Friday, November 25, 2016

Some Advice on Teaching Group Assignments.

Working in groups, and leadership in particular, are always in the top two skills that employers are looking for. To help my students get that experience requires making group assignments. Recently, I feel like I have finally figured out how to do this right. Here is what works for me and my students.

1) Explain to the students why group work is important and unavoidable. I point out that if you run into someone in dark alley it is much less scary if you have five of your biggest and best friends with you. In life, numbers matter. A working group will ALWAYS beat an individual and there are some tasks only groups are capable of accomplishing. They will be working in groups for the rest of their lives so they need to learn how to do it. From a teaching perspective this means one of the worse mistakes one can make is to turn an individual assignment into a group assignment. The task must genuinely need to be done by a group. 

2) Teach your students how to work in a group. Many teachers seem to think they can just turn students loose on a group project and they will magically figure out how to make it work. The number one lesson of group work is what we evolutionary biologists call division of labor. That means people doing different tasks, ideally with each person doing the task that they are best at. The point is for the group to be better than the sum of the parts. You have to explain that they need to meet, pick a leader, set ground rules and expectations, get to know each other’s talents and abilities, and most importantly figure out how to allocate tasks so that each task is done by the best person for that task. With debate teams for example, I tell them to allocate the most argumentative and forceful personality to cross examination and the clever but shy people to library work and prepping arguments, and the arty types to make the slides. Competitive team debates may be the best type of assignment to teach group behavior because it unifies groups to be challenged by outsiders and provides a great example of how important working together is because going it alone against a team would be futile.

3) Rationally design the groups for maximum diversity. Never, ever, ever, ever (can I emphasize this anymore?) let students self-sort or you will end up with a superstar group and many struggling groups that are total disasters. On top of this they will inevitably end up racially segregated. I use every bit of knowledge I can glean ahead of time including consultation with TA’s to construct groups. We first separate the top performing students to date to designate each group. Next, we allocate diverse talents and types to make groups that should be as functional as possible. Sometimes we have to resort to random allocations but that is still better than letting the students pick their own groups. Finally, we allocate the problem students, essentially handicapping the groups as evenly as possible. This measure will save a tremendous amount of time and energy later once you learn how to do this. It also means putting off group projects as late in the semester as possible to get to know the students.  If the students balk at not being able to pick their groups and partners, I remind them that they cannot chose their coworkers or families so just get on with it. Never let them argue their way into being grouped with their first choices. In fact, I deliberately avoid pairings that students ask for ahead of time. We also have to avoid problematic combinations. There will be racists, misogynists and other people who for whatever reason should not be paired with other races or sexes or individuals who they have bad histories with. 

4) No opting out! I have sat kids down on presentation day when they showed up with slides in hand the night before expecting to just add them to whatever the group did without interacting with their group. Tell them this upfront from the beginning that there is no opting out of working with their group. You need to make it crystal clear that going it alone is not an option. There are two ways to do this. First, as said before, make the assignment too big for one person to do. Second, assess how the individual preforms in a group with peer review of group members. I always make it clear from the beginning that their group members will be solicited to comment on each individual’s contribution and that no one will be allowed to do the assignment alone, period.

5) Keep an eye on the groups and respond to problems immediately. After the project is done is not the time to discover that Robert was AWOL the whole time. Usually about a third of the way along a group assignment I email or ask the class how it is going and if they are satisfied with everyone’s participation. If they are not question the task allocation then talk to the offending member. Don’t jump to conclusions here. Nontraditional students can have family obligations that 18 year olds have no concept of. The only option for the worse type of slacker may be giving them a zero and freeing the group of having to deal with them. Next talk to the one who complained because turning on group member is poor group work behavior. Groups need to have each other’s backs. The proper response for dealing with a poor group member is to help them so that they can contribute as much as possible, and to cover for their weakness so the group does not suffer. Turning on the weak link only serves to bring the whole group down with them. Tell your students this after you ask for the member feedback the first time.  I have also had occasion to move a group member because of irresolvable differences. Again this is always fluid and dependent on specific student interactions. The rule is that there is no rule except to make an effort to keep on top of group problems.

6) I grade them as a group. They need to know that it is all for one and one for all like in real life. This can be hard for the over achiever students who gravitate to the leader role. I point out that getting the best out of others is part of the assignment and if they failed at that then their grade should reflect it. If someone thinks one student pulled down the group ask why they did not support and help that student. Why didn’t they allocate or reallocate the workload more appropriately? This is the whole point of the exercise and what defines good teamwork and good leadership, hence their grade needs to reflect that.

I hope this helps as I have found following these guidelines to yield very good results with happy students and high levels of accomplishment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When should a moderator call out lies in a formal debate?

The recent controversy in the news about whether or not debate moderators should point out lies struck a nerve with me after my classroom debates last semester. I have been doing organized and competitive team debates at the end of my third year Genetics and my third year Biology of Aging classes. These debates are on controversial social topics and have proven very popular. I would have to count it as one of my most effective assignments as it does seem to get students thinking and fired up like very few other activities. The team element also has proven an excellent way to teach group work by emphasizing the need to divide the labor based on individual student strengths. The problem I ran into head on last year was a very charismatic and persuasive student who cleverly argued a falsehood from a very weak internet source. The student is clearly a very talented debater so I want to be clear that I am not criticizing him at all. In fact it was a great performance on his part in that he could take such a weak piece of evidence and convince the room that it was true. Kudos to him for pulling it off! The problem is how to handle this in a teaching situation where the need to teach the truth may conflict with it being the other team’s responsibility to shoot down and point out the weaknesses in the argument.

This same issue is raising its head in the presidential debates where journalists whose job should be informing the public on the facts are being picked to moderate debates which need to be fair competitions. This puts the journalist moderators in a very similar type of conflict of interest. Should they be fair and not be expected to do the other side’s work for them or should they stick to their moral duty as journalists? The solution in this case is simple, we need to stop asking journalists to mediate these debates and instead ask retired judges or some other neutral party schooled in debating. It should also be explicitly stated in the rules that it is never the moderator’s role to identify the facts or misrepresentations.

In the class situation above I simply could not let the falsehood go so I did tell the class about the one off experiment, the online shenanigans and that the point was wrong, but only after the debate was over and the outcome decided. I also asked the class to consider the rhetorical techniques that our super debater skillfully employed to persuade them. Unfortunately I was still taken to task by one student in the end of semester surveys for “calling out” the star debater to the class. I don't know what else I could have done. Sometimes you just can’t win.