Group Work in Philosophy Class

Group Work in Philosophy Class


Here are problems with group-work that I have observed or heard about multiple times from students:

  • the members of the group (unless the group is the whole class) do not include an expert on either the topic for discussion or the assigned reading on it, so mistakes can go uncorrected and misunderstanding can be increased (if plausibly, confidently, or charismatically defended) 
  • there can be a tendency for everyone in a group to want to get along and agree, so that diversity of opinion (which is sometimes healthy and at least indicative of independent thought) can be replaced by a kind of groupthink, in which the better (or better-supported) ideas by no means always win out
  • neither every student nor even every group engages in the exercise seriously or at all (policing can help here, of course, but is not likely to be 100% effective, and brings its own problems simply by making the teacher take on the role of police officer)
  • groups can be dominated by loudmouths (although they might also be more comfortable environments for some students to speak in)
  • the whole thing can feel like a waste of time

…The biggest problem, though, …. [is] that such activities feel forced and unnatural. They are, after all, forced and unnatural. They involve the teacher’s going from being a resident expert there to help students in his/her area of expertise to being a classroom manager, manipulating students for their own good. Class is no longer (if it ever was) a place where a conversation takes place between people who (at least might) care about ideas and books. It is now a place where learning is facilitated. Of course the change is not from black to white, but students seem a bit more patronized in the new way of doing things, and the ideas (literature, arguments, whatever) being taught seem a bit more remote from life, a bit less like things that anyone might actually care about when off duty. It seems a shame to me.

Those are some criticisms that Duncan Richter raises about group work in class in a post at Language Goes on Holiday. Are there problems with group work in class, especially problems particular to philosophy courses? Have you been able to use group work to good effect?

(art: photo by Florent Tanet)

guest
24 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt Burstein
6 years ago

I don’t do a ton of group work in class, but when I do I make sure that there is some product that the students are to create and share with the class. (Apologies if this makes me sound like the Most Interesting Man in Philosophy.) Typically, I have the students focus on narrow passages of the reading they (should) have already done, and each group is to present the argument in that section to the class. This set up requires giving them some constraints: (i) a goal, (ii) public accountability, and (iii) a short time to do some difficult work. When they present, I make sure to leave enough time for me to curate their presentation (praise the praiseworthy, note limitations of the interpretation, and connect up the different group presentations).Report

Jen Baker
Jen Baker
6 years ago

I bet it’s typical for professor to think about these issues all of the time. I do. The problems with group work listed above are great. Being assigned such “group work” in various faculty training is always a reminder of how tedious (and pointless) that kind of thing can be. But there are all sorts of ways to make use of the “groups.” When I am drawing up my lectures and handouts for my classes I decide when to ask them to turn to their “neighbors” (as I put it) to figure something out. I think of this as a kind of group work. I would never do it if it felt forced or unnatural, and to the professors who feel that way about some task you are requesting—I’d suggest they try something else. That sounds awful.
But I’ve also never liked the “count on the well-read vocal students to say something” approach to class discussion. You see how bored and unengaged the other students are. They’ve told me in reviews (and in person) they don’t enjoy listening to the same students class after class. I always think it’s a bit of a cheat when a class is describing as having “discussion” that doesn’t involve all of the students. So I involve all of the students by giving them questions to answer with their neighbors (2 or 3 other students). And I give them about a minute to do this (several times in the class). Longer than that, and I start hearing pauses or discussions of the weekend. They learn to be very quick. I don’t assume people can do much thinking in a classroom, but I do assume they can keep up with what I am saying and consider responses to the question the lecture has brought us to.
So in their groups, they try out answers that are often wrong. I call on one representative of the group to give “an” answer (I make it clear that it doesn’t have to be their own answer, I’m pretty conscious of how shy people prefer to do things) and then—as we consider the answers—I see how invested the students are. They want to know who was right and who was wrong. I compliment good answers (well, and bad answers) effusively. Anyway, they never lose motivation to do these little exercises. The questions vary (sometimes they become little tasks). It gives them the chance to refocus their attention. It breaks up the lecture. It gives the handouts meaning (since the questions are on there), and otherwise makes the questions themselves vivid, which I think is appropriate to a philosophy course. Anyway, it’s not the kind of group assignment where they work outside the classroom and bring in some horridly under-prepared presentation. But it does make use of the social potential of a classroom.Report

