Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, Dr. Dakin Burdick joins us to explore a variety of small-group discussion activities that can be productively integrated into our classes. Dakin is the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. He has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in higher education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was a president for four years.
- Burdick, Dakin (2019). Small Group Discussion Protocols
- Joan Middendorf — Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University
- Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2017). Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks: Decode the Critical Thinking of Your Discipline. Stylus Publishing.
- IUPUI — Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
- Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom Assessment Techniques. Jossey Bass Wiley.
- 84. Barriers to Active Learning — Tea for Teaching podcast (with Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant)
- Larry Michaelsen — Professor of Management at the University of Central Missouri, pioneer of Team-Based Learning
- Michaelsen, L., Knight, A., & Fink, L. (2005). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing.
- Team-Based Learning Collaborative
- Elliot Aronson — Inventor of the Jigsaw classroom technique
- Aronson, E. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Sage. Chicago.
- Zoom — iOS, Android
- Eric Mazur — Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Chair of Applied Physics at Harvard University
- Teaching Professor Conference
- David Pace — Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington.
- Pace, D. (2017). The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Indiana University Press.
- Pace, D. and Middendorf, J. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. Jossey-Bass.
John: Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, we explore how a variety of small-group discussion activities can be productively integrated into our classes.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Dakin Burdick, the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. Dakin has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was President for four years. Welcome.
Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.
Rebecca: That sounds yummy.
John: And a great way to start the day. [LAUGHTER] And I have Ginger tea.
Rebecca: And I have something different today. I have Strawberry Grapefruit Xue Long Flavored Green tea.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about effective ways of engaging in small-group discussions. You’ve done quite a few workshops on that. Could you tell us is about your shift to small group discussion protocols in your own classes and how you get started with using small group discussions?
Dakin: Sure. My method of instruction was lecture primarily. I started off in history and I did a lot of lectures. Some of them were good—and I’m proud of those few—but I was teaching a class at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis at Columbus and it was a U.S. history survey, first-year survey. It was once a week, three hours long, and some of the students had traveled for more than an hour to reach the class after a full day of work. Some of them came in with their dinners, and I knew that lecture class was not going to get me through that class. Nobody would survive it; not even me. [LAUGHTER] So I worked with the Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University, Joan Middendorf. I selected several small group discussion methods: jigsaw discussions, role playing. I modified the debate system to create a evidence-based debate protocol. I used the just-in-time teaching method from IUPUI, and the classroom assessment techniques of Angelo and Cross, which I kind of regard as my Bible. The combination of those worked really well. The students remained active throughout the class, we were often surprised to find the class was over, everybody was still energized, I still had a protocol or two to go. Everybody learned each other’s names because we did random groups, and the class as a whole was tremendously successful. I was really happy with the results and I’ve used it ever since.
John: Whole-class discussions are often used but what are the advantages of small-group discussions relative to a whole-group discussion?
Dakin: I actually advocate both of those. I advocate lecture, small-group, and whole-group discussions for different purposes. The large group for me is one where I would often find faculty having the usual suspects were the only ones talking. You had three or four students in a class of 20 to 30, no one else was talking, and the faculty member would usually come to my office and ask, “Well, how can I change this? How can I get more students involved?” and often, that’s where the diagnostics began. What I found was, first of all, they needed to have preparatory homework, the students needed to do it, it needed to be graded, and if it was graded and it’s frequent assessment in order to reduce faculty load, they had to grade this lightly, and place the effort onto the students and not onto themselves. And if they did that, usually things improved. The advantage of the small groups is that if they’ve done all that work, then the students wants to talk. If you get to a large-group conversation and you’re not talking, it’s pretty boring for the students that aren’t talking. For the faculty member, it sounds like it’s a really good conversation because they’re the center of the wagon wheel, they’re the center of the hub, and so they’re constantly talking with those three or four students, but they’re wondering what’s happening with the rest of them. And that’s a good thing to wonder about, frankly. If you use small groups, you have the advantage that more people are talking at the same time. So instead of having one person talk at a time, you can have six people in the room talking at a time, so there’s a lot more conversation taking place and hopefully, more change in learning, which is important. Students in small groups feel more free to talk, there’s less risk in a small group, they can gain confidence from that talking, and they’re more active in the classroom at the same time because there’s more people talking. It also gives them the chance to practice disciplinary skills that the faculty member has put into that assignment. So the assignment shouldn’t be about declarative knowledge or facts, it should be about how can you do something in the field? How can you emulate the skills of an expert? The other piece of this is that the small groups have been demonstrated to be effective. Students in the 1920s said they preferred this sort of discussion—at least large-group discussion at that point—and then by the 30s and 40s, there was research and social psychology showing that small groups were more effective in promoting change and student learning. And from there it went on and since the 50s and 60s, a lot of different types of protocols have been invented and developed. There’s just a lot of advantages.
