Getting Students to Talk to Each Other: Group Exercises

As the semester grinds into gear, why not spice things up with a group exercise? Ye olde divide-and-discuss can elicit groans, but group exercises with a clear purpose can be a really effective tool for peer-to-peer learning.

In his recent book review, Nathan Stein, Departmental Teaching Fellow in Statistics describes an exercise in which each group conducts a different experiment, giving the whole class two sets of results to compare.

Faculty Focus suggests using a “four corners” activity to help students work on their oral presentation skills: in small groups, students practice giving their presentations to each other, rotating from audience member to speaker and back again. Small groups permit more personal feedback.

A few years ago, I learned about the “scissor” group exercise at a Bok Center Winter Teaching Conference. It’s a great way for a class to build broad generalizations from specific data points while also making sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak. The exercise happens in two rounds: in the first round, the class breaks up into small groups (e.g. with 18 students, six groups of three), and each group works on a different question. For example, you could assign each group a different portion of the reading and ask them to summarize the assumptions that underlie it. In the second round, the class reforms into larger groups such that each member of the small group goes to a different large group (with 18 students, you’d have three groups of six). Each “representative” would then present the findings of his or her small group to the new, larger group, which would then work together to summarize all of the findings into one broad generalization about the assumptions underlying that week’s collection of readings and the major points of disagreement.

There are tons of other structures for group learning (also called peer-to-peer and cooperative learning). See, for example, the chapter, “Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams” from Barbara Gross Davis’s Tools for Teaching, the list of suggestions on Donald R. Paulson and Jennifer L. Faust’s page on active learning at Calstate LA, or the four lesson-design principles outlined in Susan Ludlow’s chapter on cooperative learning (see p. 4), available at Arizona State University.

What’s your favorite in-class group exercise?

This post was written by Odile Harter.

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