Tyler Hildebrand
Tyler Hildebrand
6 years ago

I use a lot of group work in my classes, especially when I have largish classes (say, 40 students or so). The concerns here are legitimate, but not terribly difficult to avoid. I focus on two key issues.

First, group work must be productive. Specifically, it should be: (i) tightly structured, so that students have a clear understanding of the questions they’re supposed to engage and a clear goal for their discussion (a handout helps significantly); (ii) closely monitored, so that everyone stays on task and contributes appropriately; (iii) of appropriate difficulty level (if students can’t answer the questions you’ve asked, they’ll stop trying; if the questions are too easy, it’s a waste of time); (iv) structured so that immediate feedback is possible–I prefer to follow short segments of group work with whole class discussion, but there are other possible feedback mechanisms.

Second, students must be motivated to take group work seriously. There are obvious ways to accomplish this (make it fun, make it productive, make it part of their grade, etc.), but one less obvious way is to show students that philosophy is hard to learn simply by observing others; it requires skills and attitudes that are (for most people) best cultivated through practice. I like to design activities that are targeted at a particular skill. (For example, Matt Burstein’s activity is nicely targeted at reading comprehension and argument reconstruction.) You can then explain the relevance of this skill to being a good philosopher, or writing philosophy papers that will receive a good grade, or applying philosophical techniques to issues that matter to them in their own lives, or whatever.

Of course, none of this works unless the classroom has a safe, cooperative environment. I could say more, but it’s time for me to prep for today’s class.Report

John Basl
6 years ago

I also don’t really enjoy group work in class, but people who work in pedagogy always tell me it’s effective. Sure, a lot of the studies show that team-based learning is effective for classes where learning outcomes are measured by a certain kind of exam, but our colleagues in ed departments know their stuff and they keep telling me I should be doing more team-based learning. Also, a colleague recently recommended “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele. It’s an overview of some of the work on stereotype threat and how to mitigate it in classrooms. I’m pretty sure certain kinds of groups or collective projects help to mitigate stereotype threat and increase performance of certain students for that reason. So, there might be additional reasons to have your students work in groups. The problem is figuring out how to do it so that you feel like you are making good use of your resources. I was recently pointed to “Team-Based Learning” by Michaelson, Knight, and Fink by a couple of people: (http://www.amazon.com/Team-Based-Learning-Transformative-College-Teaching/dp/157922086X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415112742&sr=1-1&keywords=team+based+learning). Sweet and Michaelson also have a book specifically about the humanitites (http://www.amazon.com/Team-Based-Learning-Social-Sciences-Humanities/dp/1579226108/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415112928&sr=1-2&keywords=team+based+learning). I haven’t started on them yet, so I can’t give a review, but I’m hopeful that there will be lessons for how to turn what I think of a bad use of class time into something I and the students find useful.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

I’ve had success with brainstorming exercises, especially if there’s some ironic prize on the line. For instance, I sometimes break students into groups and make them list as many pros and cons of democracy as they can (pros and cons which apply to non-liberal democracy and which do not track the pros and cons of mere liberalism). The group with the most plausible answers wins (with penalties for attempts to game the system). In general, I think group work functions best when students don’t feel pressure to guess what answer you want out of them.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“They involve the teacher’s going from being a resident expert there to help students in his/her area of expertise to being a classroom manager, manipulating students for their own good. Class is no longer (if it ever was) a place where a conversation takes place between people who (at least might) care about ideas and books. It is now a place where learning is facilitated.”

