Group work while learning and teaching online

It’s currently three weeks to the end of the Spring 2020 semester. Like the previous semester, I am constantly learning and reflecting as I teach. Planning and preparing for an online semester with/for my students remain challenging, though I am not sure if it is the fact that we are online or that I am just inexperienced in teaching. I firmly believe that learning happens in a community and group context and continue to plan for classes to facilitate this, yet the fact is that my class is not the only class that students are taking. The other classes that they are currently enrolled in generally don’t follow such formats, and from what I’ve heard there’s a lot more work piled on their end. The assumption that students have more time to do work because they are home is really impeding their ability to be students and learn, as it does seem like they are just going from one deadline to the next while also managing their jobs, family, life. How then, does a class like mine fit within their current life schedule? Especially one that places importance on group work?

Students are trained to believe that they do better work in solitary really reflects the current state of our academy. We’ve really convinced students that they are better of on their own and their peers are either benchmarks or competitors. Trying to cultivate a learning community on top of this is challenging already even without the current remote learning environment. While I am trying to encourage students to consider how they might be able to learn differently and convince them of the merits of cultivating a learning community, I’m learning that I’ve also made certain assumptions in students’ understanding of group expectations and group communication. As a result, many groups are experiencing some strain and stress because of miscommunicated expectations and the additional difficulty of not being able to gather at a common time. We don’t really know how to work in groups or what to expect when group communication breakdown.

With the semester coming to an end and with my students feedback, I’ve also learned that in the next iteration of this class group assignments should really be completed by two-thirds of the class (e.g. week 9/10) so that the final assignments/exams of the other classes don’t add to the challenges of hosting group meetings online. I’ve also decided that classes should have dedicated time for group work at least every other week so that students can stay on top of the task and also check-in with me immediately when problem arises. I am also going to consider having students draft a group contract at the start of the semester so that they have a document that they can refer to that can help them hold themselves and each other accountable. This also helps them to think about the difficult decisions they will take as a group (e.g. what if you didn’t complete your role) before tensions arise and hopefully more honest about their contributions in the group. While I encouraged this communication earlier this semester, without it being formalized it became challenging for groups to work through the problems when they did arise.

Because I really don’t like grading as I think it actually discourages learning and making mistakes, I am always tweaking, updating, thinking about alternative assignments and assessments. I want to be able to encourage students to try assignments that is not graded on being “right.” Hence, I have asked students to do a group podcast for their finals instead of a standard academic paper or an exam. Yet, again, I am reminded that my class is ONE of the many they are taking and even if I try to alleviate the risk and stress of being wrong or of failing, students don’t necessarily feel encourage to do so because the expectations of the other classes and their experience of learning so far has not (generally) facilitate this experimentation. There’s so much anxiety around grades and being “right” that it prevents students from sharing their thoughts. We get so suspicious and cynical of questions and tests because we already know that its some form of trap. We have to play by the rules to excel, and the rules of the academy actively discourage critical thinking. It places emphasis on memorization (tests and exams) which really only perpetuates the notion that knowledge is only knowledge when it comes from the ivory tower. For example, for the podcast assignment, one of the task is to connect conventional psychological perspective and an alternative psychological perspective with their chosen current affairs issue. While they’ve done a really good job defining their issue and perspectives, it became clear that it was really challenging for them to connect the perspectives to the issue they’ve chosen. Because this part of the assignment has no correct answer, students cannot just find an answer and write it down. Instead, they have to take what they have already defined for the psychological perspectives and interpret it/apply it to their current affairs issue. The anxiety about getting it “wrong” has resulted in a lot of questions similar to “where can I find this answer/relationship?” directed towards me. Hence, how can I encourage them to trust that they have done a good enough job in their definitions that they are able to make claims between the perspective and the issue that they’re passionate about? This exercise is really reflecting to me just how much we have discouraged critical thinking. In the next version of this course, I really want to think harder on how do I create assignments and learning community spaces that encourage critical engagement, failure, and being wrong as not something to be feared but something to grow from? How do I “grade” engagement and effort without having to “grade” a final product?

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