John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how you ensure that students come prepared to actively participate in those small group discussions?
Dakin: The main thing is grade it. The rule is that students—according to the Carnegie unit—are supposed to study for two hours outside the class for every one hour in. Well, the Study Study at Indiana University showed they weren’t doing that. They were studying one hour outside of class for every hour in, and it was usually on Sundays. That means that we kind of have to take that knowledge and make use of it. We know they’re going to do their work on Sundays. So okay, the assignments going to be due Sunday night, 11 o’clock, 11:55. But you make sure that they work harder. You don’t feel guilty about putting more work on them because more work means more practice. All of them could use more work reading, all of them could use more work writing, so that’s what I have them do. And then I make sure they turn their assignments in on Sunday night, I grade them Monday morning—which is a principle of just-in-time teaching—it’s preparatory homework, I read that, and then I modify my class based on what the students bring to it. And so I can see—first of all—their weaknesses. I can see their misconceptions. I also can see their strengths. Occasionally they have real strengths they bring to the class that would be totally invisible if I hadn’t done this work. And my example for that is I had a class where I was teaching the My Lai Massacre—about Vietnam—and I had in the class two very strong students. One was a G.I. who had fought in Vietnam, and one was a First Lieutenant who had taught the rules of land warfare at Fort Benning for three years. Both of these guys were A, smart; B, aggressive; and C, constantly fighting with each other because it was enlisted versus officer. So they dominated the class very often. And when I got back their feedback, they told me their knowledge and I hadn’t seen that knowledge before. I did not know that these were their backgrounds. So I spent an extra two to three hours reading about the rules of land warfare, came to class prepared, and instead of a class that would be a trainwreck for me, what happened is they came in and the Lieutenant said, “Everybody knows the rules of land warfare. So they’re all guilty, and they are all responsible,” and the G.I. says, “No G.I. is going to read a 100-page field manual on the rules of land warfare.” And the Lieutenant says, “Well, there is no 100-page manual on the rules of land warfare,” and I said, “Well, actually, there’s three. [LAUGHTER] There’s the 1956, 1965 and the 1973 (revised on the basis of My Lai).” Okay, so that stops that conversation. Then I turned to the GI and I say, “Okay, but every G.I. has those little plastic helmet liners, right? …with the 10 rules of land warfare on them.” “Yeah.” “Okay. So we’re agreed; they knew the rules of land warfare. Some follow them, some didn’t. Now, let’s talk about why,” and at that point, the conversation became really useful. First of all, all the other students could participate, because they now had the background, and the two people that were real experts in the room could help us kind of determine why people followed or did not follow those rules. And again, if I had not done that preparation—just two extra hours—that class would have been ruination.
Rebecca: What are the kinds of questions that you have students respond to that maybe elicited some of the information that helped you? What are the keys to asking good questions for that preparatory work?
Dakin: I think the keys to that are knowing your subject. So, everybody that is a content master—every faculty member —has their own expertise, and it’s pretty impossible for me to name the prompts that they might use effectively. But they probably know them, they’ve probably seen them in their graduate work. They know that these are the elements that made up their dissertation exams, their qualifying exams, and they’re probably pretty smart about what are those major issues in their field that need to be discussed, and to be prepared, and the students need to be prepared. The big thing is making sure that we’re talking at a high level of cognition. So in Bloom’s taxonomy, talking about analysis, talking about evaluation, those are the levels you want to get at. And those are almost impossible to get at with multiple-choice questions or tests, so that means there has to be conversation, there has to be writing. Those are elements that are important.
