Tag Archives: collaboration

A Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Sorting through the post-exam detritus strewn about my classroom, I encountered a curiousity: an exam study guide created by an enterprising freshman (download link). It was notable not just as a fine example of preparation, but also as a public work: it had been created by a student in a section that I didn’t teach and distributed to one of his friends in one that I did. Printed in color, with large attractive images, it seemed more like a published work than an amateur effort.

Zayd Rajab on Motivation and Collaboration

What possessed the student to go to such lengths? I sat down with the author, ASK freshman Zayd Rajab, to discuss motivation, collaboration, and achievement. Below are some excerpts:

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Yes, that is an 18-page exam study guide created on a student’s own initiative.

A big challenge for lots of 9th graders is being willing to put in the time and effort to prepare thoroughly for an exam. What motivated you to go to such lengths?

The way I study for exams is to make a study guide so I have everything in one place, so I can do it all at once rather than bringing all those messy notes. It’s neat and clean. What I did is use this application called iBooks Author, and it makes a really good template you can use.

How did you decide to share it with other people?

I made a good study guide – it wouldn’t be nice just to have it all to myself, so I sent it out.

Did you ever consider working with another person to make your guide?

No, because when I work with other people I get distracted, so I like working by myself.

Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we'd like to develop in all of our students.
Zayd demonstrated the initiative and compassion that we’d like to develop in all of our students.

How would you feel if a teacher put this on Moodle?It would be great – people could use it and it would help them a lot. If they can study better, they can get a better grade and that would make me happy.

What if a teacher assigned this as homework to do throughout the year?

If I’m going to do it as homework, I’d find it a bit of a pain, because when you do it as homework you’re being forced to do it. You won’t put 100% effort into it. But when you know there’s a reason (and you’re doing it on your own), you put 100% into it.

For the people you gave it to, did they ask for it? Did you think they hadn’t studied on their own, and were using it as a crutch or an excuse not to study?

A lot of people aren’t studying, and if they do they’re just looking at messy notes. I think it’s better if you do the study guide yourself. But if you do have my study guide, you’d have extra help, but you’d be more lazy.

Do you think this will inspire people to do their own next time, or will they be waiting for you to give them one?

They’ll be waiting for me to do it.

In a nutshell, Zayd showed a lot of self-motivation, but his interactions with his peers motivate him as well – not just from the recognition he receives, but from the satisfaction he gets from helping others. Teachers love having students like this – he exemplifies the “Learn for Life” and “Make a Difference” qualities that we value.

A (Grossly Stereotyped) Republican View on Motivation and Collaboration

Zayd’s last remark summarizes the problem I struggle with regarding collaboration. For background, modern educational thought holds that collaboration must be a pillar of education because a) it helps students develop interpersonal relationship skills, and b) it leads to “deeper scholarship,” for example by letting students compare multiple perspectives and tackle more complex problems (Davis).

At least three issues make me question how universally we should apply these assertions:

  1. Zayd’s observation that group work is a distraction
  2. My own observations that in a collaborative setting, oftentimes the strongest student functions as a “crutch” on which the others allow themselves to depend,  a supposition supported by Zayd’s comment that his study guides allow other students to avoid doing the work.
  3. The fact that for higher-level students, “Mixed ability cooperative learning plans should be used sparingly for gifted students” as research “indicates that—for gifted students—cooperative learning seems to produce fewer academic benefits than [similar ability] grouping plans” (as cited in Davis, Rimm, and Siegle 15).

Why make students work together if the strongest one is going to do all the work? In the same way that Republicans rail against handouts to the “needy,” teachers implementing collaborative teaching strategies need to rail against handouts to the academically or motivationally challenged. Don’t let the strong subsidize the weak, because such subsidies don’t inspire the weak to succeed – they enable them not to.

It’s an ageless teaching issue that hasn’t been addressed in all the reading and talk about collaboration that I saw through my experience in the COETAIL program and Gafesummit. James Kulik appears to have done extensive meta-review of the available research and concludes that similar-ability groups benefit the most advanced students while being no different in terms of achievement than mixed-ability grouping for low- and intermediate-level ones (Kulik).

I’m not advocating that we should abandon those lower- and intermediate-level students, nor do I mean to dismiss all mixed-ability groupings as a form of intellectual parasitism. Rather, teachers need to carefully think about how we allocate and ration our time, and more importantly, focus our attentions on how we design collaborative learning, not what technology we use to achieve it. The discussion about using Google Apps and all these other tools for collaboration must be inseparable from the conversation on appropriate instructional design and must be accompanied by practical examples of how to design groups and hold them accountable for their work – and it is the responsibility of tech integrators to make sure this is the case.

Works Cited

Davis, Gary A., Sylvia B. Rimm, and Del Siegle. Education of the Gifted and Talented. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Davis, Matthew. “How Collaborative Learning Leads to Student Success.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013.

