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Group Work in Math "Lab" + Introvert = I'm Freaking Out
March 28, 2014 2:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking Calculus this term and have just found out the second half of each class will be group work and I'm freaking out. I'm an introvert and the thought of working in a group - especially where I don't feel confident about the subject matter - is making me anxious before the class even starts! Can anyone tell me what to expect and/or offer suggestions on how to make it less awful?

I took a trig class online last term and it was so great! I sat in my quiet workroom and loved working by myself. I participated via emails to the instructor, posting problems every week to the discussion boards and only having to show up in person for the exams. It was an ideal learning environment for me and I got an A (woot!) This term, I have to be in class twice a week which is fine. But apparently the newest thing in education is group work which is not so fine.

I've taken many math classes in college in the past and have zero recollection of having to work in groups. What is this madness?! Is this some shortcut so instructors don't have to teach? I'd like to think it's not but it sure feels like it. I'm not paying huge amounts of tuition to be (not) taught by fellow students who are there to learn the subject. If I could teach other students, I wouldn't need to be in the %^$*&^ class! /rant

If I'm know the subject matter, I'm fine. I train new people and have to deal with observers all the time at work. But I've been there ten years. Calculus? Not so much. I have the book and I've started working through it but it's going to be hard and I'm not feeling confident.

I started an on-campus trig class last fall but had to drop it for a variety of reasons. But even the first day in that class, we were shoved into groups after about 20 minutes and it was just as awful and anxiety-ridden and awkward as I would have expected. I'm not a leader and I'm not an extrovert. But I don't want to be a jerk and rude and just sit at the edge of the group and not participate (especially since I suspect participation will be part of the grade.)

Once it clicked, I remember liking math back in college. And I liked my trig class last term. I'd like to continue liking math but I'm already not looking forward to this class and that bums me out.

Thanks in advance for any input you all can offer - what to expect, how to manage anxiety, how to participate without feeling stupid or nauseous or both.
posted by Beti to Education (14 answers total)
 
Take a breath...it's going to be fine. Everybody in the group is there to learn, and it's mostly to allow you to study together, work through problems in smaller units than the whole class, etc. You don't have to give presentations to your group and you don't have to be lively and the life of the party, either.

Just participate by doing your work and offering help/information as much as you feel comfortable. Group settings can be difficult for us introverts, but if you can connect with one other person in the group, you might feel less anxious about the whole "group think" part of it.
posted by xingcat at 2:59 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]


It may end up that your group doesn't actually work together, but splits the work up and everyone does a piece. That's how most of my group work classes tend to go these days.
posted by ApathyGirl at 3:08 PM on March 28


I took a lot of math classes for engineering and our labs would either be individuals or groups, but in rooms where all the walls were covered in blackboards and you had to write all your answers up on it so that everyone (including the instructor) could see. The good thing about this, and group work, is that it gives you the opportunity to admit if you don't understand something and have someone else explain it, rather than staring at your book pretending to work.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:09 PM on March 28


I'm a college drop-out, and part of the reason I dropped out is that I saw college as a place to learn from lectures. Lectures are an awful way to learn, textbooks are lousy, and you may indeed be smarter (even if you don't yet know more) than your professors.

Two decades plus later, I believe that when done right, college is about learning from peers, and from developing friendships and relationships that will last you through the rest of your career. So I'm going to reassure you that your professor is doing exactly the right thing.

And, yes, I'm also an introvert, and used to be a very nervous one (Recently I have joked, in trying to diffuse a situation where a friend and I were getting up the nerve to stand up in front of a group that it's lucky I don't have any self-esteem left, because I don't figure I've got anything to lose, where he, poor bastard, still has his...).

A few random things:

Some of your peers are more confident than you, some are less, every one of them is scared witless about putting their own thinking processes out there in front of other people. Nobody wants to be the first to say "oh, yeah, I don't have a clue", which means that the first person to put that out there is going to be seen as brave, and they're going to rally to help.