John: Earlier you mentioned that you use random assignments for small-group activities. Do you do change the groups on a daily basis or do you have more persistent groups?
Dakin: Occasionally, if I’m doing long-term group work, I will do some sort of pre-test, find out what the strengths and skills of the students are, and then place them mindfully into those groups, so that they construct useful groups because they’re going to be in those for half a semester. I’ll do a swap halfway through, but that’s a long time to be in a single group. For the random groups, I definitely do that and I do that on a daily basis. The students originally complain about that, but they get used to it pretty quickly and they’re ready for it. And the advantage is that they get to meet everybody in the classroom. They get to be in a group with everybody else and that builds trust and it builds community. And that allows them, by halftime through the semester, they know everybody, they’re comfortable with everybody, they trust that other people have their best intentions at heart, and then the conversation just escalates from there because everybody’s now willing to talk.
Rebecca: In our previous episode that we just released last week, we discussed some of the issues that can come up when you’re using evidence-based practices for the first time. A lot of people know or buy into the idea of small-group discussions and might just go for it without necessarily having a good plan in place, and things might go awry. Can you talk a little bit about ways to be prepared for trying something new, the kinds of things that might go wrong, and how we might adjust ourselves a bit as faculty members as we’re trying new things?
Dakin: The thing that I find usually is that people just don’t give the new techniques a chance. It’s scary. Now there was a study back in the late 90s out at Brigham Young and they asked faculty two questions. They asked them first, “What do you think are the most effective teaching methods?” and then “What do you do?” and they were diametrically opposed. [LAUGHTER] And the reason was time management, people are very busy and the stuff that’s effective takes a lot of time to do—or they think so. So I view my job as an instructional designer when I’m helping them to reduce that amount of time and make sure that they can do that. So first, make it time manageable, so that you can do the task and you can feel comfortable. Secondly, trust the system. Trust the change you’ve made. You made this change for a reason, trust it. And third, trust your students. Your students want to succeed, they want to learn. Trust that and have them help you make this successful. Tell them what it is you’re doing in the classroom, why you’re making this change, why you think this is going to help them learn better, and then also use feedback from them to get it. So I typically will use something called a stop, start, continue—What do you want me to stop doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to continue doing?—and use that student feedback to then modify the class. So it’s kind of like a mid-semester evaluation, but I feel like doing it whenever I do… it is just fine.
John: Now earlier you mentioned that whole-group discussions have a place. In what sort of sequence might you use or in what combinations would you use small-group discussions and then whole-group activities?
Dakin: My process is basically four-part. One, preparatory homework. There has to be preparatory homework and it has to be graded—lightly graded—and it should be moderately challenging. Next, they come to class, there’s a brief lecture and the lecture introduces the material, frames the questions we’re going to talk about today, maybe corrects some of the errors that were made in that preparatory homework, also celebrate successes from that preparatory homework. Once that lecture is done, maybe 10, 15 minutes, then move them into small group work. Small group work can be anywhere from one to two minutes in a lecture hall to 40, 50 minutes—and you might do a whole session on the rest of that piece, maybe a debate or some large-scale exercise—usually though, about 10 to 15 minutes in small group. Then when you hear the sounds rising, that means they’re talking about things they enjoy, which means their social life, [LAUGHTER] and so it’s time to stop them. You’ll also see sometimes that there will be a student—maybe all the A students somehow got at the same table—and they’re done three to four minutes before everybody else. Well, the point of putting them into small groups is to build energy and confidence and you don’t want your A students to be bored. So if you have a group that’s done first, you appraise how much of everybody else got through, “Can I stop this now?”—usually you can—and you bring them back to the large-group discussion. And in that large-group discussion of 10 to 15 minutes, you do debriefing and you find out what they think they know, maybe use a classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross, and you evaluate and you build feedback that you can use later. And then once you’ve got that, then you move back to the lecture, and you clean up the misconceptions, you explain and reframe the next issue, and then it’s just a cycle. So it’s lecture, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, and continually like that.
Rebecca: What are some strategies that you use in small groups to make sure that everyone participates or is engaged and stays on task?
