Posts Tagged ‘cooperation’


September 1, 2011

I am morphing into Joss Ives this semester. Not only have I centered much of my classtime around clicker questions, but I also just purchased a classroom set of whiteboards. I am looking forward to becoming a whiteboarder and doing some whiteboarding with the whiteboards.

To be fair, my introduction to clickers was through Derek Bruff, and a lot of other people do the clicker/whiteboarding combo. However, Joss was my first contact, so he deserves credit.

Frank Noschese also deserves credit for making it really easy (and cheap) for me to get whiteboards. I have also ordered a set of the environmentally-friendly dry erase markers he recommends.

PS: It seems like I will be morphing into Andy Rundquist next semester.

Midterm Evaluations

March 11, 2010

I am pleased to say that I have been in the habit of offering midterm evaluations to my students for the past couple of years. I have always meant to hand them out, but I sometimes got lazy. No longer.

I have found that there are two advantages to these evaluations. First, I learn more about the class. I can learned how effective things have been, and I get a sense of how the students feel about the class. Second, the students have said they feel better about the course by my offering a chance to evaluate it. This is not surprising—everyone likes being listened to, and few people are listened to less than a college student.

One nice thing is that I can customize my evaluations to my course (as opposed to the evaluations that many schools require, which usually involves a bubble sheet and generic comments like “Bret rocks!” or “Bret sucks!”).

Here are the questions I asked this time:

  1. How helpful was the introduction of our 10 “toy” groups (S_3, D_4, quaternions, etc) to your learning? Should we have spent more time on these, less time, or did we spend the correct amount of time getting familiar with these groups.
  2. How useful is it when we go over proofs that people submitted for individual homework? How much do you learn from comparing these proofs?
  3. Has Bret provided enough support on \LaTeX for you to use it effectively?
  4. What are the benefits and drawbacks of our in-class exam format of “no surprises?” Would it be better to add a problem that you have not yet seen? Would it be better to add more “cooperative” questions? Should we leave the format the same?
  5. How useful has the feedback on the individual homework been?
  6. How could the in-class lecture time be improved? Should we be spending our in-class time differently?
  7. How effective have the cooperative groups been in helping you learn the material? Would you guess that you have learned more, less, or the same amount that you would have if you did all of the homework on your own?
  8. I am planning on following the textbook (Gallian) more closely from now on. How likely would you be to pre-read if I told you which section of the text would be covered in the next lecture?
  9. Overall, how much do you feel like you are learning in this class?
  10. What other suggestions do you have?

Here is a brief summary of student responses for these questions:

  1. Somewhere between “helpful” and “very helpful.” We spent roughly the right amount of time on them.
  2. Somewhere between “useful” and “very useful.” One student suggested that I have the students read through the proofs at home to save on class time. This was a brilliant suggestion, and I am going to change my course accordingly.
  3. Yes. Google is also very helpful.
  4. Most people liked the exam format, although some wanted more “surprise” computational questions. We will discuss this before the next midterm.
  5. The feedback has been helpful.
  6. Sloooooooooow doooooooown. I apparently go through proofs quickly. This response played a large role in my decision to start using Beamer for my classes. So far, it has been working well—a straw poll of my students suggests that we are now moving at an appropriate pace.
  7. “Very helpful” to “extremely helpful,” with perhaps five exceptions, who said that they learned an equal amount to if they had been working individually. But of those five, three said that they really did not meet much with their cooperative team. It seems like those who work with teams almost always get a lot out of it.
  8. Some said they would read ahead, some said they would. This information is embedded in my Beamer slides, so it is there for the taking.
  9. “The usual amount” to “an unbelievable amount.” No one suggested that they are not learning much.
  10. Sloooooooooow doooooooown.

One thing that I did not do this time was to ask questions that make students reflect on how they are responsible. I usually ask a question like, “What can Bret do to help you learn more?”. I follow this with “What could you be doing to help you learn more?”. I omitted it this time due to space considerations; also, I ask them a similar question every cycle (roughly a week) on their homework (so I guess I have mini-evaluations once per cycle).

