Monday, May 18, 2009

Small Groups

Last week and this week, I'm participating in the annual seminar that reviews and (occasionally) amends the curriculum of the core humanities course-sequence at my college. Some of the work that we do is tedious and bureaucratic, but a lot of it includes really interesting sessions on pedagogy, core text discussions, interdisciplinarity and more general strategies for providing students the best "liberal arts" experience we can. This afternoon, we had a session focused on facilitating successful and productive class discussions. Not surprisingly, one of the pedagogical techniques lauded in this session was that of breaking the class into "small groups" for discussion, workshopping, and other such activities. A lot of professors employ this practice in their classrooms, and in almost every single session I have ever attended on pedagogy, "small groups" has been presented as a kind of panacea for all the ills that might befall a class. There's only one problem...

I HATE "small groups." I hate being put into them and I hate putting others into them. I never, EVER use "small groups" in my classes. And I'm starting to think I'm all alone in this.

In sum, here are my problems with "small groups":
(1) I don't find that there is anything that "small groups" can do that I can't do just as well in the "big group" (i.e., the whole class).
(2) Small groups take up too much class-time, and whatever benefits come out of that don't seem equal to the time spent on it.
(3) My experience is that all of the problems that "small groups" are meant to remedy also manifest themselves in "small groups." For example, a lot of people claim that "small groups" are a way to get quiet or shy students to talk. But I find that the dynamics of the "small groups" usually just mirror the dynamics of the large group. Some students in the small group will be more dominant, others will be more passive... just like in discussions that involve the whole class.
(4) I never can figure out what to do with myself during "small group" time. If I just let the groups go about their business without any interference, I feel like I'm not doing anything. (When I was a student and my professor broke us up into small groups, I always had the sneaking suspicion that s/he was unprepared or just taking the day off.) If I walk around the room and oversee their activities, I either feel like, well, an "overseer" or else I feel like I'm doing the same thing I would do if we were all having the discussion together, only in a more disjointed and unorganized way.
(5) When "small groups" report back to the whole class after their time together, I find that the products of their discussions are usually very similar, which makes the ensuing "large group" discussion redundant and repetitive.
And, finally, (6) there's just something about "small groups" that seems very grade-school-y to me. Or, similarly, it seems too corporate-business-model-ish. I have the same feelings about the word (and the practice of) "workshopping." It just feels fundamentally at odds with the vision and the aesthetic that I imagine for my classroom.

I voiced some of these problems in our session (or "workshop", ahem) this afternoon. Our facilitator suggested to me that the problem may be with me, and not with "small groups." He said that most professors' "teaching styles" are aimed at fostering the "learning style" of students who are very much like them when they were students. So, I avoid "small groups" now as a professor because I didn't like them when I was a student. But I should be aware that not everyone learns in the same way, and so I should give "small groups" a chance for the students who might benefit the most from that pedagogical technique.

Okay, so here I am now trying to be open-minded and acknowledge that maybe it is just me. I'm open to hearing other testimonies in favor of "small groups" or accounts of how I have misunderstood what they're all about or how they work best. However, before I concede this point, I'm curious to know: am I really the only one? Isn't there anyone else out there who finds "small groups" difficult to integrate into the classroom or, what's worse, unproductive? In the words of Marvin Gaye:

Can I get a witness?


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I also loathe small groups. I can't stand them. And I am unpersuaded that they are that worthwhile --- I know I always just goofed off during them. And I can think of better ways to get shy students involved. I am a big fan of "clickers" --- student response systems --- which a student today described as "like game shows" They are a bit gimmicky but force everyone --- even shy kids to respond and stay engaged. There's also teach-backs and presentations and all sorts of other things that don't encourage the mediocre anarchy of small groups.

And, the other thing I'd say to those people who say you're the problem is: what's wrong with the shy kids? Some shy kids are in fact intensely involved in the class, as I've learned by reading their work, talking to them outside of office hours and being related to a lot of them (for the record, and in case anyone had any doubts, I was not one of the shy kids).

Maybe the facilitator has the problem because (s)he doesn't realize that not everyone's learning style requires engaging with douches...

rebelcellist said...

As a student, I can say that many of my professors have also bought into the small group theory. Call me shy, or arrogant, or both, but whenever we have small group discussion I feel like we are wasting time, and I wish I had not bothered to show up to class.

melanie said...

I use small groups sometimes when I am completely desperate to try to encourage participation. Once in a while, it really works--they get some conversations started and a good discussion follows in the "big group." But most of the time, they have their little discussions and answer the questions I've given them, and then they all stare at me again when we return to the "big group." And I'm so with you on #4. I'm really glad you shared this, though, because I've also been given the impression that they are the ultimate remedy to all classroom problems, so I'm usually left thinking, wow, Shepherd, you can't even make the small group work--you really do suck. Maybe I will try Ideas Man's "clickers."