Dakin: First, make sure they’ve done the homework. Secondly, randomize so that I’ve got some good students and some poorer students in the same groups, so that we have people that can interact—also, so that people can learn about each other. To keep them on task and walk the room: first of all, be engaged with them. Listen to what they’re saying and if it’s on task, you just congratulate them and move on, if it’s off task, okay, now start working with them—and there’s going to be one group that’s off task, certainly. Other pieces are… that you might encounter a small group where there’s a number of dominant individuals. So there’s a couple of people that are really assertive, and they’re talking all the time, and they are just dominating the whole piece, and the other people aren’t getting heard. And so in that point, then you start introducing other discussion protocols that will allow more inclusivity: so things like expense account, talking stick, things where other people’s voices are valued. Another one would be Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning that also does that.
Rebecca: Can you talk through each of those, for those that aren’t familiar with each of those?
Dakin: Sure, let’s start with talking stick. Talking stick is very simple. You have an object—usually a pencil or something—and one person gets that stick, and is able to talk for one minute without being interrupted, or any comments from anybody else. And then you pass it to the next person, for one minute they get to talk, and it goes around the room that way. And then once it’s gone around once, everybody can talk at once and kind of work out what it was that they heard said, but everybody’s voice is listened to and heard during that time. That’s a rather formal way. Another less formal way is expense account, which is maybe you give them three—or however many pennies you want—three tokens. And they pass those tokens in each time they talk. So the assertive ones are going to spend their pennies very quickly. [LAUGHTER] And the less assertives are going to then have a chance to spend their pennies. And when everybody has spent their pennies, you all get your pennies back and now you can start again. But again, that’s a way to give people a chance to speak. But people can choose when they want to speak, rather than having this turn where it’s coming around. And it’s very set. Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning is much more complex. Larry started this in a lecture hall. And so he has basically an IRAT and GRAT. And the IRAT is an Individual Readiness Assessment Test and that GRAT is a Group Readiness Assessment Test. So he has them take an IRAT first, and as an individual give their answers, turn that in—that’s a grade—and then he has them do the GRAT. So as a group, they now turn in their group grade. And he also uses the scratch off cards, the if/at cards, that sort of thing. Initially, the assertive ones—again—are giving the answers. But as they discover that they don’t have the right answers all the time, then the quieter ones in the group suddenly become more important to the group because their grade is dependent on this. So they’ll start asking, “What did you get for this? You seem to get A’s all the time. Can you please help us?” And so that’s his method of doing that inclusivity.
John: And in that approach though, I believe he recommends persistent teams over the course of the semester, so that they develop that sort of team dynamic.
Dakin: Yeah, very much so.
John: Are there any other small group activities that you like to use?
Dakin: I have a lot of protocols that I’ve gathered over the years—probably got 40, 50 protocols—and the ones that I select are the ones that are low risk. So I’ve kind of classed them as low risk, medium risk, and high risk in terms of how much risk does the student feel when they’re in the classroom doing these… and I like low-risk things which are usually small group where they’re by themselves and they’re talking, and it’s not in front of the faculty member, and they are not having to answer to the whole class in front of a large group. So, some of the pieces I like are jigsaw—which comes out of Elliot Aronson’s work in the 70s—the idea that you break up an assignment into five pieces, and each of the students in a group will do one of those five pieces, and then they will talk in class and share out what they’ve learned from each of those five pieces. So it’s a great way to synthesize a lot of data that maybe you don’t want all students doing. So when I was teaching my Middle Eastern history class, each student was responsible for a different country and they had to do a lot of reading on that country. But if I had all the students do all that reading, it would have been far too much. So instead, I can have these various countries sit at a table and then have a conversation, and the student representing Israel can talk about Israel’s point of view, and the student doing Jordan can talk about Jordan’s point of view, that sort of thing. So that’s one method I love and I even do a double jigsaw. But I only do a double jigsaw maybe twice a semester and they’re at moments where there’s so much content, that there’s absolutely no way we can cover it. And the best example of that is U.S. history survey, first day, which is the dawn of time to 1492, which I think is horribly disrespectful to everybody that was in North America before 1492. So we do a double jigsaw, which is where you have a jigsaw that creates experts at each table and then those experts then are now experts in five different topics. And those people then go off to create super jigsaws. And that works well, but it takes a lot of time. The other one I love is role playing. Role playing… just because it’s my age… I