective as examples. The approach I chose to take was to remind everyone in the room of what the most important aspects were to making this work with students and I did this by deliberately starting with a bad example. This can be a difficult road to walk because, when presenting a bad example, you need to convince everyone that your choice was deliberate and that you actually didn’t just stuff things up.

My approach was fairly simple. Break people into groups, based on where they were currently sitting, and then I immediately went into the question, which had been tailored for the crowd and for my purposes:

“I want you to talk about the 10 things that you’re going to do in the next 5 years to make progress in your career and improve your job performance.”

And why not? Everyone in the room was interested in education and, most likely, had a job at a time when it’s highly competitive and hard to find or retain work – so everyone has probably thought about this. It’s a fair question for this crowd.

Well, it would be, if it wasn’t so anxiety inducing. Katrina and I both observed a sea of frozen faces as we asked a question that put a large number of participants on the spot. And the reason I did this was to remind everyone that anxiety impairs genuine participation and willingness to engage. There were a large number of frozen grins with darting eyes, some nervous mumbles and a whole lot of purposeless noise, with the few people who were actually primed to answer that question starting to lead off.

I then stopped the discussion immediately. “What was wrong with that?” I asked the group.

Well, where do we start? Firstly, it’s an individual activity, not a collaborative activity – there’s no incentive or requirement for discussion, groupwork or anything like that. Secondly, while we might expect people to be able to answer this, it is a highly charged and personal areas, and you may not feel comfortable discussing your five year plan with people that you don’t know. Thirdly, some people know that they should be able to answer this (or at least some supervisors will expect that they can) but they have no real answer and their anxiety will not only limit their participation but it will probably stop them from listening at all while they sweat their turn. Finally, there is no point to this activity – why are we doing this? What are we producing? What is the end point?

My approach to collaborative activity is pretty simple and you can read any amount of Perry, Dickinson, Hamer et al (and now us as well) to look at relevant areas and Contributing Student Pedagogy, where students have a reason to collaborate and we manage their developmental maturity and their roles in the activity to get them really engaged. Everyone can have difficulties with authority and recognising whether someone is making enough contribution to a discussion to be worth their time – this is not limited to students. People, therefore, have to believe that the group they are in is of some benefit to them.

So we stepped back. I asked everyone to introduce themselves, where they came from and give a fact about their current home that people might not know. Simple task, everyone can do it and the purpose was to tell your group something interesting about your home – clear purpose, as well. This activity launched immediately and was going so well that, when I tried to move it on because the sound levels were dropping (generally a good sign that we’re reaching a transition), some groups asked if they could keep going as they weren’t quite finished. (Monitoring groups spread over a large space can be tricky but, where the activity is working, people will happily let you know when they need more time.) I was able to completely stop the first activity and nobody wanted me to continue. The second one, where people felt that they could participate and wanted to say something, needed to keep going.

Having now put some faces to names, we then moved to a simple exercise of sharing an interesting teaching approach that you’d tried recently or seen at the conference and it’s important to note the different comfort levels we can accommodate with this – we are sharing knowledge but we give participants the opportunity to share something of themselves or something that interest them, without the burden of ownership. Everyone had already discovered that everyone in the group had some areas of knowledge, albeit small, that taught them something new. We had started to build a group where participants valued each other’s contribution.

I carried out some roaming facilitation where I said very little, unless it was needed. I sat down with some groups, said ‘hi’ and then just sat back while they talked. I occasionally gave some nodded or attentive feedback to people who looked like they wanted to speak and this often cued them into the discussion. Facilitation doesn’t have to be intrusive and I’m a much bigger fan of inclusiveness, where everyone gets a turn but we do it through non-verbal encouragement (where that’s possible, different techniques are required in a mixed-ability group) to stay out of the main corridor of communication and reduce confrontation. However, by setting up the requirement that everyone share and by providing a task that everyone could participate in, my need to prod was greatly reduced and the groups mostly ran themselves, with the roles shifting around as different people made different points.

We covered a lot of the underlying theory in the talk itself, to discuss why people have difficulty accepting other views, to clarify why role management is a critical part of giving people a reason to get involved and something to do in the conversation. The notion that a valid discursive role is that of the supporter, to reinforce ideas from the proposer, allows someone to develop their confidence and critically assess the idea, without the burden of having to provide a complex criticism straight away.

At the end, I asked for a show of hands. Who had met someone knew? Everyone. Who had found out something they didn’t know about other places? Everyone. Who had learned about a new teaching technique that they hadn’t known before. Everyone.

My one regret is that we didn’t do this sooner because the conversation was obviously continuing for some groups and our session was, sadly, on the last day. I don’t pretend to be the best at this but I can assure you that any capability I have in this kind of activity comes from understanding the theory, putting it into practice, trying it, trying it again, and reflecting on what did and didn’t work.

I sometimes come out of a lecture or a collaborative activity and I’m really not happy. It didn’t gel or I didn’t quite get the group going as I wanted it to – but this is where you have to be gentle on yourself because, if you’re planning to succeed and reflecting on the problems, then steady improvement is completely possible and you can get more comfortable with passing your room control over to the groups, while you move to the facilitation role. The more you do it, the more you realise that training your students in role fluidity also assists them in understanding when you have to be in control of the room. I regularly pass control back and forward and it took me a long time to really feel that I wasn’t losing my grip. It’s a practice thing.

It was a lot of fun to give the session and we spent some time crafting the ‘bad example’, but let me summarise what the good activities should really look like. They must be collaborativeinclusiveachievable and obviously beneficial. Like all good guidelines there are times and places where you would change this set of characteristics, but you have to know your group well to know what challenges they can tolerate. If your students are more mature, then you push out into open-ended tasks which are far harder to make progress in – but this would be completely inappropriate for first years. Even in later years, being able to make some progress is more likely to keep the group going than a brick wall that stops you at step 1. But, let’s face it, your students need to know that working in that group is not only not to their detriment, but it’s beneficial. And the more you do this, the better their groupwork and collaboration will get – and that’s a big overall positive for the graduates of the future.

To everyone who attended the session, thank you for the generosity and enthusiasm of your participation and I’m catching up on my business cards in the next weeks. If I promised you an e-mail, it will be coming shortly.

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