This sounds spot on to me. I do think group work is useful and has a place, but I don’t think it should be central. I don’t like to do too much of it, because it inevitably requires a kind of instrumental relation towards our students, making me feel like a scientist manipulating lab rats. Defenders say it’s good for them, but they ignore that the specific goods of the practice may not outweigh the larger good of treating students as independent adults, as honest and sincere partners in dialogue and debate, rather than as involuntary players in a game of my devising.

Again, this is not to say that the goods provided by group work can’t in specific cases outweigh these considerations, but that they don’t always. It’s good to remember just how dramatically it changes the teacher student dynamic, and what a different role we take on. Overall, I think it’s too continuous with parenting and employee managing and my goal is to help students to be independent of parents and managers, not to become their virtual one myself.Report

Evan Westra
Evan Westra
6 years ago

I’ve had a lot of success with a group essay planning exercise. Students had an upcoming essay assignment, and they could choose to write on one of three topics. I split my students into three groups, one group for each potential essay question, and had each group come up with a single essay plan. Each group then presented their plan in class, and I asked them pointed questions (e.g. “What’s your thesis?” and “How would you respond to the following objection …”). Other forms of group work have felt less effective, I suspect, because the students failed to see how they were useful, but rather saw such exercises as group work for its own sake. With this sort of exercise, students quickly recognized that the plans they came up with in class could serve as plans for their term papers, and so they were inclined to make the best of them. I’ve also had similar success with group quizzes. So, I think the trick to good group work is to structure it in such a way that it helps students make concrete progress towards major course assignments.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
6 years ago

Duncan Richter raises some really good questions about group work. I like the approach Jen Baker describes above. When I was a student I usually loathed group work so I was reluctant to inflict it upon any students. After working with a colleague (Jerry Cederblom) who is a terrific teacher I changed my mind about this. He showed me how to use quick questions the students discuss with a neighbor (as Baker says) to get them talking to each other just for a minute or two. If you get things moving like this early in a class session, students seem more comfortable speaking aloud and raising a hand to contribute to the full group discussion. I have seen another former colleague (Mark Decker) give a brilliant demonstration of this method. He would introduce some juicy controversy in an epistemology article to his critical thinking students and have them talk over in pairs which side they were on and why. This only took a few minutes. Then he opened up the full group discussion and it was on fire because the students had taken a stake in the issue, however provisionally, and wanted to see what arguments could be devised to support their position. (It probably helps that he had been doing this all semester, so the students were ready for it.)

I’m still working on this method and it definitely does not succeed if it feels “forced and unnatural”, as Richter says. It works best when the question to be discussed presents itself immediately in the reading, is fairly specific, and can be answered quickly without relying on technical expertise. The simple process of deciding how to answer and then speaking to another person prompts some students to continue speaking in class who would otherwise sit on their hands. Sometimes the desired effect is achieved simply by asking each student to jot down an answer on paper or raise a hand in response to a straw poll – this works well in larger classes where it’s more difficult to restore quiet once everyone begins speaking.Report

Andy
Andy
6 years ago

I am a postgraduate tutor who takes groups of first and second year students. So perhaps the following points only apply to low level teaching and not higher level stuff. It also occurs to me that these points only apply to group work in tutorial sized groups. But I use group work a lot, and I think it is great. My tutorials take the following form: In the first half we talk as a whole group and try to iron out any difficulties in understanding in connection to the weeks text. In the second half of the session the group is split into two and the groups are assigned to come up with a defense of one of two opposing positions. We then have a debate between the two groups at the end of class. I think that the majority of the problems indicated in this post are avoided in this sort of situation.

1. Although the members of the group do not include an expert there has been a discussion in the earlier section of the tutorial in which most of the confusions have been cleared up. An expert is still present and listening in on the discussion in both groups. Mistakes are usually corrected pretty promptly.

2. There is truth in this. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons I actually use group work. If you have one group defending one view, and another defending the opposing view, you get two groups who become more confident in opposing philosophical positions, and thus more invested in actually arguing at the end of the session. Often people are less willing to enthusiastically defend a view if they are worried they are the only ones who hold that view.