grew up with role playing, but I’ve done a lot of different styles of role play. The one that I think I use the most in first-year history is Articles of Confederation. Everybody takes a representative to the Confederation and talks about what it was that person was like, and why they voted the way they did, and what were their goals. And then we skip ahead to the Constitutional Convention and we talk about who’s still there, who’s not there, why are they not there? If they’re still there, do they still have the same opinions? Are they still voting the same way? Why are the results different at the Constitutional Convention as opposed to with the Articles of Confederation? So that’s a good one. Other classics are the Oregon Trail… everybody loves the Oregon Trail. And unlike the computer game, what you learn is not many people died on the Oregon Trail. People who died most were the Native Americans who are along the trail, everybody else pretty much made where they were going, but that had to do with who those people were. The other one we did was Cuban Missile Crisis. Did the Cuban Missile Crisis and role played the various operatives in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then next week we talked about Watergate and again looked at those same operatives and where they were now in the Watergate plumbers. So that was also useful …those kind of things. There’s lots of different ways to use that though. I’ve seen people use that with theorists. So in psychology, different theorists are represented by the students and they argue their different theories and try to figure out how these things go together. Role playing is obviously one I love.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set the role play up? You mentioned what some of the topics are and when you use it, but can you talk a little bit about the logistics of setting that up and how you have students prepare for that?
Dakin: And those vary a lot. When we’re doing the Articles of Confederation, I just have a list of representatives and I asked them to choose one and then we go from there. So my prep on that is zero, they are the ones responsible for that prep. On some of the others, there’s a lot of prep. With Oregon Trail I worked out, I took a K-12 game that had been done for Oregon Trail, and then I made it much more complex and they had to purchase their gear so I had a full list of gear, I had a list of where they were going to stop, how they were going to stop, and what the mortality rates were. So I basically created this whole game around it and then they played through that. With the Watergate and Cuban Missile Crisis, it was kind of halfway between there. I made cards with each of the people they would role play and on the back—like a Clue card—it tells you who this person is and what their role is and then I gave those to them. And then from there, they again generated most of the data.
John: You mentioned you have these organized by levels of risk. How would you recommend using the different levels? Would it make sense to start with low-risk activities, and then as more trust is built, build the higher ones, or would that be affected by the level of the class that you’re teaching, whether it’s introductory or more advanced?
Dakin: Yeah, it definitely depends upon the purpose of the class. I tend to teach introductory classes so I build a lot of trust, I use a lot of low-risk pieces, and I’ll move to maybe medium risk by the middle of the semester—or maybe I won’t ever use medium risk, it’ll all be low risk—because I’m trying to get them to get used to college and figure out what that’s involved in. If I am teaching a class that’s kind of a gateway or portal class that’s going to lead on and it’s supposed to cull out people, it’s supposed to find out who the best people are, then maybe it makes sense to start doing some of those high-risk pieces, but I probably wouldn’t do that until at least the third year. Build a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, and there’s a lot of learning that has to take place before that, before you get to that point. Traditionally of course, if you look at law school or medical school, they have a lot a lot of high-risk protocols, because there’s a lot at stake and people have to do well. And I remember when I started working with the med school that I read academic medicine, and one of the articles was, “We should abuse our students less.” [LAUGHTER] Not, “We shouldn’t abuse our students,” but, “We should abuse them less.” So, that kind of gave you a sense of what we were dealing with.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the small-group techniques that you use in online environments?
Dakin: Sure. Online environments—actually, the small groups—I usually leave that up to the groups themselves. So if there are groups of students that I’m having work on particular topics, I’ll have those students organize, say, a synchronous conference where they get together on Zoom, and they talk about these things. So they get to pick whatever tool they want—I’ll recommend Zoom because it’s free and you can have up to 40 minutes free, and you can record it. It’s very simple—but they will do that work by themselves. If we’re dealing with, say, a discussion forum, what I’ll generally deal with is ways that students can interact kind of more of at a large-group level, because there’s really no need for a small group when you’re on the discussion forum. But what I do want to do is get rid of the old “post one, reply two” because after you’ve taken two or three online courses, you’re pretty bored with that protocol. And so giving them different ways to think about it and moving the jigsaw into it, moving a debate into it, moving role playing into it, those are all really useful.
