Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!

Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

Continue reading “Creating Community II: Class Notes”

Creating Community I: Reading Response Discussions

Per Amanda’s last post about platform options for online group projects, over the next several weeks I’ll throw out some of my plans for exercises that I hope will create community in the two fall undergraduate courses I’ll be teaching online. I’ll start simple and gradually get more complex.

In the physical classroom, I still use reading responses to generate discussion among students and minimize formal lecturing. Online, I’ll do this with breakout rooms. In the classroom, I typically ask each group of students to summarize for the rest of the class the consensus position it has reached on the reading response; the pattern that emerges from polling groups in this manner often leads to additional discussion. I think this process will be tedious for students in an online environment, so I will tell students that each breakout room needs to create a document with three bullet points that support its argument. I will randomly choose one group of students to present its conclusions to the rest of the class after the breakout discussions are completed. The group will display its three bullet points to the class via screen share. I can ask that other students submit questions or opposing points of view, perhaps through text chat, for follow-up after the presentation. Throughout the process I’ll be asking “Why?” in Socratic fashion.

Technology note: Zoom has had breakout rooms for a long time. Cisco says that an updated version of Webex with this capability will launch at some point in September. There is apparently a method of creating breakout rooms with Microsoft Teams, but to me it looks complicated.

Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

Continue reading “Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options”

Hate Group Presentations? Here’s an Alternative

Today we have another guest post from Susan Allen, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi. She can be contacted at shallen [at] olemiss [dot] edu.

Enrollment at the University of Mississippi has grown substantially over the last few years, with my upper division undergraduate courses now often exceeding sixty students each. To shepherd such a large number of students through the research process so that they could eventually write compelling papers, I initially tried using group presentations My hope was that presentations would challenge students to be creative (an explicit grading criteria), improve their ability to speak in front of a group, strengthen their ability to summarize important aspects of their work, and allow students with diverse strengths and weaknesses to step up.

What I got, however, were painful classes of undergraduates awkwardly reading their Power Point slides, mismanaging their time, and complaining noisily about the entire experience – both as participants and as witnesses of their classmates’ efforts.

Enter the research conference, an alternative suggested by a friend in psychology. In addition to writing research papers, groups create posters that are presented at a conference session.

Two class periods are designated for our research conference, and half the class sets up on each day. When possible, I also ask two or three graduate students to join me to interview the students about their work. Students who are not presenting are expected to rank and comment on the day’s posters. The ranking criteria, each on a 1-10 scale, are clarity, creativity, research quality, and group participation. The highest-ranking poster for each session generates extra credit for its designers. Only students who submit rankings for the other students are eligible to earn these points.

I had no idea what to expect for the first iteration of the research conference. The quality and style of the posters varied greatly, but not the enthusiasm with which the students spoke about their research. I was amazed by how excited they were about what they’d learned.

Since then, both poster and paper quality have improved. Designing the posters forces students to boil their work down to its essence, which translates into better organization and flow in their papers. On my end, I’ve learned how to provide clearer directions for and better examples of poster design. While poster printing imposes a cost on students, our library provides this service for a nominal fee. Students also have used local copy shops.

For me, the biggest benefit is being able to hear students talk about their work and learn from them about the development of their topics, how they collaborated, and what sparked the interests of individual students. When I face that stack of research papers at the end of the semester, I don’t dread it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve seen and heard their authors’ sales pitches at the research conference.

Making Students Make: Classroom Game Design Part 1

credit: Chad Raymond

In my 2016 first-year seminar, I had teams of students build games, something that originated with a vaguely-defined classroom exercise that I had created on the spur of the moment in class the year before. I’m going to include game design in the course again this fall, but with a few tweaks. Here is an overview of what’s going to happen:

Teams of students will go through three iterations of game design. An individually-written policy memo serves as a preparatory assignment for each round. The respective contexts of the games are the flight of a refugee from a location in South Sudan, the construction and operation of an NGO-managed camp for Rohingya refugees who have fled to Thailand, and the resettlement of a group of Afghan refugees in a relatively small community in the USA. Complete instructions for all of these game design exercises are at TeachersPayTeachers. Teams design their games in class over a few days and then they beta test each other’s games, evaluating them against a rubric. Points from the rubric get added to each student’s grade. Continue reading “Making Students Make: Classroom Game Design Part 1”

Teammate Evaluations, Revisited

Students in my courses do a lot of team-based projects. In an attempt to prevent free riders, I have teammates evaluate each other. This semester I have again modified the evaluation system a bit, with an unexpected result.fusball-table

For the past three semesters I’ve been using Google Forms to distribute and tabulate anonymous surveys in which students rank themselves and their teammates. The instructions on this survey:

Evaluate the performance of everyone on your team, including yourself, by ranking all members of your team with a different number. Each number can be used only once, otherwise your responses will be discarded. Assign the number 1 to the person who made the most valuable contribution to the project, the number 2 to the person who made the second most valuable contribution, etc. Only enter information for your team. Leave questions for other teams blank.

