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Notes on Group Work

(Also see Ideas for Section and Projects)

It is important to keep in mind that students will have varying reactions to group work, especially if they haven’t been exposed to it before. In any case, it is important to take into account the individual personalities of each students. (Eric Hsu, 1-20-99)

The most visible feature of my section was that students worked in groups standing up at the blackboard and were constantly giving presentations to each other. They were broken into groups of four, given highly challenging problems and given a large pile of chalk and their own blackboard and set to work. Traditionally, math group work happens crowded around a piece of paper on a table, a setting that makes it difficult for students to simultaneously contribute and to see each others ideas. The chalkboard allowed students to see each other’s ideas and strategies and allowed them to correct each other, and the fact that the problems were very hard allowed me to see each student’s inclinations, talents and weaknesses in their thought process.

One unexpected side-effect was that groups tended to treat their blackboards with a certain pride and ownership and would compete to claim certain boards. This meshed well with the sense the groups had that they were working to produce a common project, almost a group piece of art. (Eric Hsu, 4-1-98)

I randomized my students into groups and those groups worked relatively well, except for one student getting overshadowed by two boisterous students. I moved her into a quieter group. After the second midterm there was some fatigue, so to shake things up I randomized once more. By then people felt relatively comfortable working in groups and this new configuration worked pretty well also. I would have a random person in the group report to me about what the group was doing, so they were encouraged to explain everything to everyone. I gave hints slowly, and often told them to go ask another group instead of giving them hints. I occasionally made people explain to the whole class, especially if they did something really well. I also gave hard quizzes and then allowed them to cheat for a couple of minutes: i.e. without writing anything down, they could ask people what they got and then they drew a big line on their quizzes and could adjust their answers. This produced a real legitimacy of asking other people what they thought and increased the feeling that they were all in it together. Also, I took great pains to have them be respectful to each other.

When I felt the energy lagging, I’d try to do something unusual. Once there was a fire drill and we stayed outside for a while. Finally, I got some chalk and we did group work on the sidewalk.

Also, after the first midterm, I had a talent show where each student talked about what they did and where they were born, etc. and displayed a talent. Occasional stunts like that helped to produce a feeling of camaraderie and specialness to the work they were doing. (Eric Hsu, 1-20-99)