The Teaching Workshop: Making Group Work “Work” for Your Philosophy Students

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Erin Tarver is the new Editor of Teach Philosophy 101 and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Emory University’s Oxford College.  Teach Philosophy 101 is co-sponsored by the Philosophy Documentation Center and Oxford College of Emory University. Below, Erin answers questions about using group work successfully.

Question: Students are complaining about the group work I assign. What are the keys to powerfully using groups?

Erin’s Answer:  As you suggest, students don’t always love group work, and may often complain about it.  In fact, I imagine that many people who are now philosophy professors—myself included—were in this group of student complainers during our undergraduate careers.  I think there can be good reasons for those complaints, and there are definitely better and worse ways of executing group work as an assignment.  But I am convinced that getting students to actually talk to and work with one another, to break them out of the isolated, comfortably passive or anonymous pose that they easily fall into during class, is one of the most powerful learning tools we have, and so it’s worth thinking about how we can use group work effectively.

There are lots of different kinds of group work, of course, used for a variety of different reasons, with greater and lesser grading stakes and outcomes.  So, my first answer is to think about varying the kinds of group work you assign to get students used to the idea. Group work can range from low-stakes, informal activities like in-class small-group discussions to high-stakes, formal presentations or paper assignments that have to be executed outside of class.  If you want your students to work well together in the high-stakes settings, they need practice.  Also, if we’re genuinely committed to the idea of Philosophy as a communal—or at least dialogical—enterprise, then I think we need to take seriously the importance of getting our students to practice thinking and working together.

Question:  I am teaching a class designed by others, so there is material I must cover. How can I incorporate more active learning and still have time to cover everything?

Erin’s Answer: In my experience, the primary complaint about group work usually arises in formalized high-stakes assignments, when the group is graded as a unit—I’ll call it the autonomy/fairness complaint.  This complaint arises when individual students believe they are being unfairly treated by having their grade be dependent upon other individuals in the group.  Usually, students raise this concern when they believe that their group’s performance was negatively affected by one of their group members—and thus, that their grade is being unfairly negatively impacted by something beyond their control.  A variation on this complaint may occur even if the ultimate grade is not negatively affected, if an individual student believes that they have been forced to carry more than their fair share of the group’s weight in order to make up for the poor performance of another group member.

I’ll say first of all that I do think that part of the answer here is that students need to learn to cope with this perceived unfairness as a general life skill, and when I assign group work, I try to emphasize in my explanation of it that learning to collaborate with others—and to deal with the interpersonal conflicts that invariably arise when we do this—is something that they will take with them, and use far beyond my classroom.  To put it more pithily, in the so-called ‘real world,’ they will have to work with people who might mess up their projects, and either find ways to overcome those challenges or deal with the consequences (if a group loses a contract because a few of its members’ work wasn’t up to snuff, the higher-performing person doesn’t get to just keep the contract on her own).

Still, the fairness/autonomy complaint is not unreasonable, particularly given the individualistic structure of grading in US higher education.  Moreover, if our goal is to get students to be actively engaged with our assignments, it’s a good idea to offer them more reasons to feel happy about and in control of their education, not fewer—so I think there are things we can do to alleviate some of their concerns.  Ultimately, I think those concerns have to do with control and accountability, so I try wherever possible to reintroduce elements that help with both of these, despite the interpersonal vulnerability that group work inevitably brings.  As a small example, if the group work is outside of class, allow students to choose their own group members, or choose the date or topic of their work—any element you can allow them to control is helpful.  On the accountability front, I’ve recently introduced a self-and-peer review report that students submit on the day that they complete their group presentation. Students write up a brief report on what they contributed to the project and how well they think their peers contributed, as well.  Everyone knows that everyone else will be writing these, so I think it does minimize some intra-group slacking—but it also, importantly, gives students a formal avenue to raise concerns, and gives me a means to assess what’s going on, and (if necessary) to adjust individual grades within the group.

But as I said above, I think it’s a good idea to have group work beyond these highly-structured outside-of-class assignments.  An idea for in-class group work, which I love—and which I think would be great for the person who has a set curriculum—is a technique called team-based learning (TBL), in which students collaborate to solve problems and answer questions as a group during class.  A fuller description of this method, which was developed by education theorist Larry Michaelsen, is available at the link.  The main virtue of TBL is that it is designed 1) to avoid most of the accountability/fairness complaint by ensuring that part of the grade is individual-based, 2) to ensure that the team’s work will not be simply dominated by the most outspoken individual, and 3) to encourage students to continue working on something even when they are not immediately successful.  This is primarily accomplished via the usage of immediate group feedback (so, students know immediately whether the answer the group chose was correct or not, meaning that the loudest students will not be able to dominate for long if they aren’t correct), and the possibility of trying again if they don’t get the correct answer (the immediate feedback mechanism allows students to submit answers multiple times, and to present an argument, as a group, for the answer they think should have been counted right).  TBL is not for everyone, or for every class, but I find that it engages students as much as anything I have done.  And, even if you can’t use all of the elements, it’s worth thinking about how you might incorporate a few in your own class.

Question: I just gave an exam and most of the students did terrible on it.  I don’t want to throw the scores out, but I don’t want my students to become discouraged or hostile. How can I use this assessment as a learning tool for the students?

Erin’s Answer: I think for most of us, the goal in such cases is to get students to critically reflect on their performance, and—just as importantly—not to give up, but to try again.  Since they may be feeling grumpy, confused, or demoralized about the test grade, this can be a challenge.  But I think we can leverage some elements of team-based learning to help us here.  One of the try-again motivators in TBL is that a group can still earn some points if they eventually get to the correct answer—not as many points as they would have gotten on the first try, but something.  So I might suggest conducting an in-class activity like the following for a few extra points on the test:

You say you have a few students who did well, so I would create an activity in which the class looks at examples of excellent answers to test questions (I’m here assuming that you have at least some essay questions on the test, but I imagine you could modify this for a different test format), and then, in groups, works on creating an analysis of what those answers did well, and why they worked.  Importantly, you’ll need to emphasize to the students that their responses have to be more than description (i.e., lists of what the answers say).  Rather, they’ll need to explain how the various elements of the answer work together (that is, understand its organization), point out key philosophical strategies the answer uses, and why those strategies are philosophically important: does the author make a central distinction? Do they point out an unstated assumption?  Do they offer clarification for an important concept?  You can start with students on one example—helping to model the kinds of analytical responses you are looking for—and then have them talk together about another example, then perhaps also look at one another’s answers to offer compare/contrast-style feedback.  Then, have the students submit written copies (either individually or as groups, depending on how comfortable you feel incorporating a group bonus grade into the individual test one) of their analysis to earn some points back on their test grade.

I wouldn’t suggest doing this more than once or twice during the semester—grade inflation is a real problem, and of course, you probably don’t have time to grade much more than this anyway!—but I think it’s worth the effort to get students to think together about how they might do better in the future.  This activity also has the added benefit of giving students another opportunity to do some meta-reflection on how philosophical thinking and argument works, which is an important teaching goal in its own right.

All in all, I think it’s important to remember the reasons we’re assigning group work: to get students to be active in their learning instead of just passively accepting what we tell them, to understand one another and themselves as potential sources of knowledge, to discover the virtues of dialogue as a problem-solving technique, and to motivate them to keep trying even when something seems difficult.  At its best, then, I think group work is the paradigmatically philosophical teaching strategy—even if, like Philosophy, it takes hard work to do well.

Additional Resources:

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