Kulik, James A. “An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT.” An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives—NRC/GT. Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, n.d. Web. 12 June 2013.


Showcase: Google Docs for Group Project Coordination, Redux

A year ago I reflected on how I used Google Docs to coordinate year-end group projects for my 10th grade World History students. They used a spreadsheet to keep track of their work and typed up their notes and created their presentation in Moodle. It was a substitution, or perhaps an augmentation, of what they would have been able to do without Google Docs (now Drive). This year I thought about how I could make the experience not just easier in terms of workflow, but also in terms of learning. I accomplished this by focusing on feedback and motivation.

Better use of comments helped students get feedback and validation of their work.

Working from the premise that the quality of work improves when 1) students get prompt feedback and 2) feel they are creating something for an audience other than their peers, I changed the structure of project to incorporate additional components:

  • A research skills component that required students to evaluate the credibility of the sources in another group’s bibliography and share their feedback with that group (next time I’ll have the kids leave this feedback as comments within the bibliography rather than a separate document so that it’s immediately apparent)
  • More rigorous feedback on my part, using comments within Google Drive to give praise and constructive criticism promptly and regularly
  • Regular showcase demonstrations of exemplary work to the class as we passed each checkpoint, which I could do since each group kept their work in a folder that was shared with me.

These three components required students to create for a peer audience and also gave them numerous opportunities, along with concrete examples, of how they could improve their work. Kids also appreciated being showcased and it created a real sense of camaraderie. There’s something really cool about having an entire class applaud someone’s work.

I felt I got closer to a redefinition this time around – not because leaving feedback is novel, but because giving intra-class peer feedback between 20+ students at a time is impractical to the point of impossibility. It’s just another way that Google Docs helps streamline the process of learning: it helps you get away from getting kids to DO things and lets you focus on getting them to LEARN things.

#COETAIL Course 5 Project: The Flipped Classroom for History

The final project for the COETAIL program is a <10 minute video documenting your experiences implementing technology in practice. Rather than opting for a screencast or digital story foramt, I chose to make an infomercial as a kind of tribute to Billy Mays:

I probably put too much work into it, and a lot of that was a function of my inexperience and lack of equipment. Here are a few lessons I learned:

  1. Proper planning will save you editing time. I didn’t have a separate mic for my camcorder (and the built-in mic was too noisy), so I recorded sound separately using an iPhone headset mic with my Galaxy Note 2 phone. This resulted in a separate audio and video track that I had to sync up manually in Final Cut Pro X. It was time-consuming and a PITA. Had I planned ahead and borrowed a mic with fully charged batteries from Sound and Lights Club, I would have saved myself a lot of editing time.
  2. Hardware counts. Entry-level hardware is fine for simple videos, but my Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro from 2009 struggled to keep up with scrolling and moving clips once I had multiple pictures, videos, and titles in the project – even with 8GB of RAM and an SSD. The 13″ screen wasn’t big enough for the FCPX interface, either. Consider reserving space in a lab with iMacs or other workstations.
  3. Acting is hard. This should be apparent enough from my awkward performance. When people think of making a video they often think of shooting your own footage, but I would try to shy away from this. Without training (which I indeed lack) it results in lackluster results.
  4. Clear your schedule. It took me hours and hours to do this – probably between 1.5 and 2 hours of work for every minute of video you see.

Showcase: History Circles

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My History Circles burst with understanding!
At our last faculty meeting we read an article on how to give meaningful homework. It recommended that homework should check for understanding, provide opportunities for practice, and let students take ownership while avoiding “busywork” tasks.

This year I’ve incorporated these principles and leveraged technology to make collaborative homework a regular feature of my classes. For each new topic or chapter of the textbook my students complete an assignment that I’ve creatively named “History Circles.” They’re based off of Lit Circles done in many English classes, and are a way of giving students the opportunity to practice different skills through the content. The nice thing about History Circles is that they distribute responsibility, enable simultaneous workflows, and maintain accountability while reinforcing content and a diverse skillset.
Continue reading Showcase: History Circles

Showcase: Propaganda Videos

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At my school there’s much talk of “authentic assessment” (defined by Wiggins as “worthy intellectual tasks” that “require students to be effective performers with acquired knowledge” to “help students rehearse for the complex ambiguities of the “game” of adult and professional life”). I still like to stress traditional multiple-choice and essay tests in my classes – these are, after all, skills that students need to succeed in university – but at least 30% of my students’ grades is comprised of project work that aims to get away from recognition and recall assessments. In this project, part of my Modern World History unit on the World Wars, students apply their knowledge of persuasive techniques and flourish their rhetorical skills to create a propaganda video. Continue reading Showcase: Propaganda Videos