3. This has never been a problem for me. Indeed, I don’t see why it would be more of a problem in small groups than slightly larger groups.

4. This is true, but once again this is also true (more true in fact) of larger groups. Many individuals will be unwilling (often due to lack of confidence) to speak to a larger group of people, but in a group of 3 or 4 will be willing to start regularly making smaller points. Moreover, I find that the loudmouths feel more awkward about being loudmouths with only 2 or 3 other people in the conversation. On top of this you can usually arrange your groups in such a way that personality types are well matched.

5. This just seems like baseless negativity. Anything can feel like a waste of time.

On the final point: I don’t think that group work does have to involve a shift from the teacher being an expert to being a facilitator of learning. One should be both whether or not one is using group work in ones teaching.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Like Laura Grams above, I hated group work as a student and only overcame my reluctance to try it based on the opinion of trusted colleagues. I also shared many of the concerns you quote from Duncan Richter.

But as I’ve become more experienced at incorporating group work into my classes, I’ve found them to all be misplaced. Sure, students can get off task, but that’s true of any form of class exercise. It depends on your student of course, but when group exercises are well-designed, they help keep students more engaged than they would be in a lecture, because they become socially accountable to one another for their contributions. As Tyler Hildebrand says, this works best when the group exercises are well-focused.

Nor have I ever felt this required me to take an instrumental or management approach to my classroom. When I break students into groups it is to get them discussing specific points from or around the texts we’re reading in class, and I travel from group to group, listening in and (where helpful) participating in those conversations. And in each case, the point is to prime the groups to come back together and continue that conversation as a whole class.

Finally, I would strongly caution against putting much weight on the idea that it feels ‘unnatural’ or ‘forced.’ The whole format of a university education is unnatural and forced – it doesn’t feel that way to some of us either because it fits our dispositions or because we’ve become so well socialized to it. But, as is evident from classes I’ve taught at a fairly wide range of institution types, discussion and engagement in large (or even small or medium) lecture class feels unnatural and forced to very many students – often especially those students who need our help the most. When I first started doing group-work I was astonished to see that many students who I thought were uninterested or unprepared actually had a lot to share once they were put in smaller peer groups where they felt more comfortable.Report

Arthur Ward
6 years ago

I never used to like planning group exercises or group work in class. It felt forced, as people have noted. But I just didn’t have any successful models to emulate. I was proud of my teaching, but it was very instructor-focused and when I tried group work, it never worked well for me. But this mindset reflected a very common philosophers VICE of not gathering enough experimental data. With the right models to emulate, I found that group work could be surprisingly effective. As it happens, my wife is an educator who has researched effective pedagogy, and she gave me lots of ideas. They work! Here’s one you should try:

It’s called a “chalk talk” (so named by some Harvard researchers at “project zero”)

Divide the students into groups of 4 or 5. Give each group a poster-sized piece of paper and some markers. On each poster, you’ve written something for them to think about. This works well with conceptual analysis (what’s the difference between humans and non-human animals, for instance) and it works even better for ethics case studies. Here’s my favorite example: Give each group a different situation that a fertility clinic might encounter, where each set of parents wants to select for or against a certain genetic trait (against tay-sachs, for deafness, etc). Each group spends 5-10 minutes discussing (pretending they are some clinic committee) whether they would allow their set of parents to use embryo selection in this instance. They are to write down some pros and cons on the poster with the markers. Now the magical part: have the groups rotate, so that they are now sitting in front of another group’s poster. They have a new case to consider AND they can see the last group’s notes. Ask them to critique, add to, comment on, the previous poster – and get it all down on the poster. Then rotate again. And again if they’re enjoying it (they probably are). What you get as a result is about an hour of small group discussion where almost everyone is talking almost the entire time. And they are working with visible documents that are a written record (the lingo is “visible thinking” for education nerds) of the discussion.

