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)

 

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.”

Online Teaching Tip #22 – Never Check Email First

Checking email at the internet kiosksIf you want to be conventional, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of the week is to check your email.As an online teacher, I’ll explain two big reasons why this is maybe the worst habit you could begin.

1. It puts you into a reactive mode instead of a proactive one. Essentially, you’re derailing yourself by allowing your student’s problems and legitimate needs drive you. You want to be driven by the things that got you into teaching. Instead, read something that is going to make you a better teacher. Or sit down and just write out the three goals you have for your online teaching this week. Better yet, identify the one or two tasks you could accomplish that would make the biggest difference for your online learners–then do them (before checking email). Steven Covey said that we are 5000 times more productive when we are being proactive instead of reactive.

2. If your checking email first, you’re probably allowing other people to set the emotional tone for your week. Most emails don’t start with, “I just wanted to thank you for…” or “I just wanted to give you…” –they start or end with a problem. Starting your day trying to solve problems is a drain. Starting your whole week that way on a Monday morning is even worse. Instead, start with a work activity that is going to give you perspective and energy.

What habit could you begin at the beginning of your week teaching that would be proactive, give you perspective, increase your productivity, and give you energy?

photo by barnaby jeans

Put a Tripwire in An Online Assignment (or How I Got a Free Book)

decisive.pngEarlier this year I got a free advanced copy of Decisive from Chip and Dan Heath before it was released to the public.  I got  it because of a tripwire. I’ll explain.

So, here’s how it happened. I signed up for the Heath brothers’ online newsletter so that I could download a PDF that summarizes their book Made to Stick. A few months later, they emailed to give me access to a chapter from their forthcoming book. Towards the end of that chapter, hidden somewhere in the middle of a page, they cached something like this in a parenthesis: “(If you email us some feedback about this chapter, we would love to send you an advanced copy of our new book Decisive.)” That hidden sentence was the tripwire. They could have put this at the beginning of the chapter, or in their email, but they wanted feedback from people who they knew really read most or all of the chapter, not just those moochers who wanted a free book that they might not even read.

In that book, Decisive, they explain how the band Van Halen required a bowl of M&M’s backstage as a tripwire for their shows. You can read the entire story by downloading the first chapter from their site: http://heathbrothers.com/books/

mmsSo, I thought I’d try this out with my online students. I had created a 10 minute screencast to coach my students on a particular phase of an assignment. It was critical that their teams watch all of it (it was a collaborative project). I knew that if they didn’t watch the entire thing, then I might have a bunch of confused learners, poor quality submissions, and a lot more work on my hands. So, I set a tripwire.

I told the students that somewhere in their screencast, they would find an unusual phrase. They needed to take the phrase and type it into the header of their next assignment. Without the phrase, their maximum grade would be an 85%.

It worked!

Here are a few benefits I noticed from using a tripwire in online assignments:

1) It saved me time and put the responsibility back on the learners. Usually, I’d be tempted to create a quiz or to have my student fill out something that said, “I’ve watched the whole thing…” Why should the instructor be doing more work in order to get students to meet basic expectations? This put the ball back in their court.

2) It created mystery. They were listening for the phrase and more attentive as a team to the screencast. Of course, I didn’t try hard to hide the phrase; in fact, I pointed it out, but they still had no idea at what minute and second it was going to pop up.

3) It was fun. I made the phrase silly. They all involved some small animal, a geographic location, and some kind of martial arts noun. For example. Galilean Ninja Weasel.

Try it out. How could you give teeth to an assignment like watching online lectures or completing reading or a screencast by using a tripwire?

Online Teaching Tip #21 – Engage More

unavailableYour online students presume that you are unavailable. That may sound harsh, but it’s one of the realities of teaching in the online context. What follows that belief is that your students will leave you alone. There are always the exceptions, the students who proactively email you every week, but most are content to believe that you are merely monitoring the course. It’s up to you to dismantle that belief (that you are unavailable) by making the first move and engaging your students. Student evaluations consistently give higher scores to instructors who are intentional about engaging their students.

How to Engage Your Online Students More (than you are right now) – 4 Ways

1. Know your means of engagement. Class-wide messaging, email, assignments, gradebook, skype, phone, letter (if you want to really get their attention). Make a list and know what’s available to you.

2. Create basic engagement habits. I recommend that you have at least two: your weekly email that goes out to the entire class, and that you work through your class list and send out a personalized email to every student in the course during the semester. Put it in your calendar, otherwise it just won’t happen.

