Sunday, September 25, 2011

Establishing Effective Student Groups

In a YouTube video Randy Nelson of Pixar University discusses how they use collaboration to create their hit films. Wiki's and backchat rooms discuss how their online tools can encourage collaboration. And education talks about the need to teach students the 21st Century skill of collaboration. But what does collaboration really mean? What must exist for a group to truly collaborate? How can a teacher help support a heterogeneous group of students become collaborators? If I can suggest that the goal of collaboration is to produce a better product then I believe there are four suggestions that can be implemented.

Group Contracts and Daily Planning Meetings -
It is imperative that the group of students create a contract at the beginning of each project. These contracts should include contact information, group goals and responsibilities, as well as consequences and steps to "firing" if such a need arises. The first group contract will likely be weak and not effective. Using this as a teachable moment and allowing for group processing at the end of each project will time to lead towards improved contracts.

After the contract has been developed it needs to be revisited each day during a daily group meeting. The first group meeting may last 5-10 minutes but additional meetings should take no longer then 3 minutes. These meeting should start with each group member opening a copy of the contract, a designated individual then will ask if anyone has any concerns. Next, a second group member will ask each teammate to view the daily responsibility sheet. At this point the group reviews whats needs to be done that day, who is to do what, and how will results be shared with the rest of the group.

Daily Reflection/Self Assessment
At the end of each day students need to take two minutes to reflect on their own performance. Did they follow the group contract? Did they fulfill their responsibilities and complete the task they had agreed to do? Did they demonstrate proficiency in regards to the school wide learning outcome (SWLO) or the 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, self-directed work ethic). This reflection can be shared in a debriefing session with the group, as an exit slip question with the instructor, or completed in a google form. This reflection is perhaps one of the most important steps because it creates accountability; self accountability!

Creating Experts
In the "real world" productive teams do not succeed by having each individual perform the same task but rather each member fulfills a role to move the organization forward. Teachers should have students do the same, working in a parallel fashion, sharing ideas, and improving the group project. By not doing this an instructor is inadvertently destroying group interdependence.

To create positive interdependence (Fisher - Productive Group Work) an instructor can offer expert courses or workshops in which only one group member may come to. This makes that student valuable to the group while allowing the group to continue progressing in other areas of the project. Examples of workshops that could be offered include; how to use movie making software, using proper citations, or tips to creating an persuasive presentation.

A twist to the expert groups is to call for check-in meetings. This process is to serve as a formative assessment of each groups progress. In this setting, one representative from each group will meet with the instructor, allowing for a chance to voice concerns and share celebrations. This will also provide a great opportunity for the instructor to share new information, remind the groups of expectations, and to form a list of necessary workshops.

Productive Groups
Working with others in a productive and effective way is a skill. Like all skills it is something that can be taught, learned, and improved upon. When an instructor is intentional about the development of these skills then the results are students who can create great products.

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