Expand your teaching toolkit for both online and face-to-face courses
In my last entry, I explained how principles of facilitating peer-assisted learning (PAL) groups in the Learning Commons can support our own thinking as we design courses and learning plans. This blog entry is a continuation of this discussion. In the Learning Commons, designing PAL groups goes beyond the basic structure and facilitation strategies that I outlined last time. Collaborative learning techniques (CLTs) and learning strategies to two other essential components that our PAL facilitators weave into their group sessions with students in NRS 325, MTH 141, and PHY 204. As you read this blog entry, imagine how you might incorporate CLTs and learning strategies into your own online (and, eventually, face-to-face) sessions with students.
Collaborative Learning Techniques (CLTs)
Peer-assisted learning (PAL) is a derivation of Supplemental Instruction (SI), and the collaborative learning techniques that I outline below are from the standard SI training. Here’s the list that we use in our training of UP’s PAL facilitators
- Group Discussion is what it sounds like. We all use this, but the following strategies provide alternatives to this tried and true CLT.
- Clusters are breakout groups that many of you are already using in Zoom or Teams. In the pre-pandemic days, we used clusters for group work in classrooms.
- Turn to a Partner is a CLT what many have long used in face-to-face instruction. Students turn to a partner to work on a task. In our remote context, we can just have pairs of students work in breakout rooms.
- Think / Pair / Share is different that Turn to a Partner in that we allow time for individual students to process material or work on a task alone. With Zoom, we can send students to individual rooms before bringing them back and putting them in pair breakout rooms. While this has extra moving parts, the solo rooms do allow students to think alone first, where as they may be tempted just to start talking with a partner if we just put them in pairs and ask them to think alone first and then talk.
- Individual Presentation involves groups in which the individual members present something to the group in a round-robin fashion. In our PAL sessions, we use this rarely since it can become a one-way reporting out. To be more effective, the students need to know to take notes, ask questions, and provide feedback to individual presenters.
- Assigned Discussion Leader works best when the breakout group members are far along in their learning so that they can discuss in depth. The discussion leader will also benefit from having time to prepare, say overnight or between class sessions. Also, having some community norms around discussion in groups can invigorate the group discussions.
- Jigsaw is a classic group learning activity in which a topic or problem is divided into parts. The class is divided into groups to work on their assigned parts. Then they come back together to share their parts of the whole. This then can spark questions and further discussion.
- Group Survey can be used to gather students’ positions, opinions, prior knowledge, or predictions. As faculty, we can use polling platforms like MS Forms or Poll Everywhere (both available to UP faculty). After polls are taken, other CLTs can be used to engage students in group work around the responses. Group Survey can also be used as an opener to see where students stand vis-à-vis the topic of the day or to close a class meeting to assess how their thinking is changing.
In our PAL facilitator trainings and debriefings, we encourage our peer PAL facilitators to explore each of the above CLTs and not to rely on just one or two. The most popular are Group Discussion and Clusters, but all can be used to advance student learning.
Collaborative learning techniques provide us instructors with structures for student engagement. They provide students with spaces for peer interaction. Given the results of the recent survey of UP students, we know that many want more interaction in their remote classes. By adding the above CLTs to your teaching toolkits, you will likely be able to facilitate that peer interaction around that material that you want students to learn durably.
While CLTs provide a format for social learning, learning strategies provide structured processes for learning. For our PAL facilitators, knowledge of these strategies helps them to plan their sessions efficiently. They have a grab bag of strategies to try out in any session. As they explore these learning strategies by using them, they become more aware of how and when to use them.
From the learner’s perspective, learning strategies are behaviors and actions one takes to learn more effectively; they can support motivation and completion. From our perspective as instructors, learning strategies are activities that support learning, social interaction, and involvement with difficult material. For example:
- Matrices have become popular among many in this era of remote teaching and learning, especially since we can use collaborative document tools like Google Docs, and we can effectively use matrices with the ClustersCLT. In breakout groups, the students work together to fill out part of a table or matrix in a shared Google Doc. The work to do this involves discussion, recall, revisiting and comparing notes, and asking questions. Different clusters (breakout groups) can work on different parts of the matrix which can be part of a jigsaw approach, or they can work developing their own responses to the same matrix which will then allow you to have them compare their responses.
- Verbal Volleyball can be played in a whole group and works best after students have gained some familiarity with the concepts. The instructor asks a student to explain a concept, idea, or issue covered in class and then to give another student a different concept, idea, or issue which that student will then explain. The process goes on until the students can go no further. Repeats are not allowed. As the instructor, you can then pose questions and request students to use their resources to revisit concepts needing further work. Verbal Volleyball makes for a good opener or closer to online class sessions, but keep in mind that the students need some familiarity with the material.
The Learning Commons’ PAL facilitators have dozens of learning strategies at their disposal, and we keep adding more as we find or create them. We also use an app called SI Cards and Session Planner that offers a wide array of learning strategies for SI and PAL sessions.
The shift to remote teaching and learning has given us the opportunity to revisit how we support student learning, as we have done with the PAL facilitation program in the Learning Commons. As you consider lesson planning for the rest of the semester and plans for the spring, collaborative learning techniques and learning strategies can be part of your instructor’s toolkit for student success. If you would like to discuss any of the topics and approaches of my last two blog entries, please do feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, give me a ring on MS Teams, or leave a reply at the bottom of this blog entry.
Jeffrey White directs the Learning Commons at UP, where he collaborates with others to supervise and support over 60 tutors, writing assistants, and PAL facilitators. He also teaches courses in the Department of International Languages and Cultures.