My explanation to students of how rankings translated into points — in this case, up to 40: Continue reading “Teammate Evaluations, Revisited”

Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations

This is Part 2 of an ongoing series aimed at newcomers to using simulations and games in their classroom.  Part 1 introduced the series and focused on how to reduce the workload required in the design and use of these pedagogies.

Skepticism is a pretty standard attitude that we face when trying to convince instructors to try simulations and games in their classes.  Beyond the issues of workload and time that cause new adopters to hesitate, there is a more basic problem: convincing instructors that simulations and games have any place at all in a classroom traditionally dominated by lecture and discussion.

I won’t bury the lede: the ALPS team are all strong proponents of the value of simulations and games in the classroom.  That being said, we are also very aware of the limits of these pedagogies, and one of us publishes consistently on the failures of simulations.  So we are not die-hard true believers. I’m going to focus this post on highlighting some of the benefits of using simulations–such as increasing interaction, engagement, and skill-building opportunities– and then turn to a potential limit–the lack of solid evidence that they improve learning.

Continue reading “Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 2, Benefits of Simulations”

How joined-up is your curriculum?

6318258412_b0209b8fa7_bWe’re rolling around to the end of our teaching here at Surrey. That means several things. First, that students are now focusing more on their final exams than on classes, since they don’t heed our advice that the latter will help an awful lot with the former. Second, that we’re trying to join the dots (again) between what we’ve joined over the past weeks. And third, that it’s nearly time for the amazing L&T new pedagogies workshop we’re running here (yes, since you ask, you can still book here).

But back to the second point, connectedness.

In my first year class yesterday, we ended up covering a bunch of concepts that I’d thought had been covered elsewhere, but which seemed not to have been. I did that because I needed them to explain some points that I knew weren’t being covered by anyone else. I could give you more specifics, but I’m guessing you know what I mean, because it’s something that happens pretty much every lesson; even if only in its mildly form of “you remember how you learnt about X in that other class? well, here’s an application.”

This is a real issue for social sciences like ours. Unlike physical sciences, where there is a much more graduated progress from core concepts to advanced application, we tend to find ourselves plunging into assorted deep ends from the get-go. The reasons are simply that we have a lay experience of politics that we don’t with quantum mechanics, and that the former is something that sits well within our reflective practice and is indeed a key part of our engagement with our environment. Put differently, you can have a conversation about power and agency with a 6-yr old and quickly get into very profound considerations.

The problem that this creates is that the degree to which we can make assumptions about prior knowledge and understanding (being two distinct things here) is highly uncertain. While we try to plan curricula for our programmes of study, we do so on the basis of implicit understandings of what an average student might know about beforehand. And of course, average students don’t really exist.

All of which makes it very hard to work towards a solution. The classic approach would have been to just give students what you, the teacher, think is important, whether they’ve had it before or not. The more modern approach would be to map out all the key points of learning and ensure that they are covered in some way.

Perhaps we need another approach, that it is more student-centric.

If we adopt an active learning approach then we work out from the students’ experience, to address problems as they find them, rather than presenting pre-packaged ‘solutions’. In endeavouring to solve the problems they find, students can draw in new knowledge, into frameworks of understanding , in ways that make sense to them. As that process continues, so the elements become joined up and the gaps reduce.

However, we have to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that gaps disappear automatically. One of the beauties of political science is precisely that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, working from fundamentally different premises. Organic, student-led growth of understanding doesn’t necessarily capture that.

Two partial solutions offer themselves here. One is to continue with the thing of activity that I opened with – making connections in sessions. But the other is to create learning environments where there are incentives to seek out new connections and paradigms of understandings. Simulations would be just that sort of environment, where you can take students out of themselves and ‘be’ someone else.

And yes, if that sounds interesting, there is a workshop about that.

A little EU crisis game

How would you simulate this? Why would you simulate this?

For someone who’s supposed to be a scholar on the EU, I don’t do many games about the EU. That’s because there are plenty of options out there, plus I don’t often have reason to run these kinds of games, which normally need a significant number of students. Plus, it’s hard to do something that’s different.

However, fortune occasionally brings forth moments to change matters, and this is just such a moment.

As part of the INOTLES project, we’ve been running an online module with students from nine European institutions, learning about the EU. As a capstone, we’re spending most of this week in Brussels, doing a variety of activities, visiting institutions, and trying the local produce. Continue reading “A little EU crisis game”