Group work in online, synchronous classes

Freeman et al. (2014) remind us

Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussions in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.

Those times in our in-person classes when we stop talking and let the students work together on something – those are some of the most rewarding moments. We get to walk around the room, connect up close with our students, show them we’re human and that they’re more than a student number. If the activity is a good one, the room is loud, students are practicing expert-like ways of thinking and talking, and they’re learning. On their own. Without you.

(Well, don’t underestimate the amount of work you’ve already done assembling materials for the group work, preparing students to work effectively without you, and creating a classroom culture where they know this activity is valuable enough to give it their attention.)

How can we recreate this in synchronous, online classes?

Following the example of some all-star colleagues like Bridgette Clarkston @funnyfishes, I’ve been facilitating group work in a course I’m teaching using the meeting software (Collaborate Ultra) and Google Slides. I’ve tried this 3 or 4 times with my small group of students and honestly, I’m pretty happy with it!

If you have suggestions and feedback, I’d love to hear it!

Updated Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Greg duManoir @gdumanoir, for pointing out that teaching assistants can also circulate through the breakout rooms and Google Sheets, providing another opportunity for students to connect with the teaching team.

Update Nov 23, 2020: Thanks, Steve McNeil @wsmcneil, for a variation using Google Docs. Steve creates student groups in the LMS. When it’s time for the activity, students in Group 7 go into Breakout Room 7, and respond to Question 7 in the shared Google Doc.

A peer evaluation scheme using “salaries”

When students work in groups on bigger assessments like projects, papers, posters, and presentations, instructors often include peer evaluation in the assessment of the project. That is, they ask students to assess each other’s contributions to the project, and those assessments are part of the final grade the students receive.

I learned about a peer assessment scheme from my friend Rique Campa at Michigan State University where students pay each other “salaries” for their work, and their grade for the project depends on the total salary they “earn”.

Here’s a graphic I made to explain how it works:

After I posted a draft version on Twitter, I had some great conversations with @ProfTucker @JeanMaines @drlestj @chemnet_au @jgustar @charlesmenzies @sgraingerPhD @mspencer09 @TeachingBehind1 @usankar2 @epm_morris @DrPatMaher @meganbarkerase @EWhitteck @bhundey @DocRobinYoung Thank-you, all, for the conversations, feedback, and ideas. It led to some revisions:

    • Do students include themselves in the assessment? That is, do they pay themself any of the $100? I think it’s a good idea since it prompts them to reflect on their own contributions and metacognition is always a win. Plus, it gives the course instructor another way to check for suspicious evaluations, like if Jamal, Jennifer, and Jing all pay only $10 to Juan but Juan pays himself $90. Something doesn’t sync there.
    • Instructors (and students) may be nervous about letting students determine the grades on a big project that could determine the success of the students in the course. That’s why I recommend the peer evaluation scheme should be just one component of the project grade. As suggested in the footnote in the graphic, the course instructor could assess the group’s
      • draft (20%)
      • group presentation or poster (20%)
      • over all assessment (50%)

      Each member of the group would receive the same mark on this first 90%. The peer assessment scheme could be used to determine the last 10% of the final grade.

    • A few of the conversations were about the, er, icky feeling of using money to assess each other. I think this salaries scheme needs to fit into the context of the course. In Rique Campa’s courses, the students in Fisheries and Wildlife were looking ahead to careers as consultants in engineering and environment management firms and in the government. They were familiar with projects, bids, budgets, invoices, and so on. For them, salaries were familiar. I’d hesitate to use this scheme in a course that has no connection with money.

By the way, I’m pretty happy with the graphic. It’s a PowerPoint slide with a table surrounded top and bottom by text boxes. I really like the set of free avatars by Hopnguyen Mr on iconfinder (I made a few slight modifications to make them a bit more diverse.)


When opportunity knocks, answer the door

Six weeks ago, at the end of July, new campus leadership at UBC Okanagan decided to restructure the Centre for Teaching and Learning and eliminated the position of Director, and therefore, me. When the day comes post-covid-19 when we can sit around and laugh over drinks, I’ll add some details.

My neighbour, Raymond, had the best advice for me after he saw the For Sale sign go up in front of my house:

When opportunity knocks, answer the door.

Over the last six months at UBC Okanagan, my team and I helped course instructors pivot to “emergency remote teaching”. Then we turned our attention to preparing them for the Fall, which included facilitating many, many online workshops. That’s when I realized, again, I really, really I love teaching.

So I’m pursuing opportunities that will bring me back into the math classroom. That’s where I started teaching, more than 20 years ago (!) as a graduate student in Mathematics at UBC.

They say I was a pretty good teacher back then, and later when I taught introductory astronomy. I know so much more now about teaching and learning, and I’ve witnessed so many extraordinary course instructors develop and lead their classes. Honestly, I’m a little nervous about being instructor-of-record again, anxious that I can live up to their (and my) standards. Let’s see who’s at the door…