Engaging students in collaborative learning
January 31, 2011 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Seeking ideas for getting my Intro to Literature students in a community college involved collaboratively in their class experience.

As an instructor I am experienced as a lecturer and guide in class discussion, but I'm noticing that the students in my Intro to Lit class do better and seem to engage with class more when they spend at least part of the class period in a group, in pairs or in some kind of exercise that involves one another. They can and do handle whole class discussion, but it's not for everyone, and that format doesn't work for everyone given learning style differences and the size of the group (28 students).

My aim is to have them talking, sharing, asking, discussing, and/or doing in a directed way for at least part of the 75 minute class period. I've found that if they are involved in a focused collaborative exercise at the beginning of class, whatever discussion or more traditional teacher-led, whole class learning we do afterwards is more alive, productive, and interesting.

Does anyone have experiences learning in collaborative settings whether in the humanities or not?

Or can any of the instructor/professor/teachers here (humanities or not) share what they've done to bring out student response and engagement in a way that emphasizes collaboration? I have used Interpretation Circles with some success even though my classroom is tight and the space does not lend itself to getting on our feet and moving around.
posted by oneduck to Education (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
One established project for this is Reacting to the Past, which is a series of fairly involved, multi-week role playing "games" - students read up on a historical moment of major change (typically involving a clash between two worldviews) and then they role-play the real historical figures who were involved in the change. For example, they read Plato's Republic and then role-play as various citizens of Athens in 403 BC trying to negotiate and connive and backstab over the decision of whether Athens should be a democracy. Students love it. But it takes a biggish commitment, so it's not clear if it would work for you.

At any rate, you might look at their website if you're thinking about running role-play scenarios or debates with assigned points of view.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:59 PM on January 31, 2011

When I taught literature at community college (not lit majors, just students who were forced to fulfill their degree requirements), I found that they really appreciated small group tasks that focused on skill building. It was hard to get them to talk seriously about "literature" for more than 5 minutes at a time. So I would give out a sheet with, let's say, 5 different thesis statements related to the text we were studying and I would get them to evaluate the theses as a group. Not only did this get them talking excitedly (and heatedly, as I would always "plant" some terrible theses in there...), it forced them to pay attention to the issues in the texts and, most importantly, it reinforced an essay-writing "skill." If they really want to play along, you get each group to choose one thesis statement, then they collectively draft an outline for an essay to go along with it. At the end each group presents their "essay" and, for the good-humored classes, I would choose a "winner." For the not-so-good-humored classes, I would just offer commentary.

This might be more mechanical than the interpretive tasks you mention, but I've found that it gets them thinking and makes them feel they're doing something "useful."
posted by oohisay at 7:14 PM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

One little trick is to have students quickly write answers to some interesting-to-discuss question (e.g. choose a striking passage, a key word, a big idea from the text or a question about it) but then, instead of talking about/handing in their own, instead exchange their paper with a neighbor, and share that view in the discussion. It doesn't take long to do this, and it can be freeing not to have to talk about your own idea but instead to air someone else's. You can easily add a period of small-group discussion before the whole group gets back together; they'll want to talk to each other when they exchange papers, anyhow.
posted by RogerB at 7:16 PM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like oohisay, when I was teaching intro- and survey-level lit classes I would give small groups a specific task or set of tasks to do. I'd require a pretty concrete outcome (e.g. write down five examples of X from the book/poem, with page/line citations) and I'd try to choose tasks that represented the "building blocks" of more complex tasks like paper-writing.

A few examples off the top of my head—I'll keep them general, but you would probably want to fill in the specifics such as picking out the two poems in the first example:
  • Compare two poems with very similar themes or imagery. Write a list of ten differences between them (including differences of form, tone, diction, specifics of the imagery, etc.)
  • Look at this difficult English Renaissance sonnet. As a group, break it down sentence by sentence and come up with a paraphrase in simpler / modern language.
  • Here are five claims that professional literary critics have made about the novel/play we just read. Decide, as a group, which claim is most convincing and which is least convincing. In each case, write down three reasons why.
  • Each group gets assigned a different motif from a play/novel. Each group must find at least three examples of their motif in the book and write down a claim about why the author uses this motif. Groups then make presentations to each other about the significance of their assigned motif.
  • For an important character in a play/novel, write down a list of eight facts about that character that we would need to account for in judging that person's moral character.
  • Follow-up activity: Here are five claims about this fictional character. From the lists of facts about this character [that you have written on the board or photocopied from the previous session's student-generated notes], choose three facts to support each claim and one fact to contradict each claim. Write down the reasons for the support/contradiction. [Hoped-for outcome: students discover that the same facts can be used to support contradictory claims, or support and contradict the same claim. This is one of my favorite lessons of all time, because it helps students catch on to the distinction between reasons and evidence, and understand why all their claims need to be supported with evidence and all their evidence needs to be interpreted by reasoning.]
You'll notice that most of my examples involve numbers (five of these, three of those) and demand written output. That's intentional, for keeping students on track and assessing whether they've completed the task. The actual numbers are less important than the quality of concreteness they lend to the task. Compare: "Are you done discussing Hamlet's moral character?" vs. "Have you written down five facts about Hamlet?"
posted by Orinda at 8:12 PM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

