by Sereeta Alexander, Education
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2008
Teaching Issue: Encouraging student participation and maintaining a high level of engagement throughout the semester can be a challenge. As a GSI, I have encountered sleep-deprived students, shy and nervous public speakers, students who have not read the assigned reading, and even those who proclaim to be none of the above, yet are stubbornly inactive nonetheless. One apparent solution to this problem is to create in-class group work and to go a step further by monitoring individual participation within the group. Though this pedagogical strategy can prove successful, at times it may also reintroduce and exacerbate the initial problem of lackluster student participation, just at a micro-level. Social loafing and diffusion of responsibility may permeate and ruin group work to the dismay of the teacher and the students who do actively participate.
Teaching Strategy: In consideration of these challenges, I have learned to design group activities that either inherently entice (or even incite!) participation or that are structured in a manner clearly requiring each student’s contribution. An example of the former is a localization of brain function activity that students engage in with three to four of their Introduction to Psychology classmates. This activity is enticing, in part, because each group of students has a slice of the human brain (replica) to pass around, touch, and make sense of. Culminating with individual groups going to the front of the classroom to draw their brain area and teach everyone about its specific intricacies, this activity consistently elicits smiles and giggles in the midst of high quality student teaching and participation. When the nature of the group work is less enticing, a different strategy is employed that almost certainly eliminates diffusion of responsibility and social loafing. In this approach, students are assigned one individual question that informs a larger group-question, goal, or problem. Groups are formed by having each student randomly select a piece of paper that is both colored (representing their group membership) and numbered (representing the individual question they are responsible for) from an opaque bag. My most successful activity carried out in this manner is one on the scientific method whereby small groups of students (three to five) receive their own unique real-world problem that they, as members of a research team, would like to investigate. Research scenarios are created to raise design challenges and provoke concerns of ethics so that students can not only learn about methodological procedures and contribute individually, but also engage in higher-level thinking through problem solving and group negotiation.
Assessment: In the week following the scientific methodology exercise, I request anonymous feedback from students to determine how the two group assignments and the overall section format variety are working. Among other things, students have reported that the group activities are fun and allow them to learn from one another while also having their own knowledge validated and recognized. Further, not knowing when a group activity with individual questions would arise, and not wanting to let group-mates down, students have conveyed that they were even more motivated to come to section prepared to contribute. Despite the fact that more than half of my discussion sections in a given term are void of group work, my teaching evaluations across four semesters have a heavy emphasis on the group cohesion they help to foster and the outlet they provide for participation. Thus, as a teacher, I plan to always value and make use of collaborative in-class group activities that facilitate participation and minimize diffusion of responsibility.