Collaborative group projects in online and hybrid classes – Is there value in having students do them?
I go back and forth with whether I should dump it or keep it. Students hate it, but I think there is value, and it’s a lesson students need to experience. Things don’t always go the way they should, and students can learn a lot from having to deal with this adversity.
I’ve been using a group project in my ENG102 hybrid course for about two years now, and I think it teaches students a lot about collaborating, working in a team, and sharing in the learning process with others. In the video below, I’ll share my process with you, as well as a few tools in Canvas that you may or may not be familiar with: Collaborations, Groups, Perusall and NoodleTools.
Purpose: The purpose of the project is to teach students the process of writing an argumentative research paper. In groups of four the work through the whole process in four weeks. The only thing they don’t do is the actual research. I provide that for them. Let’s take a look, and I’ll show the tools as they are integrated into the process.
That’s how many instructors and students feel about assessment and evaluation. It’s a lot of needless pain and suffering. It always seems so punitive to students who struggle. But assessment doesn’t have to be that way. Many instructors have found ways to teach and use assessments in a way that encourage students to do better the next time. The key is that there is a next time, and that can be the challenge.
In writing courses, instructors can get overloaded with grading. The more a student writes the better that writing becomes, but who has time to grade all that writing. Apparently writing instructors do. However, there are ways to break down the concepts and skills needed to write well and have students practice those concepts and skills without the need of instructor grading. For instance, much of the bad writing that I see, stems from poor sentence structure. Students love a good run-on sentence, with a few fragments thrown in for good measure. It drive me crazy. “Use a comma or a period somewhere, please,” I beg.
Lucky for us at GCC, we’ve found an adaptive learning tool to help us teach students the grammar and mechanics skills, including sentence structure that they struggle with. If you’re not familiar with adaptive learning, it “is an educational method which uses computer algorithms to orchestrate the interaction with the learner and deliver customized resources and learning activities to address the unique needs of each learner” (Wikipedia). The tool we adopted from McGraw-Hill is called Connect, which includes LearnSmart Achieve. LSA provides an adaptive learning system designed to identify students’ areas of weakness. It uses supplementary content, such as videos, interactive activities, additional readings, and even a time management feature, all intended to guide students through content and resources at an appropriate pace. You can see an example below.
The beauty of this type of tool is students are being assessed all through out the process, and the system is adapting to their needs. If they’re struggling with the content they get more resources and more practice. If a student clearly understands, they hit mastery sooner and complete the lesson. So instead of a lot of pain and suffering, students get what they need. Missing a question doesn’t seem like a punishment. It becomes and opportunity to learn why and try again until they get it right. And as an instructor, I don’t have to grade any of that work. That’s the real beauty. My assessment comes when they put those skills to the test on an essay assignment.
Unfortunately, we can’t eliminate all the pain and suffering. At some point students have to write an essay, and instructors have to grade it. Well, more like grade 100+ of them (24 students x 5 classes). And we assign 3-4 essays in each course, so it’s still a lot of grading. But I digress. Once a student submits a finished essay, eager with anticipation of a passing grade, it takes some time to get that feedback back to students. During that span (1-2 weeks on occasion), students forget all about that paper and the effort or lack of effort they put into it. And when the paper is return, the process often ends there. There’s no motivation to do better. We teach that writing is a process, yet we make the process end when we’re ready. I believe with a C paper and especially an F paper, the process is not over yet. The student needs to continue to work on that essay, not the next one, in order to improve his/her writing.
So my assessment technique involves giving students an opportunity of a rewrite. Yep, more pain essays for me to grade. But it works because students have to tell me what it is they did to improve the essay. What skills did they work on? What help did you seek? Did you work in LearnSmart Achieve? Did you visit the Writing Center? Did you schedule a conference with your instructor? So the process doesn’t have to end with an F paper crumpled and thrown in the trashcan as the student walks out the door (clearly that’s an old reference to times gone by). Writing is a process and the only way to get students to write better is to keep the process going for as long as they need.
I teach English at GCC. Technically I teach Freshman Composition, but we say English when asked what we teach. Composition is writing. This is a very interesting considering I majored in English Literature. You know: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce and Lawrence. I was never taught to write beyond ENG101 and ENG102 in undergrad, but I was expected to do it in every literature class I took. I eventually graduated with a degree in English Literature. So what kind of job does one get with a degree in English Literature? Education or teaching is the number one option. So here I am, teaching English at GCC.
What you can garner from that short story is that most college students get very few opportunities to learn how to write, even when you are studying to be an English teacher. I eventually earned a masters degree in education where I learned to teach writing, but composition classes prior to that were minimal. That is why ENG101 and ENG102 for our students is so crucial. For most it will be their only opportunity to learn to write for their college careers and life in general. Those important skills they learn in Freshman Composition include:
Written and other communication skills
Understanding complex ideas and theories
So the pressure is on for English teachers – ENG101 and ENG102 teachers. These are important skills that go beyond just writing an essay. We’re trying to teach students to think critically, read critically, research critically, and then write. That’s what makes Freshman Composition challenging for students. For the most part, students know how to write or they should considering they just spend four years in high school learning how to do it. But college writing is different. There’s more at stake considering this may be students only chance to learn these skills. Yet many students don’t see the importance of these two courses. They take it for granted.
As I sit here reflecting and writing, I’m all that more thankful for the English teachers I had at Phoenix College and Yavapai College. Because with out that foundation those instructors instilled in me, I really don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today. And I don’t just mean teaching English. I mean blogging and writing all over the internet in social media sites, writing emails to my colleagues, and writing in my profession. I’m thankful I have the skills, written and other communication skills, critical thinking skills, and research skills, to do my job and do it well.