Groups or Teams?

This week, I’d like to continue my exploration of PBL by taking a closer look at the question:  groups or teams?  In other words, how is a group different from a team, and how do each play a role in education and in the workplace?  In one of the readings before spring break, Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink differentiated between groups and teams and argued that teams result in greater quality of student learning:

The authors argue that quality of student learning increases progressively with traditional teaching < casual group use < cooperative learning < team based learning

Figure 1.2 from Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink comparing different teaching methods involving small groups.

Similarly, in the workplace, groups can be divided into three categories (listed from least effective to most effective):

  • Dependent Level
  • Independent Level
  • Interdependent Level

Dependent Level groups are highly directed by the supervisor (in the classroom, the teacher).  I would argue that this could be similar to traditional instruction, with each student getting information from the teacher on how to learn the material.  Some might refer to this as “spoon-feeding.”

Independent Level groups, I think, are the type that we are most familiar with.  The group cooperates by dividing up task, accomplishing them individually, and reporting their findings to the rest of the group.  These groups may meet infrequently and have little understanding of what the other members of the group are doing.  I think this could be analysis to what the authors refer to as a “group” rather than a team.  Although these may not be ideal for student learning, I, personally, find this structure pretty familiar both from my classroom “group projects” and my work experiences.

Interdependent Level groups are true teams.  Many argue that these groups are the only type in which the group performs better than any individual (rather than just as an average of individual abilities).  Compared to a looser group, teams meet more frequently and produce a product that is truly collective, rather than a stitching together of individual contributions (see Table 1 in the “For Dummies” article for a more detailed comparison of groups/teams).  These are considered the best for student learning as well as work performance, but I personally wonder how often this actually happens in practice . . .

In closing, although it’s clear that we want “teams” rather than “groups” in our clasrooms, I’m still not sure, as a teacher, how to encourage “groups” to transform into “teams” . . .

. . . relatively painlessly for all parties involved, that is.

What do you think?  Have your “group project” experiences (as a student or a teacher) reached the level of “team projects?”  If so, how did you get there?


Students or Learners?

I just stumbled across the blog Casting Out Nines (by Robert Talbert) in The Chronicle blog network — I like it!  In particular, I was reading through a post from back in December called “We need to produce learners, not just students,” which stresses the importance of teaching that focuses less on producing someone who can get a good grade on the test (a student) and more on helping that student become someone who wants to learn new things and takes the initiative to do so (a learner).  The approach to teaching (and learning) outlined in this post illustrates exactly what we were getting at with our class discussion last week of using PBL in the classroom and our earlier readings from Freire.  It also touches on another topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — the shared responsibility for learning between the student and the teacher.  In class, we agonize over the students who believe they are “given” grades and refuse to take any responsibility for their own learning; at the same time, though, we recognize the responsibility of the teacher to facilitate that learning (to some degree).  Our differences of opinion lie in where that balance is.

“. . . if you graduate from university and don’t have the skills or dispositions necessary to teach yourself new things for the rest of your life, it doesn’t really matter what your GPA says: You’re not educated.” (Talbert)

This quote is the first half of a statement made in Talbert’s post, and, to me, it highlights the need for the student to take steps in claiming responsibility for their own learning.  In an academic market where the student is the customer and the customer is always right, forcing greater accountability can be risky for the teacher.  As we touched on in our PBL case study, approaches like PBL and the inverted (flipped) classroom are often met with significant student resistance.

And if I shepherd a student through the university without putting them in a position time and again to hone these skills and dispositions, it doesn’t matter what my title or my course evaluations say: I’m not an educator.” (Talbert)

If the first statement made us feel that we had escaped some of our responsibilities, the second half gives us an even greater charge — to do more than simply “cover” the material at the expense of learning.  As we said in class, the biggest challenge in this might be knowing when to remain silent and avoiding the temptation to give “the” answer.

What do you think?  Have we found a good balance in sharing the responsibility for learning?  How can PBL help/hinder this balance?

Gender-Related Stereotype Threat in STEM

In our last class, we discussed the nature of stereotype threat and the effects it can have on performance, as described in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.  One of the examples he discussed, the underperformance of women on math tests due to stereotype threat, is part of an issue that is very important to me — the relatively small number of women in STEM fields (science/technology/engineering/mathematics).  Part of the reason for this is that my undergraduate institution, as one specializing in engineering, was predominately male.  On their website, this university announces that it has one of the highest female populations among the nation’s technological research universities, with women making up approximately 25% of undergraduates.

Several years ago, I wrote a paper for an undergraduate class in which I argued that effective mentoring is the key to increasing female representation in STEM.  At the time, I was thinking in particular of female role models.  For example, in one study I cited, female students performed better on math tests when they were administered by female role models (such as a female STEM graduate student or professor).  However, after reading the section in Whistling Vivaldi about the author’s positive cross-racial mentoring experience, I realize that I need to expand this idea to include “allies.”  The simple interventions Steele describes to combat stereotype threat in general have been described as empowering, and I agree.

But there are obstacles.  In class, we mentioned the controversial 2005 remarks made by Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard, about the mathematical aptitude of women.  In an article later that same year in The Chronicle, it was pointed out that his remarks alone could contribute substantially to the stereotype threat issue (presumably because of his status at the time as President of Harvard).  The academic community responded with outrage, for the most part — however, some argued that ostracizing Summers compromised academic freedom.  Further, the debate is ongoing — last year in The Chronicle, this article described studies that downplayed the importance of stereotype threat, ensuring that the controversy would continue.