7 Elements of Effective Learning Teams

Collaborative learning, groupwork, learning teams–whatever you want to call it–has one major problem: it just doesn’t work out-of-the-box. However, I find that most educators expect collaborative learning to be more intuitive. In the process of writing my next book on online instruction, I’ve been reading some really helpful literature on working with learning groups (which I believe to be a critical skill for online instructors). I’d like to synthesize some of what I’ve discovered through both research an practice in this post. Feel free to use and share the 4×6 card posted above.

  1. Group Size

  2. An ideal size for online learning teams will be 5-8 students. Different studies say different things, but they usually fall into this general range. A group of 5-8 is large enough to include students with varying points of view and a variety of strengths. I used to recommend 4-6, but this approach had two problems: a) groups of 4 tend to break up into two pairs, and b) attrition in an online classes caused either by withdraws or by nonparticipating students impacts smaller group sizes. A group that starts out at 7 or 8 usually turns out to be a group of 5-7.

  3. Organize Around a Clear Goal

  4. Give your learning teams time to get to know one another and to discuss their learning goals. Provide a clear learning goal with each assignment. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we overlook this simple practice.

  5. Stay in the Same Group

  6. While variety is the spice of life, don’t change things up. It takes time to build the cohesion and trust necessary for learning teams to thrive. The need for a variety of voices can be solved by creating larger learning groups (see #1).

  7. Allow Roles to Emerge.

  8. Assigning team roles, like scribe, reporter, team lead, etc. short-circuits an important process. Each learning team is made up of individuals with a unique expertise and strengths. It’s better to allow learning teams to negotiate their roles and to discover their most natural way of relating with one another.

  9. Create Team Assignments

  10. If your learning teams use the divide-and-conquer approach, then you’ve not created a true team-learning assignment. This is where most groupwork either succeeds or goes off the rails. Good team learning assignments will require deliverables that cannot be done alone or in pairs. They require deliberation by the entire team. Your assignments/projects must require your learners to provide solutions to problems or come to a decision through a process of consensus building.

  11. Build in Accountability

  12. Michaelson and his colleagues, in their book, Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching, make it clear that for collaborative learning to be successful, students must have two forms of accountability: a) group accountability/grades, and b) individual grades. They also stress the importance of individual assessment prior to beginning group assignments. This ensures that each individual group member comes to the group prepared.

  13. Provide Feedback

  14. This is where you bring your instructional guidance, help your students to negotiate team conflicts, point them to the best resources, and help them to ask better questions when they are stuck. Each learning team will have different needs, so you’ll need to tailor your coaching to each group. When working with several learning teams of High School seniors, I discovered that it was important to drop in as often as I could. A few questions I found helpful were: What have you accomplished that you are proud of as a team? What are you finding most challenging? What questions do you have for me? You’ll notice that each of these questions assumes that there is a response. I try to stay away from questions that begin with phrases such as, “Is there anything that…” or “Have you encountered…” These elicit closed, yes/no responses an binary thinking. Whereas the open questions I provided above help to stir up exploratory thinking.

Recommended Resources

Team-Based Learning Collaborative: http://teambasedlearning.org

Fink LD, Knight AB, Michaelsen LK (2004) Team-based learning: a transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publ., Sterling, VA

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professors guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (see his chapter on working with learning groups)

 

Online Teaching Tip #29 – Why the First Weeks of Your Course are So Critical

Why the First Weeks of the Semester are so Critical

Here’s a quick way to get a picture of student participation in your class:

1. Click on your participants list in your course site.
2. Then sort you students by their last access date.

Here’s what you’ll likely see: most students are logging in once a day, or every other day. However, there will be one or two students who have not logged in for some time. With rare exception, these students will be struggling in the class.

Another interesting correlation is between professor engagement and student engagement. In courses where the professor logs in less often, and communicates less often, you’ll find that students access the course site less often, and that the number of days between logins increases. In short, professor presence directly impacts student presence. And the early days of the semester have the most impact on this dynamic.

Here are a couple ways your online engagement impacts the online classroom, especially in the early weeks of the semester:

1) You set the tone and the culture
In the first weeks of the course, you have an opportunity to set the tone of communication and the culture of the online classroom. This happens in your emails, by engaging introductions, facilitating online discussions, and adding custom elements to the course. Sometimes—but, not often—you may need to email a particular student to explain how they are coming across in their discussion posts and to give them some pointers on etiquette. In an online course, a student became accusatory and belligerent toward another student in an online discussion forum. Because the instructor was engaged in the discussions, he was able to intercept the behavior early in the semester and reset the tone of conversation in that group. At the end of the semester, the previously hostile student sent her professor a note of gratitude for making the course an excellent learning experience.