3. Tell them. In all of your communications, remind them that you want to hear from them and are available.

4. Reply. I hate that I even have to include this one, but I see this way too often. Make a commitment to your students to return their emails, and set the expectation for a reasonable time frame. I recommend 48 hours. See Communication Expectations in online teaching Tip #8.

Online Teaching Tip #20 – When You Feel Overwhelmed

tempOverwhelm comes with the territory of the teacher. But the online classroom is especially fragmenting. I think this is due to the fact that we work with so many intangibles. Instead of a stack of papers, we have a set of online submissions. Instead of a series of conversations in person during a set time before or after class, communication with our students is distributed across our weeks, often in short replies to their emails, and embedded in online discussions. It demands more of our mental capacity. And when the demand on our mental capacity increases, the temperature on the overwhelmometer rises.

I was talking with a good friend this week who is teaching his first online course, and he is experiencing this in full force. I’d like to share with you the two pieces of advice that I shared with him.

When you are overwhelmed by your online course(s)

1. Give yourself permission to keep things simple. My friend is developing his course while teaching it. He’s teaching week one, while creating content and learning activities for weeks two and three. You can feel the weight of this can’t you? I told him to keep his course as simple as possible, to put 25% of his energies into development and 75% of his energy into facilitating the course. Student evaluations tell us this over and over: course design is important, but how we facilitate the course is what really matters to them.

2. Focus your teaching energy on the top 3 habits of the excellent online teacher.  The first is proactive communication. Be consistent with getting out your weekly email, and prompt in replies. The second is to be prompt in your grading. Put assignment grading in your calendar so that you can make sure it gets done. The third is to give your students meaningful and useful feedback in discussions and on larger assignments.  If you are overwhelmed, I want to be that voice of assurance that says, “You don’t need to work yourself to death this week; just figure out how you can engage these three things well, and you’re going to be okay.”

Online Teaching Tip #19 – Move the Ball Forward

Move the Ball Forwardmoveballforward

Motivation wanes in the the middle of the semester.  Our students are feeling the demands of school, and our contact with them online starts to feel more like business than learning. And this dynamic is a lot more difficult to navigate in the online context. The little things that keep us going, non-verbals from our students, interactions, even a simple smile, are just not there. This is when the teaching habits you’ve developed will pull you through: the weekly emails you send out, the positive tone you deliberately craft into your emails, your attention to address each student by name, your prompt and helpful responses to online discussions–all these little things push the ball forward a few more yards.

The basketball coach, John Wooden, was first and foremost an educator who cared deeply about the character and education of his players. I keep this quote taped to the bottom of my computer screen.

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur…don’t look for the quick big improvement. See the small improvements one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens–and when it happens, it lasts.

– John Wooden

One strategy that has helped me in the past has been to keep an email folder or an Evernote note with encouraging comments from your students. When you need a shot in the arm to keep going, pull some of them up for 5 minutes and read over them. They will get you back in the game and ready to move the ball forward.

Online Teaching Tip #18 – Create an FAQ

FAQ Saves the Day!faq

I received a couple emails  from students who didn’t completely understand a research panel project I had designed for an online course. With the due date quickly approaching, they were already deep into the work on the their assignment. Instead of writing detailed emails to each of these students, I decided to try something different. I sent out an email to the entire class, asking all 24 students to send me more questions. I gave them a deadline (by noon tomorrow), and told them that I’d use their questions to build an FAQ.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve discovered from creating that FAQ:

1 – It saves a ton of time. Instead of responding to fifteen emails, I’m writing one long message, and making it available to everyone in the class.
2 – It helps me address their real questions. I’m so familiar with this assignment that I don’t know what they may need clarified. Of course, I feel like I’ve described everything clearly in the instructions and in the syllabus–but ten years of teaching tells me that there are always gaps in my communication, always.
3 – It’s reusable. I can use this FAQ in the course next semester, and I can build or alter it as I improve the assignment.
4 – It’s another chance to be responsive to my students and to communicate that I care about them and their learning process.

5- It’s concrete. Here are some of the questions that came from my students. “Can I use my notes during the panels?” “How long will the panel last?” “How much of the time should our team devote to interpretation and how much to application?” As teachers, we can get a bit abstract in our instructions. The FAQ helps us speak directly and clearly to our students’ concerns.

photo by a_kep