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 4x6 card posted above.

    1. Group Size

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.

    1. Organize Around a Clear Goal

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.

    1. Stay in the Same Group

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).

    1. Allow Roles to Emerge.

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.

    1. Create Team Assignments

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.

    1. Build in Accountability

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.

    1. Provide Feedback

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)


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 & Learninghttp://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 Seminarhttps://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 Threadhttp://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.

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."