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Going Beyond the Lecture: Simple Applications for Community Learning

By Hannah Jackson

Maybe I have just been listening to too much Raffi music (to the jubilation of my ten-month-old), but last week the song “The More We Get Together” played through my head unceasingly as I did the dishes, sent emails, and tried to fall asleep.

The more we get together, together, together,

The more we get together,

The happier we’ll be.

Give it a listen. It’s only one minute long, and then you can have it stuck in your head, too. As you listen, gleeful images of happy children galavanting through a field on a sunny day will fill your mind. 

What does it have to do with higher education, though? Oh, thanks for asking. A recent review of research on cooperative learning put together some of its critical components in higher education. Speaking to its role in knowledge acquisition, the article looks to a 2015 study from the International Journal of Innovative Research and Development,

“At its most basic level, face-to-face interaction is the best tool for knowledge sharing, as it affords opportunities for students to interact, establish personal communication, and observe other team members' expressions when they explain, elaborate, clarify misconceptions, or discuss perspectives (from Ifeoma, Ngozi, & Nkem, 2015)” (Ang and Loh, 2020).

In the 2013 study from the University of Roma Tre, students found that collaborative learning, “reinforce[d] their self-esteem, their sense of belonging to a community that learns and their positive disposition towards the discipline and to the final exam.” We know that social isolation leads to poorer academic experiences (Shing Yu Jolene Lim and Vighnarajah, 2018), yet we so often ask students to listen to a lecture and then do their learning independently. 

There is a balance to strike, of course. Not all students will want to work with others all the time. Not all projects or topics will benefit from group collaboration all the time. However, consider trying a few of the simple methods for cooperative learning that can be incorporated into your courses this fall.

1. Offer students the chance to peer review and score one another’s work. Check out Isidore’s peer review feature to set this up in your course site. The peer review guide from WAC Clearinghouse offers templates to give students when asking them to peer review one another’s work. Remember that students may not be entirely familiar with what to do during peer review or what your specific expectations are. Before implementing peer review, go over these expectations explicitly in class (or in a short video for asynchronous courses).

2. Small group work… Did you just hear a collective student groan emanate from the lacuna? Me, too. I can remember a knot forming in my stomach like some product of a seasoned boy scout upon seeing group work in the syllabus for a course. But, research tells us that regular, collaborative interaction between students increases learning motivation (Tran 2019). 

Encourage classroom community by grouping students yourself. This could be done intentionally or by asking students to count off. Isidore’s Randomly tool can be used for random assignment. The key is to take the decision out of student hands and ensure that they won’t just choose to work with their friends. We heard from students recently during a panel that they actually prefer when faculty group them. The students also explained that they’re much more likely to participate in large-group sharing when they feel comfortable around their peers– the comfort had been established through conversations in regular, small-group activities earlier in the semester.

Intentional grouping means getting to know your students prior to assigning them for groups (so, you won’t be able to plan out groups until after the semester has started for this method). Group students based on interests, specializations in their areas of study, working style, or preferred approach to the project. Some of these will require you to give students a short survey at the beginning of the term or project. Let them know you are practicing intentional grouping and the reason why you feel the particular project is more meaningfully done together than individually.

3. Structured problem solving is done by giving students a complex problem related to the area of study and asking them to solve it within a timeframe. While you may want to set up some rough guidelines or classroom norms, this type of learning should leave the nitty gritty, how-we-work-together decisions up to the students. Research tells us, “that students in groups with better cooperation and engagement solve problems together more effectively” (Tran 2019). Perhaps even consider gamifying this activity, giving points (or some other nominal incentive) to the groups that solve the problem first or creatively to play to the competitive nature of some students.

4. Round tables, discussions, and socratic seminars offer students the opportunity to learn from one another’s ideas. During discussions, consider giving each student per group a role which rotates after a number of questions or topics (such as a scribe, timekeeper, leader, and whole-group reporter).

5. Jig saw or expert groups presentations assign a small group of students one area of material to master, and then each student or small group teaches the rest of the students on their area of expertise. This can give students some ownership over material, particularly if you allow them to select their own topics from a predetermined list.

Changes to your course should happen slowly but surely. Take time before getting ready to run the course to identify areas where collaboration could be a prudent addition. After each term, reflect on how the learning process went and one area to maximize community. We are always happy to help you work through ideas to give students opportunities for collaborative learning, even in your online courses, at the Center for Online Learning. So, why not? Take time this summer to pour a giant cup of coffee and open up your course schedule. There are sure to be areas that can be effectively transitioned from lecture-based learning to collaborative learning.

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