Art Carden said...

Last year I went to a teaching seminar in which I was introduced to "Thinking Aloud Paired Problem Solving," AKA "TAPPS" (lots of info is available via Google). I've used it a couple of times in Econ 101 with decent results, particularly as a beginning-of-the-semester ice-breaker. It requires a bit of silent contemplation, followed by a short discussion, followed by short comments by more-or-less randomly selected spokespersons from each group. Generally, I agree that any kind of small group discussion has to be very carefully planned in advance. "Break into groups and discuss the law of demand (or the categorical imperative, depending on your field) for a few minutes" is likely to come across as stalling.

Brunson said...

I agree that small groups are largely worthless and have only used them a few times over the years for "writing workshops" to let students interested in similar topics for a midterm paper bounce ideas off of each other. However, this sort of thing is only valuable when I require them to bring in answers to pre-writing questions as well.

Charlotte Watson said...

Small groups seem very hit or miss to me. At times, it can be nice to get a feel for how a peer feels about the course material or class dynamic without the fear of ridicule by the whole class (maybe just by 3 or 4 students). On the other hand, small groups can be an opportunity to talk shit about the class or get off topic easily and take a break from class time. Mostly, it seems like a waste of class time because, for the most part, the other kids in my class aren't going to have the answers or questions I am looking for, the professor will.

In all honesty, how big are Rhodes classes? Like, 20 kids? That seems like a pretty small group to me.

Isn't there something wrong with trying to remedy the shy kid by giving him/her more opportunities to feel comfortable speaking in class? If we all have different styles of learning, then shouldn't we allow the shy kid to express his/herself in the way in which he/she feels most comfortable? Some of the most brilliant students I know are pretty shy kids (and I am not so shy). I have encountered the problem of class participation quite a bit and still don't know how to think about it.

christophresh said...

I don't have much to add, but I will witness:
I'm in basic agreement with all the shortcomings, and also in agreement that it might make shy kids talk in their groups. But then they don't speak in the large group, so other than being some sort of 'life-experience' for them... what good does it do?

Also, I just lecture, because really, who is the expert here? ME, that's who.
I am 1/4 joking.

DOCTOR J said...

@Ideas Man: I have no idea what "clickers" are... care to elaborate?

DOCTOR J said...

@students: Thanks, it's really nice to hear the perspective from the "other" side!

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Clickers are little electronic devices that work with Power Point (which I normally hate but put up with in this context) --- you can list a question and have students respond to it in a multiple choice format --- I use it for reading quizzes but I also use it (more relevant in this context) for the starting points of discussions --- you can set them to be anonymous and to just show the aggregate result.

The one I use (because all the science classes here use them so most students have them anyway) is through

So, for example, I asked them when we watched Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors who thought it was ok for Cliff to try to have an affair with Halle and then gave them a couple of yes no answers with different responses attached. It's not the richest form of participation but in big classes (which is what I use them in) it's the only kind you'll get from some students --- and the surprising thing (what I think is supposed to be the point of small group exercises) is how many more people will feel comfortable participating in the large group discussion after registering their response this way --- perhaps because it gets them to at least consider the question instead of waiting for other people to answer perhaps because seeing that other people agreed with them validates their own response.

The downside is that the technology is like another 40 bucks although lots of science classes use them anyway so students will have them. And it was a little clunky at first but now I'm quite fast at it.

ProfBoz said...

I concur. This is romper-room pedagogy. My basic modus operandi begins and ends with the assumption that this is serious stuff we're reading and discussing, and that we all need to bring our A games if we want to be equal to it. Treat your students like serious adults and scholars and they will rise to the occasion. Treat them like participants in a self-esteem workshop and that's what you'll get.

petya said...

When I TA-ed political science, I sometimes used small groups and both the students and myself liked them. It was very useful in classes when we were talking about different electoral systems, for example, where there was no time to go over each system together as a group, but plenty of time to do it when we broke it down in small-group chunks. Each group would focus on a particular system, then present it to the class. It was a great way for everyone to get their class notes in order, fill in gaps, correct inaccuracies.

I think this could only work when you are working with more matter-of-fact material, want people to really get all their "info" right, etc.

So, I will suggest that small groups sometimes work. But I totally agree with you that they are pretty much pointless in a philosophy classroom.

kareng said...