2) You have the opportunity to establish your presence in the online classroom
Supposedly, you have about 20 seconds to create a first impression in the face-to-face classroom. Students form opinions quickly, and those can be tough to change. In the first few weeks of an online course, students will figure out whether or not their instructor is really an active participant or a monitor; then, they will adjust their own engagement to match. If that social presence is not established early on, it’s a hard thing to course correct.

Email is a powerful tool for this. Timely responses and short, checking-in emails tell students you are interested in them as individuals and available to them as a resource for learning.

So, be engaged from day one so that you can set the tone and establish your presence in your online classroom.

Online Teaching Tip #28 – Calendar Your Baseline Participation

How Much Should I Participate?

One of the first questions I get from those who are new to teaching online goes something like this, “How much time should I be spending in the online classroom?” It’s hard to really give an accurate number because classes differ greatly depending on the subject matter, assignments, and individual teaching style. With that said, I think that a good baseline is to devote the weekly time you would have been in the face-to-face classroom to your online classroom. This may seem obvious to some, especially veteran online teachers, but it’s a very new and helpful baseline for those new to online teaching. So, if you teach a 3 credit hour class, put three hours in your calendar to participate and administrate your online course each week. I really mean to put it on your calendar and treat it just like an appointment.

You may be thinking, “Three hours is not nearly enough.” It may not be, but you have to start somewhere and have something to measure against as you feel out just how much time you need to really spur on your learners.

Finally, it’s important to note that this is not time for grading; it’s time devoted to interaction via discussions, email, and whatever other means you have chosen to engage your students.

Online Teaching Tip #27 – Dealing with the Disconnect in the Online Classroom

The Disconnect

Because we don’t see or hear our students in the online classroom, we can begin to forget that they exist.
Or, at least, we feel less connected to them. This is one of the challenges of both online courses, and courses that meet fewer times in the semester. When students feel this disconnect, they start to disengage. When teachers feel this disconnect, they loose the motivation to cultivate the learning environment of the online classroom. Some have pronounced this disconnect as the permanent fault of online learning, but I think that is a premature conclusion. There are ways to build warm connection with students online, but it takes different strategies and requires higher level of intention.

Here are a five ways that you can create more warm and personal connections with your students:

  • 1 – Student Photos: Go into your course participants list and look at their photos. Read the bios that some have created on their profile page. Follow links to explore their blogs and websites.
  • 2 – Introductions: If you have a course introductions forum, become an active participant in the discussion.
  • 3 – Notes: Print off your participants list and keep notes beside the name and photo of your students. This might include current life circumstances like, “Child is recovering from surgery” or “Working 3rd shift” that give you insight into the world of a particular student. You can mine the student introductions and profiles to begin your notes and add to them as you communicate over the course of the semester.
  • 4 – Use tools that allow you to see one another. We were created to recognize faces and voices. It’s an essential aspect of being human. Many courses require only text responses and assignment submissions. Take one of those assignments, like a threaded discussion, and tweak it so that it requires the posting of audio or video responses. One of our favorite tools for this is Voicethread.
  • 5 – Individual Emails. This doesn’t scale well. It requires an investment of time and care. However, when we think back to the teachers who have invested in us and made the most impact on our lives, it was because they gave us individualized attention. You may not be able to do this for all of your students, or even many of them this semester, but choose a few to contact directly via email. This is where your notes on individual students becomes a goldmine. Check in with them as learners, and find some way to encourage them.

There are more than just these five ways to connect, but these are a great place to start.

Teaching Case Studies Online: A Resource List

Teaching Case Studies Online: A Resource List

It’s difficult to find a good set of resources for teaching online case studies. While researching how to structure and moderate online case studies for one of our faculty members, I put together a list of several resources. Hopefully, you’ll find these a helpful place to start as you are learning to teach using case studies online.

Harvard business School Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning – http://www.hbs.edu/teaching/
The definitive resource for teaching using the case method. Provides pdf downloadables, videos, teaching philosophy of case method, helps for preparing and for leading the class. While not specifically written for online learning, the andragogical methods are transferrable.

Teaching with Cases HBS Online 3 Week Seminar – https://cb.hbsp.harvard.edu/cbmp/pages/content/caseteachingonline
This Harvard Business School seminar addresses case question strategies for the online context, how to facilitate and debrief case discussions, using both asynchronous and synchronous technologies to facilitate case teaching and learning, and sharing successful strategies for online facilitation of cases. The cost for the 3 week seminary is very reasonable.

