Monday, August 28, 2006

Cooperative Learning

The workshop that I attended today was on cooperative learning. I really wasn't all that excited about it. I've been to cooperative learning workshopes before. My experience has been pretty consistent. The facilitator puts the faculty into groups and has them work on a problem. The faculty gets all involved in the problem, does lots of interesting group processing, and has a good discussion. Then you try the same (or similar) problem in a class with actual students, and they sit there like a bunch of lumps, waiting for you to start lecturing. The main problem, in my estimation, is that the students aren't like faculty. If all my students were as smart, motivated, and capable as my colleagues, I'd be a great teacher!

Nonetheless, I was pleased with this workshop. The presenter, Karl Smith of the University of Minnesota, didn't oversell the product. He was very clear about what he thought it was worth, but also very careful to talk about the pitfalls and snares. He also spent a lot more time on the mechanics of cooperative learning. How do you set up groups to foster interdependence yet retain individual accountability? He said that he used to just demonstrate such things, but he realized somewhere along the way that faculty needed specific instructions about how such things could be done (and what to avoid.) I think some of the workshops that I've been to in the past have taken the "just demonstrate" path, and it hasn't worked for me because I haven't copied the right things.

So, I'm not going to run out and change all my classes so that every activity is cooperative and there are no lectures at all. Been there, done that. And I do already have some cooperative activities built into my classes, that I would have done anyway even without this workshop. But I think that it helped me to focus a little bit on the process, and gave me some ideas for things that I can try to make it more successful. What more can you ask from a workshop that occurs one week before classes start?

So, you academic types out there...What are your experiences with cooperative learning? Has it worked for you? What pitfalls should one avoid?

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