Rebecca: Can you pick one of those more complex ways of using a discussion board and talk through how you set that up or organize that?
Dakin: Sure. I think the main thing I do is really—it’s not so much about the organization of the board when I’m doing it—but building student activity. I do a big sales job in terms of talking about what is the value you get from an online course. Now, if it’s just teacher to student, I think that’s a really limited amount of value because there’s a lot of good books out, you can read, you can train, you can look at YouTube, there’s all sorts of great ways to learn. But a real value from an online course for me is who is in that class with you and finding out what their strengths are and what they can bring to it, and that’s where a large part of the education comes. So I don’t use this “post one, reply two” but I do want them to make sure that they are responding weekly to their colleagues, but at a level they feel is appropriate. So don’t say something if you think it’s totally pointless. But if you have a comment and you feel it’s worthwhile, say it, because we need to hear it. That’s the largest part of this. In terms of the organization, the only pieces I’ve done in terms of organization have been very slight. So, with an assignment, you turn in your first post Wednesday, and you turn in your final post on the piece, on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So the initial post is what your response is—out of a think-pair-share, this would be the think part—that you’re doing your initial writing. And then the second part of the week is simply the sharing part. So now you’re responding to those students. Now, if you’re in Canvas, you can do this with setting up the initial one as your due date, and the second piece as your until date, so you can do it within one assignment. Unfortunately with Blackboard, you can’t do that, you have to have two separate assignments. But that’s the only real difference.
John: What about larger classes? What techniques do you recommend there?
Dakin: In large classes, I often talk about Eric Mazur and his peer instruction, simply because I can send them to the videos he’s got on YouTube, and he’s got a lot of videos there. He’s got a lot of publications. So that’s great, I have a lot of resources I can send them to that they can start working on. But Eric’s technique is largely one that applies to an interactive lecture. It’s not really small-group work per se, it’s a way to maintain activity by the students and also makes sure that you’re getting feedback back on what they’re understanding. But since Eric uses multiple-choice questions, he’s really not getting beyond that understanding- or application-level question. So, the issue really with small-group work and large classes is really not about the size of the class, it’s about the furniture in the class. So, you can do small-group work with a very large group as long as you’ve got movable tables and chairs. So, I did this at the Teaching Professor Conference a few years ago. I had 110 people in the room and we did value line, and we did jigsaw, and we did all these different things, and it’s very easy to do as long as you’ve got the furniture that allows you to do it. The hard part about a “large” class is really it’s about the lecture hall and the furniture in it. So if you’ve got furniture that’s fixed, if you’ve got a table that’s fixed, if you’ve got chairs that are fixed, it’s hard to have more than two to three people working together at any one time because they can’t turn around—they can’t do anything else. Also, since you’re in a large lecture hall, there’s a lot of noise. So again, you don’t want to get more than three people because you won’t be able to hear the others. If in a lecture where students can turn around, then you can have a larger group of say four to six. So you have two to three in the front row, two or three in the back row, and they’re talking together in that small group. And I’ve seen small-group work in lecture halls with as many as 160 people, so I know it works. It does take some effort in terms of arranging it. Usually they don’t do random small groups every day—because that would be chaos—but they do long-term teamwork and the faculty member who did this was David Pace at Indiana University—he was very good at this, he’s the one who taught me how to do much of this—he does a pretest, he organizes the students, he puts them into these long-term teams, and then in those teams in the lecture hall, they have the seating arrangement where they’re sitting. And then when he wants to do small-group work, he’ll do his lecture, and he’ll do small-group work, then he’ll do a debrief, same sort of pattern.
Rebecca: What do you find your role is, as an instructor during small-group work? You want to put a lot of the onus on the students, but what’s your role during all of that and how does that scale up to a big class?
