Group Development and Peer Review
of Research Proposals - by Joanne Stewart
Some advice and reflections on this activity
The way that this activity is designed it is important that students have a firm working knowledge of a wide variety of techniques. There are certainly other ways to structure the activity but I really use it as an application of material they have already been exposed to. However it is organized, the students need to have some experience to draw on to develop their own ideas and provide feedback for others.
Another issue always seems to be balancing what you hope students will be able to accomplish with the time you provide for in-class group work. I am always making adjustments to the schedule and it really seems to vary from group to group how long something is going to take. This has led me to be fairly explicit on the handouts about how much time they should be spending on each part of the activity. Each group should have a timekeeper who is aware of how much progress they are making relative to the schedule of tasks. Anytime I assign group-work the students probably feel a little rushed. I recognize that there is always going to be some "hang-out" time when you work with other students but I really want them to learn to work efficiently. My general rule is that if about 90% of the groups are done then there was enough time to do the work. I now view the time issues as part of the never-ending challenge of teaching. The issues are really not very different whether you are lecturing or doing group-work.
It can be tricky to coordinate the move from working in pairs to sharing their project ideas with another group. I have a timelimit written on the handout so I use that to try to keep things moving. As groups are ready they can pair up for that part of the activity. It is also challenging to get them to save time at the end of the class to evaluate their learning and the way their group worked together. Usually by that point they are deep in discussion about a particular project and I need to make a sort of announcement that they need to move on to the evaluation during the last five minutes.
There are several factors that make doing this activity a little easier. We use group work extensively throughout the semester so the students already have established pairs and they tend to work well together. Additionally it is helpful that the class is relatively small and we meet in a room where we can move the furniture around to suit our needs.
Because we do so much group work and I value it as a learning outcome for my students to work well in groups each activity has some time for process reflection built into it. In this exercise I ask them to individually evaluate what they learned and how the group could have work together better. My hope is that by having them think about these issues regularly they will become more aware of how to learn in a group. We have all been part of groups that spend all the time on the first agenda item. I provide a lot of the structure with the timelimits for the different parts of the activity but I want them to have a chance to think about how much they got done and what helped or hindered their progress.
Getting them started
I have found that when the activity requires the students to generate ideas it can be really helpful to give them some suggestions to start with. It not only helps them understand the type of things that I expect, it also saves them from getting too frustrated when they feel like they have a lot to do in a little time. The suggestions I give for appropriate projects (e.g., measuring the lead or mercury in tuna fish) helps the discussion get going. As they generate ideas there are often lots of questions that come up. They may want to look at how much calcium there is in milk and since they don't have any sense of how much there is they don't know which techniques would be appropriate. That is the kind of work they will need to do out of class but it represents exactly the types of issues I want them to be identifying during this session.
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