Here is a "hard copy" about the group exercise we did during the fall 2004 Workshop as well as some reflections about setting up groups like this.
This exercise varies the pace and helps keep students on task when working with complex concepts that take time. It also allows for multiple tries with the concept. When you use this tecnique with advanced students, you can add a layer of complexity with each iteration.
Setting the stage:
You need to provide a context, a structure and a physical setting for the exercise. Context will involve background ideas, a reason for engaging in the activity and some encouragement. Structure will involve concrete guidelines such as the initial prompt question, the sponge questions (see below), a time frame, perhaps a limit on the number of answers to be listed and some content limits (the difference between desire and goal). The physical setting will be the number of people you put in a group, and the composition of the groups. Groups can be homogeneous or hetereogenous, temporary or permanent. Your choice here will vary according to purposes and the activity and to time constraints in moving people in the classroom. In our workshop experience, since we didn't want people to think only in terms of their major, we purposefully created mixed groups.
This is really the most important part of creating group activities. The real work is finding good lead-in material, thinking the activity through, and anticipating where the activity could go wrong, where it could be misleading. The more you can anticipate this, the more you can clarify directions so that the group stays on the track you want them to be on and the exercise is productive.
A sponge activity should be announced for those who finish early. It should be something that keeps the early finishers on task without making them likely to be bored during the next phase.
This is the individual's first pass at the issue. The prompt should be limited so that the individual can really focus on the start point.
Have people now work on the material in a pair. You can do a simple sharing time (as we did) or add one layer of complexity. We could have asked you to share and then rank your answers in order of importance. (This would have moved you a bit towards the next activity.)
Now the pairs group with others (groups of 4, 6 or 8) and work on the material a third time, with another layer of complexity. You will need to provide new directions at each stage of the exercise. Often what works well at this stage is to give students an evaluative task related to the more knowledge and comprehension based tasks of the preceding stages.
To finish this kind of exercise, you need some sort of sharing of ideas. This fulfills several purposes. It provides some sense of completion to a task that people have really begun to dig into. It gives yet one more exposure. It helps make sure that everyone in the group ends up on the same page (thus making sure that people who didn't complete the exercise or couldn't get into it are not left behind).
Finally, you need to provide feedback to the group. After you have looked over the work product, or reflected on the exercise, you may want to highlight certain things that happened, or certain ideas that were brought to light. This will give you a chance to reposition things in the larger context and suggest where investigation will continue from here. Please note, if you count the lead-in as the first exposure to the target concept and your feedback as the last one, you are actually able to visit the idea 6 times with this exercise and you can give students a real chance to develop familiarity with an idea and greater flexibility in handling a concept. What is crucial to student absorption of the idea is varying the ways in which students interact with it by increasing task complexity or application context.
What works very nicely is to give students a list (by overhead or PowerPoint) of 5 options. Students are then instructed to select the most/least reliable indicator of _______ , or the most/least productive way to _______ , or the most/least representative example of _______ . The more your options force students to discriminate according to concepts you have been teaching the better this will work.
A. When you are setting the stage, you may need to make sure that you keep the anxious over achievers from already starting the task and then not hearing the directions.
B. When sharing is done, it is very important that you make sure that everyone can hear. If people speak softly, or they are in a space with an inadequate or unavailable sound system, then you may need to summarize their point in order to keep everyone in on the conversation. What is important is that the whole class hears, not that you hear.
It is often a good idea to provide students with a sponge activity. Students are instructed to begin the sponge activity when they have finished their task. A sponge keeps the bright students who finish early from disrupting others by disengaging from the material.
If you are asking groups to select a most/least ______ from a set of numbered options and then report this selection to the whole class, you might want to help them do a simultaneous report. Give each group a set of cards, each with a number (1-5, for example). Then ask all groups to hold up their number at the same time. This prevents groups from floating towards the opinion of the first group to share. Once a difference of opinion has been indicated (by the cards shown), it is easy to make the "share" phase a general class discussion.