I wasn't much a believer in small groups until I read the book "Teaching With Your Mouth Shut" by Donald Finkel. It is one of my favorite books on teaching. It's not a how-to book, it's actually about the relation of a liberal arts education to democracy, but he gives lots of examples of how to run a class in which the teacher is the authority and the expert but does not just stand up there and tell students stuff or perform for them. Here is his insight: small group discussions are not easy to orchestrate. They take a lot of upfront work before you even walk into the classroom in order to have a set of questions for the students to work through collectively as a group. Even if you hate small groups, Finckel's book has other really interesting suggestions and observations about teaching and learning which I have found to be both profound and very helpful.

Chet said...

I also haven't found small groups to be that useful. As you say, those big group dynamics are repeated in small groups. But I am curious about the comments about the preparation work that needs to be done in order to make these things work.

I know that I haven't mastered that yet--that is, the skill in bringing to the classroom a set of questions, orchestrated in a particular way, that will allow the students to proceed into a problem, rather than my showing them (or alternatively pushing them) into that problem.

I should say that having debates in class has been generally very productive. By this I mean, assigning two teams a question that they prepare an argument on, to present before the class and the other group. They do the work outside of class and them come in with it. I don't even give my students credit for it and it turns out provoking interesting discussion.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I had to dig around to find this post, but I need to report (despite my earlier misgivings) that I think I just had a small group experience that worked really well. And not only did it work really well but I think it did something that I think is very important and that I've never really successful figured out how to do.

So here's what happened:
Partly because of the size of the classes I have to teach at my current job (4 classes, at least two of which are 45 person intro courses) and partially because there are lots of first generation college students who haven't really been prepared in how to write papers (although I should say that I've also taught at among most selective schools in the country and had similar frustrations), I decided to ditch full writing assignments in my Intro class this semester --- I got sick of writing "you need to make a clearer thesis" and have them do nothing.

So I decided, we're going to spend 2 days working on writing a thesis using a mixture of questions and prompts.

Here's how we did it:

We had been reading some boiler plate intro epistemology (Descartes, Locke Kant type stuff). And after we had discussed it all, at the start of the next class I wrote out three potential questions.

How would x answer the question:
1. Where does scientific knowledge come from?
2. How is learning possible?
3. What does it mean to know myself?

I told them to pick one question and answer it for Descartes in one or two sentences, keeping in mind that they'd also have to do the same question for Locke and Kant. Then I had them write for a few minutes and then jot down a few reasons why they answered as they did.

Then we broke them into 3 or 4 person groups and asked them to read their answers and have the other members tell them 1) if they thought their answer was a defensible interpretation (and we distinguihed this from agreeing with them) and 2) how the writer could make their answer clearer and more succinct.

We did the same things for Locke and Kant.

And then I asked them to come up with a concrete example that they thought they could use to explain all three (I gave them the classic examples that were in the reading and we had talked about but encouraged them to think of their own if they wanted to).

That took a whole day and I was gratified to see students really talking and engaging one another. One quiet kid in the back mock stormed out of his group b/c they refused to believe that babies were born knowing nothing.

So I was pretty happy after the first day.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


When we met again two days later, I had them get back in their group and answer for themselves, following same format. Discussion ensued. Then I had them write down who they thought their answer agreed with and disagreed with and which one or two philosophers they thought they could really focus in on.

I asked them if they had a clear idea which philosophers they'd want to talk about. Almost all of them raised their hands.

Then I told them that they were now at the point that they could come up with a working thesis. Let's say I had given you those questions and told you to answer them using at least two of the philosophers. I explained that that could mean explaining two of their answers and agreeing or disagreeing with them or it could mean having an answer of your own and using elements of their answers to build it up. I gave them a few examples and showed them what wildly different theses you were constructing that answered the same question.

I then asked them to circle the three or so points of all the poitns they'd written out in their notes that they thought they could focus on to write a paper answering their question. I asked how many of them had a sense of which 3 points they'd used. Again, almost all of them raised their hands.

I talked about how you could take their answer and their 3 points and construct a working thesis to guide writing the paper. I ended by pointing out that if they had had to write this paper and had started writing it the night before they would have had a boiler plate intro that said something like "Descartes and Locke both give answers to the question how is knowledge possible and I have my own answer." (laughter). I pointed out how, in wanting to jump right into getting started they would have given themselves a much bigger and more difficult task than they needed to, and how once they had constructed a working thesis the rest of the paper could more or less write itself --- and it would be better than 90% of intro papers.

So this weekend they are writing their working thesis statements. If it works out, I will have suceeded in making a point in just 2 hours that I've spent 10-20 hours a semester writing on individual students' papers to no avail. I'm curious to see how they worked. But, for once, I was really happy with small group work.

DOCTOR J said...

Wow, Ideas Man. I'm TOTALLY impressed. Excellent work.