Get ready to cringe, thing topic is on group work

Is group work a necessary evil?

A professor in my department recently sent out this article on group work  If you’re like me, you won’t click on the link so, in summary, students hate working in groups (surprising, I know).  Students cite everything from hating their groups, to being confused about the information, to not being able to fall asleep during class as their reasons for hating group activity.

So, should we encourage group work?

Obviously, students must learn how to work well with others to survive in the work place.  However, I’m sure you have all been in a group where you were the only one doing work, or the material was so challenging that you really did need more instructor from the professor. I generally despise groups, and I think professors tend to use groups as a way of making their classes more “student centered”.  But, when done correctly, groups can also be the greatest learning experience.

Specifically, groups can be great for exploring a new topic, but it can’t be so far out of reach that students can’t figure out the material.  For example, I’m currently in a multivariate statistics class that is run entirely by group discussion.  If you were wondering, it fails miserably, largely because the students don’t have enough background to lead a successful discussion.   However, when I was a undergrad, all of my classes were group-oriented, and it worked because it was mostly problem solving classes built off of information that we were already given, through lecture.

So, why am I writing all of this?  Well, many of us have been told that we need to make classes more student-centered, but the answer isn’t to strip lecture out of class and make student teach themselves.  I largely agree with students that group work is terrible, but that’s because it’s not being done correctly.  It’s usually being used as a fallback.

Don’t use group work as a fallback.

The biggest (in my opinion) difference between big and small schools

Don’t tell anyone, but anytime VT goes on break, I go back to my undergraduate college and work.  I work a lot of VT-related research, projects, etc., but I also have ongoing research still at my school.

Anyway, I’m not writting to say that research is great and passionate at small, liberal arts schools (which, it is), but to point out another HUGE difference between a small school and a big school.  We talked a lot about how smaller schools are typically more teaching-oriented, and how smaller schools have more opportunity for service and mentoring.  What we didn’t mention is the sense of community at smaller schools.

For example, all science disicples are located in one three-story builing at my undergraduate college, and everyone knows everyone.  Better yet, everyone is friends with everyone else.  As you pass in the hallway, there are comments about happy hour on Friday, how someone’s kids are doing, book recommendations, etc.  It a very social atmopshere. When I return, everyone stops in to ask how VT is, how my research is going, etc.

Now, I have a very small department at VT, and none of that occurs.  Everyone is isolted in their own office, there’s not a lot of conversration outside of academics, and it is pretty rare the the entire department shows up to any event.  Work is work, and it is never to mix with personal life.

Anyway, we talk a lot about how different education is in different countries. But it occurs to me that, if you’ve never attended a small college, the workings and ideals of a instituion with less than 1500 students might be just as foreign to you as a college in another country (well, a bit of a overstatement, but you understand).  The difference is way more than teaching exepctations too…..

Two Mission Statements from Two Completly Different Schools

The first is from my alma mater, Randolph-Macon College.  It’s a small (<1200 students, undergrads only) liberal arts school near Richmond, Virginia.  And, no, it didn’t used to be a women’s college.

Randolph-Macon is an undergraduate, coeducational college of the liberal arts. The purpose of a Randolph-Macon education is to develop the mind and the character of its students. They are challenged to communicate effectively, to think analytically and critically, to experience and appreciate the creative process, to develop qualities of leadership, and to synthesize what they know with who they are.

At Randolph-Macon College the liberal arts constitute a comprehensive educational opportunity. The curriculum includes exposure both to broad perspectives and specific concepts. Students explore the natural and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities, while they also achieve a deeper understanding of the single discipline in which they major. They are guided in this endeavor by a faculty of teacher-scholars who are dedicated to the liberal arts and active in their professional disciplines and in the extra-curricular life of the campus.

At Randolph-Macon the maturation and testing of the skills, values, and character required for a lifetime of challenges extends beyond the classroom. Students are encouraged to meet with faculty both socially and intellectually, and they have the opportunity to participate in a variety of extra-curricular activities. Interaction within the college community is assured by residential environment and an enrollment of approximately one thousand. Located in Ashland, Virginia Randolph-Macon College offers a curriculum and a cultural life enriched by the close proximity of Metropolitan Richmond and Washington, D.C.

A Randolph-Macon education conveys a sense of life defined by historical continuity and ethical responsibility. Founded by Methodists in 1830, Randolph-Macon is an independent college that retains a relationship with the United Methodist Church. Through this living tie the College draws strength from a religious tradition that nurtures creative social change and personal accountability.

Randolph-Macon believes that a liberal arts education challenges the intellect, imagination, and character. Graduates of the College have the capacity to realize their potential as professionals, leaders, and lifelong learners. The comprehensive nature of a liberal arts education at Randolph-Macon College prepares students to respond to the changing career opportunities and to meet life’s challenges with confidence, enthusiasm, and ethical awareness.

In an attempt to find a completly opposite school from R-MC, I am posting the mission statement from Arizona State University. It’s student enrollment is >59,000.

Arizona State University’s goal is to become a world-class university in a multicampus setting. Its mission is to provide outstanding programs in instruction, research, and creative activity, to promote and support economic development, and to provide service appropriate for the nation, the state of Arizona, and the state’s major metropolitan area. To fulfill its mission, ASU places special emphasis on the core disciplines and offers a full range of degree programs—baccalaureate through doctorate, recognizing that it must offer quality programs at all degree levels in a broad range of fundamental fields of inquiry. ASU will continue to dedicate itself to superior instruction; to excellent student performance; to original research, creative endeavor, and scholarly achievement; and to outstanding public service and economic development activities. As a result of this dedication, ASU was named to Research Extensive (formerly Research I) status in 1994, recognizing ASU as a premier research institution.