People like listeners. It's okay to be the quiet one, just be actively listening. Don't scoot back from the table and tune out, be present and in the conversation, even if you're not adding much to it.

I forget which comedian it was, maybe someone can jog my memory but it was a relatively big name, who talked about his early career, when he thought successful comedy was about being cool. So he got up on stage and put on the moxie and made jokes about other people. He toured for a bit, but finally someone pulled him aside and pointed out that if he really wanted to connect with the audience, he should be un-cool, and make himself the butt of the jokes. And that is when he broke out and got successful.

Everyone is sitting there thinking "I hope nobody notices my insecurities, I hope nobody notices how flawed I am, I hope nobody notices that I don't have a strong handle on the material". Some people don't have all of those issues, but, seriously, the only people who aren't struggling with bits of each of those come off as assholes (and are probably just trying to hide it). The person who admits it first gets a hell of a lot of sympathy.

So: "Hi, I'm Beti, the calculus material terrifies me, I'm insecure about my abilities to do the work and to participate in this group, but I'm going to try to contribute. Thank you for supporting me." And let them go from there.
posted by straw at 3:13 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Well, it might be easier if you remember that it's group work, not group socialization time. That is to say, you and your groupmates are there to do a job -- work your way through a problem set -- not to make friends, and it's acceptable to treat it as a professional rather than social activity.

This may not always be the way students look at group assignments, but by the time you're taking calculus-level math most of your fellow students are likely to have a certain seriousness of purpose that is often lacking in lower-level classes. Chances are, it's not an easy class for anyone and everyone there will want to do well, so you can just get right down to business and attack the assignments with a minimum of small-talk.
posted by Scientist at 3:14 PM on March 28 [3 favorites]


Relax. Typically, teachers who assign group work are the ones who know what they're doing, pedagogically speaking. (Not always, but ... Well, let's just say that I'm shocked this is your first time encountering group work in math.) In groups, people can learn all sorts of things that they might not learn in lecture. You seem to devalue your classmates' knowledge without even having met them, but you might be surprised. They may have different ways of thinking about a problem, different applications or life experience, and other insights that can add up to useful learning.

It's also really useful to learn to do group work when you are not the expert. Maybe you haven't encountered this situation at work yet, but you probably will in the future. It's a great skill to have. You can ask questions, you can help your classmates focus, you can just be the person who always knows where the useful page in the appendix is. You'll be OK.

If you still have concerns, approach your instructor. (But do NOT go in with the attitude that the teacher doesn't know what s/he's doing or that your tuition entitles you to be taught in a certain way. There aren't many faster ways to alienate a teacher. )

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 3:24 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


What you can expect is that everyone will be as confused about the material as you are and that you will talk through the problem sets and puzzle through them. Or the "group labs" might be smaller workshop groups with a TA to guide you through the material.

I'm not a fan of the, "now everyone split into groups of 3 or 4" method of "teaching", but when problem sets are due, I worked on them together with my classmates on a regular basis.
posted by deanc at 3:28 PM on March 28


I actually cannot remember taking a college-level or graduate-level math class where I didn't work on problem sets in groups. At a certain level of difficulty, I think being able to talk through the problems with other students and figure out how to sort through your questions in a group is really necessary for most people. There may be some math geniuses out there who can just immediately figure out everything on their own, but most people are not like that. :)

I would go into the groups assuming that everyone is going to be somewhat unsure and have questions. You're not going to be the only one who has difficulty with the material, and the idea of group work isn't to go into it already having figured it out on your own. I agree you don't have to be the most talkative if that isn't so comfortable for you. Just be willing to speak up when you have a question or when you can answer someone else's question.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:32 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Well, thank you everyone for your input. I've just moved over to a different class that someone I know is taking so - Math Buddy! Yay!

Intellectually I know I'm not the only one who is nervous - I'm just the only nervous one here inside my head (which is probably a good thing, on balance).