Considerations for Teaching Case Studies Online –  http://odee.osu.edu/news/873
An article by Ben Scragg, instructional designer at The Ohio State University. Provides thoughts on the viability of online cases and what it is like to teach online cases. Provides a summary of six recommended strategies for setting up and moderating online cases.

Online Cases Harvard Discussion Thread – http://teachingpost.hbsp.harvard.edu/questions/6/does-anyone-have-experience-teaching-cases-in-onli.html
This is a discussion with 25+ posts by Harvard Faculty who teach cases and who teach online. They provide some very valuable and helpful insights on how to prepare and moderate cases online. Note posts by Kelly, Austin, Schiano, and Harrison.

How Long Does It Take to Prepare to Teach a Case Online? –  http://teachingpost.hbsp.harvard.edu/questions/306/video-how-long-does-it-take-to-prepare-to-teach-a.html
This short video with Professor William Schiano of Bentley university provides some helpful reflections on preparing cases for the online classroom.

Teaching with Cases Book –  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1633690458/
HBS publication by Espen and Schiano with a chapter devoted to online teaching and learning strategies for case studies.

Teaching with Cases Resources – http://academic.hbsp.harvard.edu/teachingwithcases
15 PDF downloads to supplement Teaching with Cases. This includes evaluation forms, exam rubric, and a guide for student preparation of cases.

Using the Case Method to Teach Online Classes – www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE58.pdf
In this journal article, author, Stephanie Brooke presents several different types of cases that can be used online. She points out the differences between teaching novice and seasoned online students, and she provides some pedagogical approaches to working with each group.

Effective Online Case Teaching: How to Engage Your Students from Afar – http://www.gbsnonline.org/blogpost/760188/149378/Report-on-Effective-Online-Case-Teaching-How-to-Engage-Your-Students-From-Afar
Professors Foster and Nerkar provide an hour long video presentation on how they teach cases online. While a longer piece of content, this presents some very concrete examples of how these instructors structure and moderate online cases. This video is embedded in a summary written and posted by Allyson Freedman.

Online Teaching Tip #26 – Your Tone Matters in Teaching Online

A Story of Miscommunication

I was working with a vendor who was quite terse in his emails. He came across as curt, and I started to assume, because of his communication style, that he was rude and that he didn’t care much for our business relationship.
Then I had the opportunity to spend over an hour on the phone with him as he tried to figure out a technical problem for us. Just hearing his accent explained a lot: he was from New York. If you have friends or relatives from that part of the country, you know that they communicate differently, and to an outsider, they can come off as brusque. Because of the tone of his online communication, I drew the conclusion that this guy didn’t care much about supporting us. It turns out that he was willing to go the extra mile when we encountered a real technical issue.

If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students.

I see this dynamic at work between online instructors and their students. If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students. This is especially true if you have high expectations, and believe your students can do excellent work. If that’s the case, you are going to have to explain to your students a bit about how you communicate and how you grade.

Here are a couple ways to help your students understand your tone online:

1) Send out a “How I Communicate” email. Explain how you might be perceived, tell them a bit about your expectations, and be sure to communicate your belief that they can rise to meet those expectations.

2) Send out a  “How I Communicate” video. If they can see your face and hear your voice, they will begin reading that voice into their email communications. You’ll seem less distant, and you’ll be able to overcome some of those limitations of text-based communication.

Online Teaching Tip #25 – The Power of Invitation

invitationOne of your primary roles as an online teacher is the role of invitor. I’m not even sure if that’s a real word. If it is, perhaps it should be spelled inviter–but that just doesn’t look right. So, we’ll go with invitor. In the face-to-face classroom your very presence invites communication (I’m assuming you’re normal and not unpleasant). In the online context, you have to inject social presence into your instructional style. One of the best strategies is to use invitation in your communication.

3 Ways to use the Strategy of Invitation in your Online Course

1. Include an invitation to respond in your weekly emails. Examples: “If you need further clarification, just drop be an email.” “I’d like to hear how your weekend went” or “…if you need any assistance on the current assignment.” Now, you may be concerned that twenty students will reply, but that rarely happens. The students who need help or who want to connect with you will email you. The rest will understand that you are open and available, there when they need you.

2. Use invitations in assignments. At the end of larger assignments invite students to ask you for focused feedback. For example, at the end of a ten page paper, invite your students to pose one question to you about the subject matter, and to ask you to examine a specific section of their assignment. This requires your students to be more reflective about their own work, and it helps you to address areas of weakness that the student wants to improve.

3. Invite them to ask for more. Sometime assignments don’t require detailed feedback. Specifically, I’m thinking of threaded discussion grades. I’d rather spend my time in the discussion rather than writing lengthily comments to each student. I’ll do this for the first discussion, then I’ll simply give students a grade, refer them to the rubric, then invite them to contact me if they need more detailed feedback.