Dakin: My role is—as an instructor small-group work—is essentially challenging, adding to, and supporting. Making sure that they know they’re encouraged and they’re doing a great job and going around doing that sort of thing as I walk the room. A lot of the work I do is really the preparation. Making sure that those things are well thought out, that I have a lot of idea of which directions they can go, and to, after the class, make sure I’ve done my reflection: I’ve written down all the weird places they went so that I know that those are possibilities and I can be ready for those, or maybe I just work towards those. Maybe those were better ideas than the ones I came up with—which is actually one of the big advantages of small-group work because you are paying more attention to the students, the students have a bigger role in the class, and your life isn’t as boring. If I was doing the same lecture 20, 30 years later, I would be bored to tears. But as it is, since I’m using these, every semester is different because every group of students is different. So my life is constantly interesting. And it’s almost like doing improv, really, in a way. You have to be a little brave about it, you give them opportunities, but there’s a lot of trust, you trust the students are there to help you. And everything goes well, even with apathetic classes that when I’ve walked in, the class has just been dead, they don’t want to do anything. After a week or two of this, they start getting into it. And by the end of the semester, they’re the same as every other class, and it’s going very well. So it’s highly enjoyable. So I think that’s it, make the class fun, get them to trust and encourage them to do their best work.
John: And in large classes if you have TAs, you could have TAs going around and doing the same thing, just so that you get more of the room covered.
Dakin: That, or if you’ve got a tight space to deal with, you could also have a backchannel going, so people in the groups are reporting out and the TAs are looking at that backchannel through Twitter or something else and kind of getting those ideas and feeding those back to either the students or the instructor.
John: Earlier you mentioned that light grading be used. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Dakin: I think that’s the hardest thing for faculty to do is light grading. Faculty members really want to mark everything. If they see something wrong, they will mark it. And I must admit, myself, when I’m posting to Facebook and somebody writes something and spells it incorrectly, I have to respond. It’s annoying, but I have to do it, and it’s the same way with grading. People will try to grade everything and they will eat up their lives giving these huge responses back that the students really aren’t going to listen to. Nobody has time to make all those corrections. So the smartest guy I ever saw was Bob Ferrell, who was a professor of history. And Bob was highly published—he had 50 plus books—and he still had a line out the door of students that he talked to every day and that was highly admirable as far as I was concerned. And so I wanted to find out how he did this, and what he did is… I took a readings class with him and I handed in a paper a week, and we worked through that. And every paper, the first time he got it, he marked it up pretty heavily to show, “You need to work on your grammar and I’m watching you.” But after that, every week, it was three things. He’d mark… circle one, flip a couple pages, circle another, flip a couple pages, circle another, “There you go,” out the door, you’re done. And so for me it felt like, “Oh, I only have three things to change. This is great, I’m really close to getting that top grade.” And next week it would be another three. And next week it would be another three, and so on. So, he was doing light grading, he was giving me feedback—feedback that was useful to me—feedback that was moderately challenging. I didn’t feel at sea, I felt I could do it. Great. And so I would do it. And that’s the way I come to this. The way I implement it is, say if I’m in a freshman class, I will have the students writing say 1000 words response every week, which for a freshman class seems like a lot, but I want them to work and I want to hear their voice. I will tell them not to use any quotations, I want to hear their voice, I don’t want to hear somebody else’s. I want to hear them thinking, and if they don’t agree with the text, argue with it—that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, argue. That’s what you should be doing. You’re trying to construct your ability to speak and write. So, when they do that, they then turn these pieces in, and I grade them but I grade them lightly, which means I’ve got now 40,000 word essays I’m supposed to be grading, that will take me about 40 minutes. I spend about a minute on each. I just kind of flip through it, I can tell if somebody’s done the reading or not, I can tell if there’s a major issue or not, and then I write down my responses but I don’t give them to the students. I just give the students grades. And when I get to the class, I’ll do a group grade. So at the beginning of the class, I will then do a couple things. One, I will celebrate some people, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also make corrections. I’ll do grammatical corrections, will say “Here’s the five grammatical errors of the week,” and by about mid semester, I’m still showing some of those grammatical errors up on the board and the girl who’s done it says, “Oh my God, it’s me again!” So they get it and they’re trying to reduce them and that’s fine. The other thing is I talk about misconceptions. Say somebody has a misconception about a particular piece, I’ll say, “A couple people had a misconception about X.” Now it’s not a couple people, it’s Joe. It’s always Joe. Joe’s in the back room, Joe never does the reading, Joe’s having trouble. But Joe knows he’s not doing the reading and Joe knows he’s not getting a good grade, he doesn’t need to have his name called out in front of the class. So I say, “A couple people had this issue.” I talk about that and address it. And then the next part, the celebration. So, in order to make them feel better about what just happened, I then say “Now then, I wanted to talk about some of the great things that were done this week. So first of all, Jenny had this fantastic response, it was just so meaningful. I want to share it with you, because I think it’s really worthwhile listening to. And Bob said something that no one has ever said in this class before and so I think it’s important to address that.” And then maybe I talked about Jim, “Jim really did a very deep reading of the text, he brought up some serious issues that I did not bring up myself, and I think we need to explore those today. So that’s part of our discussion today, it will be based on what Jim has talked about.” So that’s the celebration, but every week, it’s a different three. It’s never the same three, it’s never always the A students. Over the course of semester, I find a way to celebrate each and every student in that class, including Joe. And Joe is hard. Joe’s really hard. So I’m always watching every week to see what Joe is talking about and if Joe says something good it’s like, “Yes, I can now celebrate Joe! Good. Check.” I’m celebrating. And that’s the way light grading works for me, it allows me to spend more time interacting with students, less time interacting with their work.
