Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Shuffling roles to improve group learning

Erin Hill: Teaching Teamwork Explicitly

“I try to give students power and permission to take on the role of managing their peers. Students teaching students — there’s a benefit to everyone involved.”

Erin Hill
Director, Quantitative Skills Center, and Lecturer, School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, UW Bothell

Undergraduate students often complain about working in teams and many claim to hate group projects. However, well-structured group work can improve student engagement, deepen learning, and help students build essential skills for their professional and personal lives.1 Because workplaces are increasingly collaborative, employers look for candidates with a demonstrated ability to work well in diverse teams.2,3 Teamwork skills also help graduates become successful leaders and collaborators in their communities. Although students are often asked to work in groups, few have been taught how to do so effectively. UW faculty, such as Erin Hill, are trying to change this pattern. They explicitly teach teamwork skills in class. In doing so, they help students develop skills essential both in college and after graduation. In addition to the strategies profiled below, teamwork techniques used by Hill are described in a “Teaching Teamwork” video, available on the 2y2d Initiative website.

Exercises that help students comprehend physics are also improving their ability to work in groups. Erin Hill was motivated to redesign her physics class after seeing the success of peer-tutoring in the Quantitative Skills Center, where she is the director. She saw potential to engage all of her students, not just the top ten percent, by having students tackle physics problems in groups. Hill was also motivated by a growing body of research indicating that active learning can also increase student comprehension of course material.

Her hopes have been realized. More students are correctly answering in-class questions about physics concepts and students report that they find the group work useful. “They also seem more invested,” says Hill. “The few times that class ended before we were able to have a full discussion of the question students were tackling in their groups, there was a collective sound of disappointment from the class.” Here are her principles for in-class group learning:

Randomize group assignments and responsibilities with playing cards: At the beginning of each class, students draw a card from a deck of playing cards to learn their group and role assignments, which change each class session. The number on the card assigns a group and the suit assigns one of four roles:

  • Equity monitors make sure everyone is involved in the group discussion.
  • Facilitators keep the group on task.
  • Resource monitors identify the need for additional resources, such as the course textbook, internet, or instructor.
  • Product monitors make sure all ideas have been recorded on the group’s whiteboard.

“To reinforce that students should be working in their groups I have a second deck of identical playing cards I use to cold-call on the students,” says Hill. “It’s nice and randomized. If I draw the three of diamonds, I ask who has the three of diamonds, call on that person and ask, ‘What has your group been talking about? What did you come up with for this problem or question?’”

Capture collaborative work on white boards: Each group has a table-top whiteboard for sketching out its solutions to problems. Hill blends this low-tech approach with high-tech tools, taking photographs of solutions with her tablet so they can be projected on a large screen, allowing her to make side-by-side comparisons of student work, to overlay her own annotations over student work, and to have students explain their work and reasoning to the class.

Resources: To develop these techniques, Hill worked with her colleague Robin Angotti, Associate Professor of Education, UW Bothell, and drew ideas from: Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, 3rd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2014).

1Kyllonen, Patrick C. “Soft Skills for the Workplace.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, November-December 2013.

2Atman, Cynthia J., Sheri D. Sheppard, Jennifer Turns, Robin S. Adams, Lorraine N. Fleming, Reed Stevens, Ruth A. Streveler, Karl A. Smith, Ronald L. Miller, Larry J. Leifer, Ken Yasuhara, and Dennis Lund. Enabling Engineering Student Success: The Final Report for the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010.

3National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Job Outlook 2013. Bethlehem, PA: NACE, November 2012.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to prepare students for life after graduation.