First-Year Communities and the Group Project

I incorporate student feedback in my courses as frequently as I can. I ask students to provide anonymous feedback on four areas: things to consider starting in the class, things to consider stopping in the class, things to do more of in the class, and things to do less of in the class.  In my first-year courses, this feedback comes at the end of each writing unit. The feedback I get runs the gamut from the completely absurd (stop using chalk) to the cliche (less writing). However, these more cliche and absurd responses are often in places where students do not have suggestions, and they balance well with the more realistic feedback (more peer reviews). My first-year students completed their feedback cards last week, and there was a definite trend in their feedback that never appeared in previous classes.

The students want to start a few new things in class including group projects a class breakfast, and the students want to stop doing individual projects. They want to do more group activities and less individual projects. From their syllabus, the students knew weeks ago that their next project contained a collaborative element, and they became anxious about this project. Our family time
sessions often included comments about starting the project, but not the traditional reluctance. My students seem to hunger to collaborate with their peers. I was excited about starting the project, but I was also apprehensive. The project asks students to work with their established peer groups, and I was apprehensive that class workshops would prove less focused and more chatty since the peer groups are now comprised of friends, not nameless peers. I stand corrected. Class time on Friday, the first group workshopping day, proved quite successful to progress on the group project, and observing the students working emphasizes that the community building we started the first day of class plays a significant role in this productive work.

In my last post, First-Year Writing Communities: Making the Myth a Reality, I wrote extensively about the way the larger class came together as a community, and this community is even stronger in the peer groups. My class is privileged with round tables that each seat five students, and five is a harmonious number for a peer group. The peer groups complete one short, in-class activity each class period, and these activities are the start for the class discussion. This class structure means that the students spend 5-10 minutes collaborating each class period, and over the past 8 weeks, this means they get to know each other. These relationships are, I believe, the factor that plays into the successful and productive start to the group project.

The students started getting to know their peer group members the first day of class. They chose a table, and they (tentatively) smiled and said hello. Some students changed tables the next day, but by the two week mark of class, when I assigned peer leaders, students knew the other students sitting at their table. Through the short, in-class activities, as well as our family time discussions, these peer groups became groups of students who knew each other. Thus, when I introduced the collaborative project, the peer groups were formed, and the students were already looking forward to working with each other. The lack of those anxious introductory minutes when other peer groups get to know each other and worry about how well they will work together as a group did not happen. Talking through the assignment, brainstorming ideas, seeking answers to questions about the assignment, these became the focus for the first group project meeting.

Knowing each other already seems a valuable asset to the group work, and not just because it saves time at the start of the assignment. Students already know the quirks and habits of other group members. They know, for example, one group member will only do things if he is constantly nagged by another group member. In one such group, part of the first day of group meetings included an assurance that while Jenna, the nagger, would nag Alex about completing the work, the group would not hold Jenna accountable if Alex did not complete his work.

This knowledge of other group members also extends to another traditionally problematic area–the athlete in the group. In previous classes, my athletes group together to avoid practice and travel schedule conflicts with group members. This works effectively when I have 3 or more athletes, but a sole athlete in a class becomes a problem for traditional group members. In many cases, the peers do not know the student athlete, which means they may not see the student as an athlete, but rather as a slacker who barely comes to class. This is especially true with my volleyball and soccer players, who have intense travel schedules. This semester, I have one volleyball player in class, and her peer group already knows that she is dedicated to the class, dedicated to making good grades, and dedicated to keeping up when she is traveling. Thus, rather than being the tentative group member, she becomes an integral part of the group and can contribute to the project as a group member, not as the tentative, shy, absent student the group will expect to pull through the group project.

The growth of peer group communities and the larger community in the classroom sets the stage for a rich collaborative project this semester. I expect to encounter a few problems in the upcoming weeks, but I also anticipate the peer groups will address the majority of their problems at the group level and through the class chain-of-command. I am already curious to see how the students tackle problems in this new peer group structure, and I am curious to see if they want another group project after this.

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