Assess Your Online Course with the CHICO Rubic

chico_rubricHere’s an award winning resource to use to quickly assess your online course. The Rubric For Online Instruction was developed by California State Univeristy, Chico in 2003, and they have continued to revise it over the years. With it, you can break down you course into 5 different areas and assess each:

  1. Learner Support and Resources
  2. Online Organization and Design
  3. Instructional Design and Delivery
  4. Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning
  5. Innovative Teaching with Technology
  6. Faculty use of Student Feedback

Tips for Using the Rubric for Online Instruction

1. The title of the rubric is a bit misleading. Most of the rubric assesses online course design, not online instruction. But this is revealing: the foundation of good online instruction is good design. So, the tip here is to use this rubric in between semesters when you have time to make design changes on your course, not mid-semester when you are focused on instruction (for that, get my book 🙂 )

2. This thing can be a bit overwhelming, so focus on one topic at a time. Spend a day or a week on Learner Support and Resources, make one or two specific changes to your course, then move on to the next one.

3. Ask the question, “Where do I need help.” Doing a self-assessment can be discouraging because we discover our weaknesses and the gap between the online instructor we are and the one we wish to be. When you find those gaps and weaknesses, enlist a mentor or your institution’s support staff to help you improve your course.

How to download the free online course design rubric: You can download the PDF from the California State University, Chico website HERE

Online Teaching Tip #24 – Give Them Structure

structure2I’ve been touching on some common bad habits that online teachers fall into. Tip #22 addressed the bad habit of checking email as the first thing you do in your teaching day or week. Tip #23 addressed the bad habits that flow from an obsession with covering material. The final bad habit in this set of three is the habit of dropping resources and assignments into a online course site without some kind of framework or method. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve seen that look like a pile of links. As a student, this is very disorienting.

A lot of this goes back to how you’ve designed and organized your course site. Your students need course structure that makes sense. Here are 3 quick tips to keeping your online class site structured.

1. If your site already has that, then use it. If it doesn’t then create topic headings (in Moodle these are called “labels”) where you keep assignments or readings in a common area.

2. When you add new resources or a new assignment, be sure to contact your students and let them know where they have been placed on the course site.

3. Finally, when adding resources, be sure to give them a title that makes sense to your students.

Online Teaching Tip #23 – A Bad Habit To Avoid

questionIf you’ve read through some of these online teaching tips, or read my book, Excellent Online Teaching, you’ve picked up on the fact that I believe good online teaching is built on good habits. You’ve probably had a teacher in high school or college who got by on charisma. You didn’t learn much from them, but at least they were likeable. That kind of teacher won’t last a semester online. Teaching online demands that we jettison bad habits and build a repertoire of good teaching habits. I try to stay on the positive side of things, but nn Online Teaching Tip #22, I addressed a particular bad habit that can derail your entire week. In this tip, I want to address another one of those bad habits, and offer some alternatives.

To set this up, I need to reference a conversation I had a few weeks back. I was talking with a student who had recently graduated from a well-respected school. Reflecting on his years of education there, he said:

“I was surprised that they (my teachers) didn’t really care to hear my questions; it’s like they didn’t want me to think on my own.”

I’ve been trying to figure out the bad habit behind this one. Was it his instructors’ failure to really listen?  Perhaps. Maybe it was that they just didn’t care about him as a person? No, that’s not it. I think it’s a problem, really a habit (surprise, surprise) that we all have a hard time with: that we are driven by a need to cover as much content as possible.

When I first started teaching, I was aghast at how little my students knew about the subject matter. I felt like I needed to do two years of work just to get them up to speed. Then I had to teach everything that we were supposed to cover for that year. So, I fell into really two bad habits:

1 – Thinking that teaching = covering content

2 – Thinking that the responsibility of learning was on my shoulders (I was teacher-centered).

The result is that you don’t have time to listen to your students. You forget that they have questions. Inquiry wilts on the vine while we pour content over them in the hope that they’ll absorb it. I call this one a meta-habit because it generates other poor teaching habits. Howard Hendricks, one of my favorite teachers of teachers has said:

If you want to cover something, then use a blanket.

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgWhat’s the alternative?

1. Get a copy of Maryellen Weimer’s book Learner-Centered Teaching. Or you can read my extended book review here on this site.

2. As you facilitate your online courses, get in a habit of asking generative questions. What I mean by generative question is asking questions that stimulate inquiry.

3. Ask yourself, “How am I asking my students to use the content this week and not just to understand it.”