Finally, I feel like I have the responsibility to report back to the class what the students said in their evaluations. This took the form of a three minute class presentation.

Cooperative Homework Update

January 21, 2010

I finished grading my first assignment for my abstract algebra class, and all is well. I was particularly concerned about how the cooperative homework component would be perceived by the students—I worry about student reaction whenever I change the usual school procedure. In particular, I was concerned that students would not like having other students responsible for their grade.

It turns out that my students enjoyed it. I took a straw poll in one of my classes when I first introduced this policy, and only one student (out of 13) said he was nervous about the system. Everyone else felt either positively or neutral about the policy.

I used some class time to give students an anonymous evaluation of how the first cooperative homework assignment went. I asked some open-ended questions (“What went well?,” “What could your team improve upon?,” and “What could Bret do to help?”). I also asked the students to rank their experience on a scale of 1 (Bad Experience) to 10 (Great Experience). The high score was 10, the low was 5 (only 1 occurrence), and I think that the mode was 9. There seems to be good support for this policy.

Cooperative Learning

January 9, 2010

I attempt to add a new, proven feature to my teaching each year. This semester, I am concentrating on adding true cooperative learning to my classes.

Any sort of learning can be categorized into one of three categories: “Individual learning,” “competitive learning,” and “cooperative learning.” An individual learning environment is where one student’s learning is not affected by any other student’s learning; every school where I have worked has had predominantly (solely?) a focus on individual learning (my courses included). A competitive learning environment occurs where one student succeeds at the expense of the other. An example of a policy that encourages competitive learning is the true grading curve, where only 10% of the class could earn an A. A cooperative learning environment occurs when students succeed or fail together.

Cooperative learning is more than simply using group work. Two aspects of cooperative learning that I have usually not included with run-of-the-mill group work are positive interdependence and individual accountability. Positive interdependence means that the group succeeds and fails together—there is no room for some of the group members to succeed while others fail. Individual accountability means that I have developed policies so that students cannot just let others do all of the work.

I am implementing cooperative learning policies in my course because the psychology research overwhelmingly shows that students learn more in cooperative environments than individual and competitive environments (individual environments tend to improve learning more than competitive). This is really the only reason I need, but the research also shows that students who have experienced true cooperative environments strongly prefer cooperative learning environments to individual or competitive environments.

I am going to introduce cooperation into my classroom through three policies:

  1. Students will work cooperatively on homework. I will assign them to groups of 3-4, collect all assignments from the group, randomly select one of the papers, and give the grade of that one randomly selected paper to the entire group. Of course, the students will be instructed to meet to make sure that all of their papers are correct.

    This policy promotes a positive interdependence by giving everyone in the group the same grade. This encourages students to teach each other to make sure that they all understand the material. There is individual accountability because any one of the group members’ papers could be selected for grading; a slacker will cause the entire group to do poorly.

    (Note: There will also be individual, rather than cooperative, homework. There is definitely a place for individualism).

  2. Students will have a similar experience for each midterm. I will again assign groups (likely the same groups from the previous homework assignment), give them an exam problem in advance, and then ask the students that question on the in-class portion of the midterm. Each group will get a grade based on how the entire group does. I have not yet decided on the method for determine which one grade all group members receive (feedback would be appreciated), but options are: randomly selected a question to grade, averaging the group members’ scores, using the lowest grade, or using the second lowest grade.
  3. Students will be creating a textbook for the class. This idea is from Patrick Bahls. This will be a lower stakes cooperative task, since I will not be giving the entire class a grade depending on how the students do. Rather, it will be a (hopefully) enjoyable task that promotes learning.

I welcome comments, particularly on the following two issues:

  1. How should I grade the cooperative homework? I strongly favor de-emphasizing grades, and I have previously been give an “All or nothing” grade with re-writes. However, I am afraid that I will not be able to grade everything if this happens (I am allowing unlimited re-writes on the individual homework assignments). I have considered a 0-3 scale for each problem, but that does not give them the feedback I would like. I really have not thought of a solution that I am happy with—please help.
  2. How should I score the cooperative question on the midterms? Average? Randomly selected? Lowest score?