I always found in college lit classes that people got very involved in the discussions on 'moral' issues which they could debate. We read one book, for example, where it was set in a country that was in the middle of a civil war and one of the characters was a military man. He had to do many distasteful things because he was 'following orders' and I recall some interesting discussions on that. Did he have no choice? Really? What did people think they would have done in his shoes?
posted by JoannaC at 8:12 PM on January 31, 2011

Once you've taught some basic terminology for literary analysis -- stuff like the narratological schemes for fiction (homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narration, overt and covert narrators, focalization, and so on), or given poetic devices or taught scansion or what have you, giving each group a poem or story to analyze or classify, then report back on to the main class works pretty well.

If you have a computer in the classroom, having them get into the group to come up with lists of things they don't know and need to look up in order to understand a poem or story is a good exercise. It'll let them pool their knowledge, but also get them to understand that they're not alone in not getting historical references, allusions, difficult vocabulary, and the like.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:14 PM on January 31, 2011

p.s. In case it's not clear, all of my examples are meant to feed into large-group discussion later in the class; none is meant to stand on its own. The students should always share their task output with the class and you should have a plan for taking it on the next step—for example, building from the list of differences between two poems to a guided close reading of them.
posted by Orinda at 8:18 PM on January 31, 2011

Here's a small-group discussion activity I have used successfully with my larger (25-30) intro to lit classes:

PART ONE: Divide the class into, let's say, 4 groups: A, B, C, and D. Each group gets a DIFFERENT meaty, thought-provoking discussion question about the story/poem/whatever (make sure to give every single student their own copy of the question). Let them discuss for at least 10-15 minutes.

PART TWO: The students now must rearrange themselves into new groups that have (at least) one representative from each original group. So now you have a whole bunch of new groups, each with an A, B, C, and D person. Discussion goes around the group as each student presents a summary of his/her previous group's assigned topic.

As Orinda says, you will then want to make sure to follow this up with appropriate large-group discussion and then a next step.

I have found that almost all students enjoy both parts of this exercise: they like getting in-depth with a group of other students on one particular aspect of the lit, and then they like being the expert on their topic among their new group members. From the instructor's side, the activity is good because it gets the students talking to each other and coming up with more of their own analysis. Generally, things run smoothly and take little to no management after you've given the directions. I just circulate among the groups and just listen to their conversations without getting involved. I usually just say, "I'm only here to eavesdrop!" and wander over to the next group if they get too focused on trying to get "the right answer" out of me.

If you have a more engaged or sophisticated class you can change it up by not providing any questions; just divide the students up and tell each group to choose an important passage and discuss its significance to the text as a whole. (Check back to make sure none of the groups have chosen the same passage.) Then when the students re-form into new groups, each person shares a different passage and explains its significance.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:34 AM on February 1, 2011

Give them a few sample papers, a few each that you'd grade A, B, C, D, and F, and ask them to read and critique them and figure out which paper gets what grade and why.
posted by brainwane at 6:55 AM on February 1, 2011

I've had pretty good luck having my intro students do "debates." Split them in half, tell them they're responsible for arguing a particular position, and then give them fifteen minutes or so to find their arguments and specific proof for them. For example, last week my class was reading Antigone, and the question was "Given the elements of the tragic hero that we discussed earlier, is Antigone or Creon the real hero of the work?" One side argued Antigone was, the other Creon. Several of my normally pretty quiet kids almost got into a fistfight over it.

Like other people have mentioned, having really specific questions to answer seems to be a key component.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 6:58 AM on February 1, 2011

As Andrea Lunsford puts it, "Creating a collaborative environment and truly collaborative tasks is damnably difficult. Collaborative environments and tasks must demand collaboration. Students, tutors, teachers must really need one another to carry out common goals. As an aside, let me note that studies of collaboration in the workplace identify three kinds of tasks that seem to call consistently for collaboration: higher-order problem defining and solving; division of labor tasks, in which the job is simply too big for any one person; and division of expertise tasks."

One task that seems to consistently DEMAND collaboration is anthology construction. When I look at my bookshelf, I notice that co-edited editons are more the rule than the exception (partly because it requires higher-order problem defining and solving, division of labor tasks, etc.).

So.... I've figured out ways to bring anthology construction into my classes as much as possible, especially when I want students collaborating. One added benefit is that I don't have to use the word "collaboration," which can make some feel squeamish. I say instead that students are serving on each others' editorial committees.

Looking at the date, I suspect your syllabus for the course is already pretty much set, but Intro to Lit students could create anthologies of literature that speaks to them, write introductory prefaces to them, circulate them on the web. Nancy Chick wrote an article called "Anthologizing Transformation," which describes how her community college students created anthologies of poetry and wrote introductory prefaces to the anthologies.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 9:18 AM on February 1, 2011

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