Dr Joe Merton, University of Nottingham
In this blog, Dr Joe Merton reflects on approaching group-based discussions and collaborative learning in an online learning environment.
One of the pleasures of university teaching is the opportunity we have to create distinct “communities of practice” in the classroom. Through group-based discussions of historiography and primary evidence specific to our areas of expertise or student-led seminars on historical questions we ourselves are grappling with, we are able to develop disciplinary skills, share ideas and perspectives, and forge common bonds or objectives, deepening students’ engagement with their subject and their peer group while seeing themselves as independent but also collaborative learners. In my own teaching I have used strategies such as task-based learning, problem-solving, and collaborative seminars (the latter designed and delivered by students and myself in partnership) to foster this sense of shared enterprise and community.
But how can we create opportunities for peer group interaction and collaborative learning in the context of a pandemic, where students are working online or in a socially distanced classroom, and where group-based interactions and exchanges are not permissible or laden with risk?
What did I do?
In response, I created small study groups of between 4-6 students in each of my undergraduate seminars. Each group was named after a location or group specific to the module to give the groups a sense of cohort identity and create an immediate connection to the content (on my Special Subject on 1970s New York, each group was named after a specific gang from the cult film The Warriors – an identity they continue to use six months on!). Each group was also given their own private channel on Teams in which to meet online each week, share content, and work collaboratively (although some students chose to create their own spaces on other platforms). I hoped these groups would generate a sense of common purpose and identity within my seminars, reduce feelings of isolation or disengagement, and develop those communities of practice integral to student learning.
In the first seminar of the module (or each semester on full-year modules), the study groups were set a task – a quiz to complete, a question to answer, a problem to solve – to (re)introduce them to each other and the experience of working collaboratively. Over the following weeks, study groups were assigned reading and source material to discuss, but I also formalised collaboration by designing in a prescribed group activity for them to work on: a historical roleplay on “solving the urban crisis” or an analysis of cultural representations of deindustrialisation; a research task or student-led presentation on street crime or graffiti. Groups were expected to meet at least once in advance of our timetabled class to discuss those materials and complete the task, before bringing the outcome of their efforts to class (although they also posted source material, presentations and other content on Teams for the other groups to use).
So what worked and what didn’t, and what advice would I offer to a colleague wishing to experiment with study groups?
Clear scaffolding and expectations
I found the study groups functioned most effectively when scaffolded with clear instructions and expectations: the provision of a crib sheet with prescribed questions and tasks; a set space to meet; advice to meet up at the same time each week. Even if it increased their workload, students also took more from group meetings when they were organised around a specific task. Being assigned a task – a presentation or debate to prepare for; a source to identify and evaluate – provided structure and purpose to group meetings, whereas when I asked students to meet up and simply “discuss the reading”, motivation and engagement dropped.
Integrating the academic and pastoral
The study groups played an important role in embedding informal forms of pastoral and peer support in the academic experience. Many students reported that working in study groups helped combat feelings of loneliness and social isolation during the year, and that they looked forward to their weekly meetings with their peers. Others felt able to ask questions or clarify points they were uncertain about – academic, practical or otherwise – in an informal setting before the larger seminar. It is clear that in some cases strong interpersonal relationships and group identities have been forged, with peers supporting each other if a group member was struggling.
Of course, recent reports within the university of bullying and harassment in online breakout groups should also encourage us to proceed with caution. While I have not received reports of similarly troubling experiences in my groups, it is clearly much more difficult for us to identity them when we are working online. Therefore, providing clear expectations for student conduct at the start of a module, and providing mechanisms by which individual students can report any concerns to the convenor in confidence, are essential.
Context (and cohort) matters
The move to exclusively online delivery this semester has made study groups more difficult. During the Autumn, when we were still teaching in-person and with the vast majority of students on campus, students were able to make connections more easily and inequalities of access to resources, workspace or technology were less evident. This semester, some groups have found it more difficult to meet regularly, especially if some of their members are on campus/in Nottingham and others remain at their family home. Being conscious and respectful of these differences (and inequalities) of experience, and reminding students to do the same in their groups, has been especially important.
Equally, different cohorts have found it easier to make study groups work than others. In modules with a clear sense of cohort identity, such as our final year Special Subjects, or where students have prior experiences of group work at university to call upon, study groups have been more successful. Where those experiences are thinner, or where there is less investment in the group or subject matter, this has been more of a challenge. This may suggest study groups are more suitable for certain cohorts of students than others.
To monitor or not?
There were of course instances this year when group work was not completed or study groups did not cohere. Some may see the creation of study groups on Teams as an opportunity for us to monitor our students’ progress more closely and intervene where work is not being completed. But for me it was critical to emphasise to students that study groups were not a form of surveillance to assess engagement or participation, but light-touch, enjoyable, and designed to increase student responsibility for their own learning. While the temptation to monitor student contributions is there, and online technologies offer us the analytics to do so, we must trust our students to do the work – they are adults – and see study groups as an opportunity to increase rather than undermine student autonomy, independence and responsibility.