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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Alone or together?

I wrote a little while ago about how I don't actually like group work. But a recent post from the Teaching Professor made me think twice about how I 'privilege' working independently:
We were discussing small groups and what to do with those students who resist participating in groups. They’re those independent learners who participate in group activities reluctantly and almost always prefer to do it alone. Should we excuse them from group work when they want to go it alone? There were points made on both sides. If they don’t learn well in social contexts, then why should we place them in situations that compromise what they’re going to learn? But group work is expected in so many professional contexts. Aren’t we doing students a disservice if we don’t help them develop the skills they’ll need to function effectively in groups?

Then Professor Betsy Mudler made an interesting observation—something I’d never thought of before. We are concerned about whether we should “force” (maybe the word’s too strong, “require”) student participation in group work. But when we have students working individually, we aren’t in the same quandry about those learners who really do better when they are working with others... Professor Mudler’s point was that our lack of concern about individual work speaks to the strengths of those assumptions we make about value of working alone and figuring it out for yourself.

I, too, can say I have never thought about this before. Although I have often thought that it is unfair to some students to "make" them work in groups, I have certainly never thought that it might be equally "unfair" to other students to "make" them work alone. Although I'm not sure how much I want to go out of my way to cater to such students, it has occurred to me as I design the new course I will be teaching in the fall, perhaps it would be good to give students some options for working alone or together.


  1. In his work on learning styles, Richard Felder notes that some students are active learners (learning better by actively processing with a colleague) and some are reflective learners (learning better when pondering by themselves). He goes on to note that the traditional lecture doesn't help either kind of student since it doesn't allow for discussion nor time for reflection!

    That's why the think-pair-share structure (with or without clickers) is so powerful. It gives both active and reflective learners time to engage in activities that help them learn.

  2. Thanks Derek, this is a very helpful way to think about it. I think that personally, I tend to worry that when students are NOT actively engaging with the material, they may not be really 'getting it' (which is the big reason I started using clickers in the first place) but I can certainly see the value in giving students space to reflect as well as interact...


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