And the professor does almost nothing. At first, this alarmed me because I thought I was supposed to be a “Sage on a stage.” But I realized that this method beats even the most expertly led whole-class discussion, where at most one person is talking at once. And there are many many other engaging strategies like this that have been developed for K-12 education but work really well with undergrads. The moral of the story might be this: universities have education departments where people work all day long on this stuff, and if we learn how to tap that resource philosophy will be richer for it.Report

Michael Cholbi
6 years ago

I find it dispiriting that no references have been made to the significant body of teaching-related scholarship, a fair bit of it done by philosophers, on precisely this topic. Much of this work has appeared in Teaching Philosophy:
Elizabeth Jelinek, “Using small group learning the philosophy classroom,” 36 (2013)
Michael Gettings, “Student-centered discussions in introductory philosophy,” 36 (2013)
Neil Thomason, “Making Student Groups Work,” Teaching Philosophy 13:2 (1990).

Outside of philosophy, the best known works are probably Elizabeth Barkley, Patricia Cross, and Claire Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005) and Brookfield and Peskill, Discussion as a Way of Teaching.

In any event, I strongly discourage addressing teaching challenges by trying to reinvent the wheel!Report

Duncan Richter
6 years ago

Thanks for hosting this discussion and to everyone who has commented. My concerns about the possible downside of breaking students into groups when teaching were prompted by a sense that this was sometimes regarded as having no downside whatsoever, or at least as being clearly superior to all other ways of teaching. It’s not that I’m absolutely against it, I just think that it brings with it challenges that are sometimes overlooked. It looks as though those challenges are recognized by other people, and it’s helpful to read so many suggestions for overcoming them.Report

Lisa
Lisa
6 years ago

There’s research to suggest peer instruction appears to increase understanding and retention enormously: http://mazur.harvard.edu/research/detailspage.php?rowid=8

It helps if the task is structured and credit is given for it. You can have an in-class worksheet that is like a test or quiz and they can all do it together. Then they can be graded on it. They always understand better afterwards, no matter what they happen to feel.Report

Another grad student
Another grad student
6 years ago

Folks who want to know what does and doesn’t work in group work may also be interested in Tomcho and Foels’ 2012 paper, “Meta-Analysis of Group Learning Activities: Empirically Based Teaching Recommendations.” Teaching of Psychology, 39 (3): 159–169. Faculty Focus summarizes the results here: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/what-components-make-group-work-successful/

Particularly interesting (to me at least) was that having the instructor assign grades to individual group members for their work had no correlation with better learning outcomes, and having group members grade each other had a *negative* correlation with better learning outcomes. “Accountability measures” always struck me as a cheap motivational substitute for actually managing groups, (and as more than a bit unfair when I was an undergrad!) so I was glad to see a good reason to continue to not using them with my students.Report

John
John
6 years ago

My experience has been that group work goes well when students can engage without having read anything or prepared in any way. Puzzle cases work well and posing questions that require them to draw upon ‘pre-philosophical’ intuitions usually gets them talking. The real challenge, especially in institutions like mine with large numbers of lower socio-economic and ESL students, is getting them to do set [primary text] readings. Ideally, group work exercises would be based around the week’s readings, but doing group work when very few students have attempted the readings is a very dispiriting experience. We struggle to even get students to buy the inexpensive book of readings, let alone a pricey textbook! I think there is crisis in student reading going on and to remain viable might require changing what we mean by a quality education in philosophy. Do others share similar concerns? How do others integrate primary texts into their classes?Report

Another grad student
Another grad student
6 years ago

Oops! That should be “continue not using them,” of course.

John: Very few students do the readings. It’s an old study, but Burchfield & Sappington’s 2000 “Compliance with required reading assignments” Teaching of Psychology, 27, 58-60 found that only 20 percent of undergraduates do the reading. A cursory search for more recent studies suggests that the best estimates today aren’t much more positive.

