Choosing and Using Group Activities in the College Classroom

By Claire Howell Major

Small group learning is learning expressly designed for and carried out in pairs or a small, interactive group. Why should we use small group learning in the college setting? Small group learning provides a practical rationale. Most of us have seen the surveys of employers who are looking for a specific set of skills in their new employees, among these are teamwork, emotional intelligence, global citizenship, communication, and leadership. These are the kind of skills that small group learning can give students practice with and help them develop in.

There’s also a very strong pedagogical rationale for using small group learning. My colleagues and I looked at these reasons in this body of research in the book that we wrote together. And it suggests that learning outcomes are improved in courses that use small group learning when compared to more traditional, stand and deliver courses.

The kinds of learning that increase are both content knowledge and the development of higher order skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. And students who participate in small group classes are more likely to improve these skills at a higher rate than the students in traditional counterpart session.

In their grand synthesis of their research on how college affects students, Pascarella and Terenzini have noted that retention and persistence are improved in courses that use collaborative learning and collaborative learning in other forms of small group learning. And the idea behind this is that students make social connections in academic courses that help them. And they want to stay in those classes because they have an obligation to come to class to see their fellow students.

Student satisfaction is improved in collaborative courses or small group learning courses over traditional ones. And that may be something of a surprise, because I don’t know about you, but sometimes my students groan when I say, “get in your group and work.” But the research is pretty clear that students who participate in small group activities value their learning in these courses more than they do in traditional courses.  They appreciate the opportunity to apply knowledge in new ways. There’s also increased comfort with diversity in courses where students participate in small group learning. And this makes sense, because they have the opportunity to work with people who are not exactly like them, too.

If you look in the literature, the terminology is really a confusing mess. Some people use the term “cooperative learning.” Some people use the term “collaborative learning.” Some people use “peer teaching.” Some use “peer learning” or “peer inquiry.” There is a range of terms to describe this thing that we call group work. And some people use the terms almost interchangeably or completely interchangeably.

Types of group learning

Some instructors insist there is a big distinction between the different approaches. And some people’s distinctions disagree with each other. So it can really be quite confusing when you look at the literature. So today we’re going to talk about three specific kinds—cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and peer teaching and learning. I tend to see these as different but related and overlapping approaches.

So these three types of group learning share some things in common with each other. For example, they all involve putting students in small working groups. But they have some distinct differences that make them different instructional methods. Let’s start with cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is students working together in a group small enough that everyone can participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned. So they are working together. That’s a key part of the definition. They’re supposed to do the same thing or the same task and it is a teacher-assigned task. The goals of cooperative learning are to accomplish the task together.

The work must be done together. They must all contribute to the overall project. And they all learn the appropriate content. And they do learn it together, and the goal is that they all learn it deeply and well and about the same degree of learning. For it to be cooperative learning as opposed to some of the other forms of group work, they must engage in positive interdependence.

And that’s the notion that the group must think or swim together. They will be successful or not based on the group’s work. And they’re tied to each other. But there’s also individual accountability. And in my work with students, that’s been the key thing, making sure that they all must demonstrate that they have done work independently to contribute to the group.

There has to be promotive interaction. So they have to help each other and they have to support each other. There has to be teamwork skills. And this is an area that not all students come to higher education with already. They have to learn those skills and develop them. And there has to be group processing. So they have to think through what they did well and what they could improve on for next time.

An example of a cooperative learning technique is the “think pair share.” Most people know this one, but it’s great. It’s a really good one. I’ve used it in almost every class I’ve ever taught. The first step is giving students a question and asking them to think for a minute about their responses individually. Then you ask students to turn to a neighbor and share their responses with each other. It could be to convince each other of their responses, or to come up with a collective response. But the idea is that they are talking about their responses to each other. And then the last step is sharing the information with either a slightly larger group than the pair– maybe two pairs pair up—or with the full class so that they all get the same kind of information from the activity.

Collaborative learning asks students and faculty to work together to create knowledge. It’s breaking down traditional structures of authority and control in the classroom. And the goal is to create knowledge. It involves people making meaning together in a process that is intended to enrich and enlarge them both.

The key goal is that they’re creating knowledge and they’re creating it together. But it’s not all the same knowledge and it doesn’t have to be equally distributed. For collaborative learning to be collaborative learning, there must be a shift in authority and control in the classroom. So couple of examples of collaborative learning techniques are the group co-authored paper and peer editing.

Peer teaching can be likened to a tutoring situation. The goal of peer teaching is to help students learn critical content. So in peer teaching, students must take on the teaching role themselves. A couple of examples of reciprocal peer teaching techniques—one of them tends more toward cooperative learning and the other leans little bit more, in my opinion, toward collaborative learning.

The first is a jigsaw, when students form base groups and they study some content very carefully in their base groups and they try to learn it well enough to teach it to the other students in the class who are not in the base group. Then students are redistributed into new groups, with one member coming from each of the first base groups. So you have four or five expert members in the new group who are teaching the rest of the students the original content. They are learning the same content, they’re learning it together, and they’re learning it in similar ways.

Another example is microteaching. And I use this a lot in my college teaching class, where students take turns actually teaching the class. So they will have maybe a 5 or 10 or 15 minute time span that they can elect to teach, in my case, a particular instructional method to the rest of the class.

Choosing a group teaching method

So how do you choose a specific form of group work or group activity? And I think this is a really—on the surface it’s kind of an easy question. Make sure your learning goals are this and that the method’s goals align with that so that you get where you think you’re going.

When we look at the different methods, knowing about them and then knowing what they are and how they play out, what they’re intended for, and where you’re going can be very helpful in that. But at the end of the day, there is a whole lot of inspiration involved in choosing the methods. We need to choose the method that’s going to accomplish the learning goals that we want, and we must be intentional about the group learning method that we choose and make sure that it’s accomplishing a goal. Group work for group work’s sake is never a good idea.


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