And as an aside, it was not my intention to offend anyone in education. I'm sure there is plenty of research to defend the group work method. It was just not common for math classes when I went to college the first time around 20+ years ago. And my above rant also has very little to do with the value of other students efforts. I'm just frustrated with being put into a situation that makes me so anxious. I've been working on math on my own for the last nine months or so and I really liked being able to figure it out by myself. I'm sure group work is great for some people. For me, it just adds another level of stress.
posted by Beti at 4:30 PM on March 28


You're a student! If you knew this stuff already, would you be taking a class for it? Keep that in mind.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:51 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


I'm glad you found a buddy, that's good. I've had to do a few group projects, also as a returning mature student. In general, I think group work is overrated and a massive pain in the ass. It's annoying to coordinate, and as far as non-math subjects are concerned (haven't had to do group work in mathy courses), I can't say I've come away with more content knowledge than I would have through my own reading, so you have my sympathies.

But I've found, actually, that most of the kids in my classes have been fairly on the ball, and are pretty good at communication. Most of them get that they all suffer if one person struggles, so they're forced into prosocial attitudes, like being helpful, etc. They also don't want to spend forever chit-chatting - they have other courses, jobs, maybe hockey practice. They're likely to want to get everyone through, get the job done, and get out.

(I did have a pairing with a student who was clueless and frankly uninterested in changing that at all. Since it was obvious early on that I couldn't rely on her, and, that she didn't care, I just did the whole thing myself. Afaic right now, it's the grades that matter in the end. Having this attitude meant it didn't bother me a bit when she'd yap about her boyfriend or miss a meeting. But this was one out of probably 10-15 students.)

So I'd say, stay open to your group-mates, because it's true, most of them are probably fine. I actually find it kind of pleasant to be around their energy and eagerness, their excitement about everything. They're learning all this, too, they don't know everything. Oh also, absolutely no one has commented or cared about the age difference. If anything, the few times it's come up, they've expressed that they think the fact I've returned to school is neat. (They didn't say "neat", though, exactly.) Just think of yourself as among them - people with the same goal, doing the same thing right now.

Math-wise, just practice regularly (daily, if you can), so you can come to group meetings with prepared questions.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:02 PM on March 28


I had a math partner for my last math class in college and I enjoyed it. If one of us understood the problem and the other didn't we'd explain it to each other. We went to the teacher when neither of us knew what to do but otherwise we tried to figure things out for ourselves.

I didn't know my partner before the class and we had very little in common but we both wanted to do well so we worked together and tried to get into the group thing. In the end we were conferring with other groups in the class and taking turns teaching each other.

I understand that this feels like a waste of education money but teaching something to someone else can really improve your own understanding of the subject.
posted by irisclara at 7:39 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Just to say, hijacking the project was not my preferred strategy and I think it's unusual for anyone to do that. If the student I mentioned had come to meetings, or to class, or offered or wanted to do any of the work, or even talked about the coursework vs. her boyfriend, we'd have managed. Showing up and being willing are all that really matter.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:08 PM on March 28


It's great that you found a friend to work with in your class, but I hope the two of you will consider doing a little bit of group work with another person because - who knows? - maybe you'll make yet another math buddy.

When I went back to college, part-time, in my mid-30s, Chemistry was one of my classes. The instructor told us right off the bat that we'd better know our algebra and know it well or just drop the class right now - and I hadn't taken any algebra since I was a sophomore in high school and didn't do well with it then. I almost dropped the class, but ground my teeth, ran out and bought a bunch of algebra books and started reading them, and stayed with the class. It soon became apparent that almost no one in the class was up to the level of algebra that he wanted, so he taught us algebra before he taught chemistry. We were required to work together just a little bit, but I soon found a whole group of kids who wanted to work with me and we'd meet at my house and hammer the material into our heads. I not only ace'd the class, but made some long-lasting and wonderful friends, two of whom were, as you, introverts and very shy. It was great fun and both those two kids relaxed and had a good time with the rest of us.
posted by aryma at 10:10 PM on March 28


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