Collaboration is More Than Busy Work

I know there are some who are reading this whose opinion of collaborative exercises is low, that is assuming they read this at all!  I have to confess that I have seen some collaborative exercises/assignments that really were nothing more than busywork, or worse.  It is a fact that any collaborative exercise or assignment that doesn’t have clear learning outcomes probably fits that description.

However, I’m glad to say, that is not the norm.  When well designed and thought through, collaborative exercises/assignments are powerful tools to achieve student learning, particularly with adults.  There are quite a few posts in this category already here on the faculty blog (simply click on the Collaborative Teaching Ideas link under Categories to the right) and many more examples of excellent activities can be found by searching the web.

But I want to reinforce the importance of having clear learning outcomes before adding these activities.  I’ve said this before and I truly believe it, collaborative teaching can feel like controlled chaos, and sometimes only marginally controlled!  Without the boundaries of clear learning outcomes, the can quickly activities deteriorate into a waste of classroom time.

It takes some time to effective plan and implement these activities – which is one of the reasons I think many Instructors eschew them entirely or find them ineffective when they do try them.  Planning the outcomes, and then designing the activity so that it achieves the outcomes, including the debriefing which is a big part of the learning, can make connections for adult learners that just don’t happen through lecture.

So here is the process I use:

  1. What is the subject or topic that I want to reinforce/teach?
  2. What do I want the student to walk away knowing? This is the learning outcome and I put this down in a clearly written sentence.
  3. Think about what learning activity can I use which will get the students to engage the topic or subject.  Sometimes it is a hands on experience, other times it requires movement, other times it can be problem based or through role playing or debates.  There really are so many options that it is hard to list them all.  I have included a longer list under Faculty Resources/White Papers titled Collaborative Teaching Options.
  4. Work out the plan for implementing the exercise in class including resources you need to bring with you and how much time it will take.  It usually takes a few times to get the time figured out correctly.
  5. Conduct the exercise, being cognizant that things can drift out of control and you need to stay engaged and provide direction.  It is not “Practice that makes Perfect,” but “Guided practice that makes perfect.”
  6. Debrief the exercise and hone in on the learning outcome by asking questions that direct the students to think about the exercise in relationship to what you wanted them to come away with.  You may want to plan your debrief questions ahead of time.
  7. Refine the exercise for the next time you use it.

I hope you’ll give it a try.  It can be amazingly rewarding to see the light come on in a student’s eyes as they engage in the debrief and make a crucial connection to their life.

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