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How can I encourage collaborative learning in my classes?

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How can I encourage collaborative learning in my classes?

Peer-to-peer learning among students can help students to develop confidence with difficult material, and build the support structures that students need to succeed. Once they start sharing their experiences, students can help one another to access the resources they need to come to grips with the content, during or outside of class time.

There are many ways to build in structures that will accommodate or initiate that kind of peer engagement. Small in-class activities can be effective, and there are more comprehensive course designs that involve peer interaction as a foundational component; you can also use certain tools and technologies to encourage student interaction outside of class. Formal peer tutoring programs are another part of the puzzle, and at Pacific we have the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS) that offers free peer tutoring for all students at Pacific.

Table of contents

In-class activities

Below are a few examples of in-class teaching methods that encourage peer interaction, ranging from overarching course designs to smaller classroom interventions.

Workshopping and peer review

‘Workshopping’ materials is a process that is very familiar in writing classrooms, wherein students and instructors work together to offer responses and suggestions for a given student-written text. This method can be used for a wide range of materials beyond text, though: a product, a problem, a piece of code! Key to this method is that as students offer feedback, they are themselves learning the methods used in assessing work, developing their critical faculties, and refining their understanding of what is expected of their own work. It is relatively easy to project student-created materials so that the entire class can see them, either by having students submit them ahead of time on Moodle, or by using the document cam in classrooms; to guide students as they offer feedback you can have them work with a rubric that you’re using to grade their work in Moodle, and so come to really understand its meaning.

Check out this guide to conducting writing workshops from Dartmouth College; its principles can have broad application.

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Learning in groups
Small-group learning

Placing students in study or discussion groups early in the semester to discuss some question or solve a problem can encourage them to get to know one another and to take an active role in sharing and developing knowledge in class. Small group work can be a short interlude within a class, providing a moment for students to actively express and test their understanding, or apply it to real-world situations. Take a look at this guide from the Harvard Kennedy School to see a number of formats for Small-Group Learning within classes.

Creating active learning opportunities in hybrid classrooms can be a challenge, but small-group learning can be a simple way to fully involve remote students by placing them in a group with students who are attending in person, and having them work together in a Zoom breakout room. Check out this guide to setting up Zoom in your classroom, and these tips for hybrid teaching.

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Pairs and pods

This is a method in which students are asked to first share their responses to some topic in a pair with another student, and then in a pod of four students (two pairs put together). Students maintain the same pair and pod across a few classes, so that they build community within their group; students have time to prepare and then share their thoughts with iteratively larger groups, which provides a scaffold toward speaking in bigger discussions.

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Peer instruction

This is a means for testing and developing students’ knowledge of conceptual problems. The instructor gives a short introduction to a concept, then asks the students to choose among several answers to a question that challenges their understanding (this can be done using Poll Everywhere, or for a solution that doesn’t require students to get out their phones, Plickers). The best questions are challenging conceptual problems (as above, say, recall questions). The instructor can see how students are answering, display the distribution of responses on a projector, and tailor their response accordingly; often the next step will be to have students discuss their answers in small groups and give justifications for their answers–which is where the instruction comes in. Students then answer the question again as a group. Sometimes, the discussion process will cause the majority of students to come to the correct answer organically, and if not, the instructor can ask a group that had come to the correct answer to detail their reasoning.

For support setting up Poll Everywhere or Plickers activities in your classroom, please contact Kate McCallum on k.mccallum@pacificu.edu. For more resources on Peer Instruction, check out this survey paper or some of the resources on its creator Eric Mazur’s website.

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Jigsaw

The jigsaw method is a collaborative learning approach that has students form temporary ‘expert groups’ and become experts on some sub-part of a topic before educating the other students in the class on their section. The experience of mastering and then sharing some aspect of a topic can help students to feel empowered and in control of their own learning, as well as teaching them to respect and make use of one another’s knowledge. More resources and a deeper exploration of the process can be found on the Jigsaw Classroom website.

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Google Doc ‘back channel’

A great way to create a space for constructive discussions in real-time situations such as discussions or lectures is to share a link with the entire class to an editable blank Google Doc that is open for anybody in the class to use to share responses during class time. This can be a place for students to share comments or questions that they feel hesitant to speak aloud, and students can answer one another’s questions, share responses and make suggestions. The instructor can consult the Google Doc during a quiet moment to see what kinds of questions are coming up, and whether there are unresolved points they can address. Alternatively, if the classroom has two displays, this channel can be publicly displayed such that it is just another part of the classroom environment. If you would like support setting up your classroom to work with multiple displays, please contact Kate McCallum on k.mccallum@pacificu.edu.

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Larger-scale learning structures

Team-Based Learning

This is a longer-term collaborative structure in which teams work together in a focused way on a particular project over several classes or weeks. Phil Ruder explains some of the basics and principles of Team-Based Learning in his Faculty Teaching Profile. In the below clip, Phil explains an interesting shift that occurs when he asks students to take short quizzes first individually, and then in teams:

You can see a flowchart for the process, a video of the method in action, and far more in this guide from UCLA’s Center for Education Innovation and Learning in the Sciences.

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Peer support outside the classroom

Perusall

Another tool that can help students to learn from each other’s learning is Perusall.

This is a social annotation tool for assigned materials, which means that you can upload the readings for your class (or a wide range of other media, from videos and podcasts to web pages), and students share their comments on the material as they read, or watch, or listen. Students often share definitions for difficult words or concepts, highlight the parts of the material that they are most excited about, and share moments in their own path to understanding. The instructor can upvote particularly helpful comments, and place discussion prompts in situ on the text. (Side note: Perusall also has nuanced settings for automatic grading based on engagement time, number and length of comments and so on, so that you can use it to effectively track participation in a way that works for your class.)

Perusall is integrated as an external tool on Moodle, so you can use it right within your class Moodle to enhance students’ engagement with the readings. Follow these instructions to add it to your class.

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Peer tutoring programs

We have a wonderful peer tutoring program at Pacific, and it’s worth letting your students know about it. The Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS) offers free peer tutoring for all students at Pacific. Peer tutors help students develop effective learning and study strategies and hone their academic skills. Tutors also provide students with guidance in understanding concepts and solving problems from their courses. CLASS aims to improve student success by providing a welcoming environment where students can work toward their academic goals with peer support. More about the program here.

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Interested in thinking more about ways to build peer engagement in your class? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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