Having students take very short quizzes at the beginning of class or turn in a short report on what they read has a significant positive effect on the completion rate. See Carney, et al. “Reeling in the big fish: changing pedagogy to encourage the completion of reading assignments” here: http://dx.doi.org/10.3200/CTCH.56.4.195-200 for an example.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

John,

As always this will depend on your students and their abilities, but I’ve found that giving students directed exercises about the assigned text can overcome this problem in two ways. First, it gives them a real incentive to do the reading, because that’s what *they* will be asked to talk about. Second, for students who don’t to the readings in advance, at least they will do some reading when they’re forced to in the group.

For example, I had the class read Mill’s (and Taylor’s) The Subjection of Women. They had already had a background lecture on Mill and Taylor and the main gist of the text. For that class each student was required to submit a short (approx 200 word) ‘reading response note’ on the text prior to class (students can fake this, but it usually provides some incentive to read). When I divided the class into groups I made each group responsible for one chapter of the book and gave them all directed questions (about the main arguments, objections, etc). I had also provided the students with a question-heavy reading guide to help them navigate the text, so they could use that to help them along.

But if students aren’t willing or able to obtain the text (use free and public domain works whenever possible!), or if they have problems with reading English, this method wouldn’t work. On the other hand, those are the students who would probably benefit most from this kind of in-class reading assignment – it would just have to be adjusted to their abilities.Report

John
John
6 years ago

Thanks to both another grad student and Derek Bowman for the interesting comments. Derek, may I ask: do you mark the ‘reading response’ each week? On the negative side, it sounds like a lot of work. (I have about 150 students per week each 14 session). On the positive side, it would bolster class attendance and, assuming you have a transparent marking criteria, holds out hope of being a more equitable form of group work assessment than ad-hoc discretionary marking of discussion participation or group presentation. Also, how large are your groups?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

John,

For the specific exercise I mentioned I was lucky enough to have a class size of around 20, so I had four groups of 4-5 students, and my largest class size has been two sections of 35 each. (Don’t be jealous of my low teaching load – it comes with adjunct wages). I don’t typically grade each reading response, but I do spot check them over the course of the semester and try to make sure everybody gets specific feedback at least once in the first few weeks. On the one hand this relies on a bit of bluffing to be effective, but I am upfront with the students that these are primarily for their own class preparation and that I won’t necessarily read every one.

I agree it would take some extra work to adapt these techniques to a larger class size – perhaps others have had experience with this (or perhaps it is addressed in some of the articles in Teaching Philosophy mentioned above).Report

BunnyHugger
BunnyHugger
6 years ago

In the past, my attempts to use summaries, reading responses, or reading questions to make students read resulted in my getting very large numbers of summaries that very closely resembled what SparkNotes had to say about the reading. In one case, I discovered that nearly 50% of all the assignments turned in were at least partially plagiarized from SparkNotes or other similar sites. I switched to quizzes, and now my students routinely get very low class averages on quizzes, then come to class obviously unprepared and, during group work, annoy the few people in the class who are actually prepared by being useless and unresponsive. I wish I had some idea what to do about any of this but nothing I try seems to make a bit of difference.Report

John
John
6 years ago

BunnyHugger,
If your students are using Sparknotes, they’re doing well. Mine usually serve up my own lecture notes and don’t seem to realise it’s a bad look. Like you I run an in-class quiz as part of the unit assessment (20%) and I find I have to make it ‘open book’ or most of the cohort will fail. Even when it is open book the average mark is less than 70.

Seriously though, I think the reason why the classroom problem is not taken seriously in philosophy is that most of the influential people in the field do not do undergraduate teaching at all, or, if they do teach at undergraduate level, they only do lectures and palm off the small group work to adjuncts.Report

BunnyHugger
BunnyHugger
6 years ago

John, they actually take out-of-class quizzes served to them online which they have to do before class, and thus it is intrinsically open book (and open-classmate as I can’t really stop them from that either). They still get averages like yours.Report