Rebecca: I’m sure we can all take advice on reducing grading, right? [LAUGHTER]
John: When we talk to faculty about using group discussions in class, one thing they often raise is a question of when students are teaching each other—in general with peer discussion or peer activities—there’s a concern that perhaps it may reinforce misinformation. How can you be sure that that doesn’t happen with small-group activities?
Dakin: Well, I don’t think you can be sure it doesn’t happen, but you can certainly set up a system to check for that and make sure it’s not happening or that if it’s happening, you’re correcting it. So the way to do that would be use some ungraded assessments, those classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross. In the large group during the debriefing, some of those may come to light again, and you can then use lecture to correct those misconceptions once they become apparent. I agree that small-group work builds confidence, but it can really be like the blind leading the blind sometimes, especially if the students haven’t been doing the preparatory homework, and especially if the groups aren’t randomized.
John: And if you do that sort of pretesting, where you’re getting the initial feedback, you can tell what those misperceptions are, so that you can be prepared to address them during the class, which should help reduce that issue.
Dakin: Sometimes… yeah. I have to know which questions to ask, and often I don’t. So it’s that ungraded assessment where they toss back an answer that completely takes me by surprise. Oh, I am so surprised. Now I know what your misconception is. But I couldn’t have guessed at it.
Rebecca: I think that’s important to remember too, that [when] you’ve been teaching for a long time, the misperceptions that you might have come across five years ago are really different than the misperceptions that you might experience this year, because the experiences of our students change and the group of students change, and all of that influences prior knowledge and prior experience that influences how they might interpret material.
Dakin: That is so important. Over the 30 some odd years I’ve been teaching, my students have changed a lot, not only in their content knowledge and what they know and what they’ve experienced, but also how they think and how they behave. And again, that’s the strength of using small group work, because you get to see how they think and how they behave. And they’re not just sitting there in rows in front of you and you imagine that’s the same class you were teaching in 1987. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?
Dakin: I’m collecting all these protocols for my own use and also to help others, so it’d be great if people listening to this podcast could send me some new ideas, send me some more protocols, so I can share those out. The way to do that is to send them at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s our email address. In the meantime, we’ve got a new Institute for College Teaching down here, we finished up a faculty needs survey. We’ve got our advisory committee in place, and we’re just about to start setting up priorities for next year. So, there’s a lot happening, I just don’t know what it is yet.
John: Because you’ve just taken over that position fairly recently, right?
Dakin: Two months ago.
Rebecca: Oh, the surprises you might find, right? [LAUGHTER]
Dakin: I have been very pleasantly surprised so far. I have found a lot of really skilled and dedicated faculty, and I’ve just really been enjoying talking to them. I know I enjoy this because it’s a challenge, and I love a challenge. And they are so well-educated already. It makes me work very hard.
Rebecca: Which means you’ll never be bored, right?
Dakin: Exactly, and that that’s why it’s so important to me.
Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting, and I think will help faculty as they plan for their next teaching adventure.
John: Thank you and we will share some of the resources that you’ve provided in the show notes as well.
Dakin: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.