Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Implementing MLCS: Groups

One of the main features of MLCS is active student participation in mathematics.  That means more than working on skills, but instead it is about problem solving.  For any student, but especially the developmental student, that is a challenge.  Working in groups makes the challenge more accessible.  But groups create their own set of issues.  Here are some ideas for making group work successful.

1.  Create the first set of groups

Prior to the first class, create groups of 3 to 4 students and number the groups.  We suggest using these groups throughout the entire first unit and changing groups at the beginning of each unit.  When forming groups, incorporate an even mix of genders if possible.  At this point, you may not know your students and their abilities well enough to create a mix of abilities in the groups.  That can be accomplished better for the second unit.  Before the first activity of the unit, post a list of the groups' members on the overhead or document camera or call out names. 
We also suggest numbering the groups and having each group number sit in the same location throughout the semester.  For example, you could have group 1 always sit in the front right area of the room.  When unit 2 begins and you assign students to their groups, they will automatically know where to sit in the room based on the number of the group they are given.
2.  Play with group composition
When we first piloted the course, we thought mixing abilities would be key to a group's success.  But that didn't pan out to be the case.  Some lower students could be shy about asking for help, and some stronger students could be overbearing and unsympathetic to students who didn't work as quickly.  Grouping students who work well together in terms of personality and who are similar in ability level has shown to work fairly well.  Group interaction is a complex thing, so there's not one right way to compose groups.  Play with it throughout the semester to find what works for your class and you.
3.  Help groups get off on the right foot
To work together well, students need to know how their group mates operate in terms of math and school in general.  We have designed a series of brief activities in our materials to help students learn about their work styles and share that information with their group members.  Part of those activities includes ground rules.  We establish rules for our class that include pulling your own weight, being respectful, participating in activities, and understanding that if you do not pull your weight, you will not benefit from the group's points on the unit project.  We also ask students to choose a group manager.  This is not a leader, but instead someone who is willing to mediate if necessary and also can keep the group on track if students are getting off task.  Non-traditional students can fill this role well, providing them an opportunity to shine.  It can boost their confidence since some non-traditional students are tentative when they begin college.
4.  Expect issues to arise
It is highly likely that some students will not get along and will make that problem known to you.  We try to stay out of group issues and encourage students to work through those problems themselves.  That doesn't always work, so it may be necessary to mediate.  We try to use that as a last resort so that students can learn important lessons about collaboration and conflict resolution.
5.  Plan for accountability
This is something we're still playing with to improve, so if you have ideas, please share them.  The main concern is that each group member must feel some responsibility to the group to pull their weight.  To encourage that, we call on a variety of students throughout the class.  Since students all receive the same group grade on the unit projects, it's very easy for some students to coast on someone else's work.  To reduce that, we always add a test question for significant points that directly ties to the unit project.  It becomes very apparent who really worked on the project and who did not.
6.  Enjoy the benefits of groups
For all the talk of problems and slacking that can come with group work, there are also some wonderful benefits to conducting a class with a strong group component.  We've found that students naturally build cohorts and communities.  Students will look after group mates and check up on them if they miss class.  When someone misses, he or she will have a resource to get notes and help instead of feeling alone in a class.  The class dynamic is also more lively and interesting since students will engage and interact differently with peers than as a whole class.
Next up:  Grading

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