Designing better collaborations

While I have been at RP I have been lucky enough to observe several classes, and have had a first hand view of what Problem Based Learning looks like in the classroom. And this opportunity has given me some ideas and answers to some of the problems that I identified in my work looking at views and approaches to collaboration in my own institution.

Problem based learning has collaboration at its core. So how does it overcome the issues that I discussed earlier – resulting in a natural hesitancy to work collaboratively? I think there are three core aspects that I have observed: (1) a focus on collaboration assisting individual work, rather than group outcomes, (2) constant and casual use of collaboration, and (3) a focus on learning rather than achievement (in the collaboration).

Problem based learning integrates active learning and student centred learning, with a completely different class structure to the traditional didactic approach. Student learning is guided around the solving of a problem, starting with a problem statement that is used to identify questions that need to be answered and tasks that need to be completed. A facilitator guides the student discussion, but it is the students themselves who must come up with the ideas, identify what they need to find out, and read, understand and apply knowledge obtained from resources. But is is not completely freeform – the facilitator must ensure that students are going in the right direction, prompt thought and discussion with relevant and appropriate questions, correct misunderstandings, and provide appropriate resources (which may include mini-lectures, recordings, printed resources etc) as necessary. This is a very different approach to learning, and one that requires a lot of facilitation skill, and is (perhaps?) quite intensive. I will need to explore further the use of PBL in large classes.

The way that the collaboration is structured in PBL is on the surface fairly informal, but has a lot of structure and thought underlying it. Walking into a successful PBL classroom can be an confronting experience – several conversations going on at the same time (some about the work at hand, and some not), laughter, distraction and some students also working individually, seemingly without any awareness of others. However, underlying that is a carefully crafted collaboration exercise. Each student is required to complete the task at hand, with collaboration a tool that can be used to help them learn. At RP this is achieved through the use of worksheets that must be completed by each student, which prompt some of the problem solving process, and daily quiz activities. Students work both individually and together, but they are all aware that they are expected to understand everything – not at the end of the semester but immediately. Working on the same problems means that they have a natural motivation to discuss with each other, guided and prompted by the facilitator throughout the class, working in small teams and as a class on analysing both problem at hand and the questions in the worksheet. PBL wlll often involve group presentations – but this can result in a genuine group presentation rather than an integration of parts; each of the students has their own answer and understanding, so they each want to contribute to the preparation of each part of the presentation.

Constant and casual communication: I’m sure we have all experienced times when we ask a question in a lecture and there is complete silence. For what seems like hours (but is really seconds) the students stare at you, waking up and realising that the game has changed. What I have discovered works for me is to keep asking questions – start out the first lecture with a question, and try to keep asking. My general rule of thumb is not go more than 10 minutes (hopefully much less) without asking a question. In this way, the students don’t get into the zone where they are expecting you to do all the talking, and are not surprised (or confronted) when you ask them a question. This is a crucial aspect of PBL and how collaboration works – the environment is conducive to discussion, students feel that they can ask a question without it being an unusual thing, and do not feel scared.

Of course, there are always degrees – there are still students who will prefer to ask you one on one, but sometimes they can do that while you walk past them in the lecture room, rather than waiting until they find you in your office. It is futile to structure our programs around the premise that at the odd point, we can ask students to collaborate and they will then immediately have the awareness, confidence and ability to do so.

Perhaps (3) is similar to (1), but I think it is a broader concept. PBL adopts a very student-centred approach to learning. When a problem statement is introduced, the students are asked to discuss and identify the key concepts, what they don’t know and need to find out, what they will need to learn, and what resources they will need in order to learn these new concepts, and then (perhaps not in all approaches) what the learning objectives are. This is not completely open – the role of the facilitator is to provide sufficient structure and guidance that the students go in the right direction(s), and to ensure that resources are available that the students can identify. Careful problem crafting ensures that the students are given enough openness to prompt discussion, and then enough direction that there is a point to each discussion.  This means that the focus of the discussion in the classroom is very much on what concepts need to be explored, and analysis of these concepts – what makes it the right one to explore? what about this other approach? This is in contrast to a focus on the completion of assessments, where the student focus can often be on what they need to to do in order to achieve a certain grade. We have tried to take some of this aspect in the new workshop-based design of our first year curriculum, but I think we have a way to go before we have achieved exactly what we want.

So how does this address what I had observed? I think it is inherently part of the focus on learning rather than outcome. The collaboration is crucially part of the learning process, rather than the outcome so why do we focus so often on the outcome? I’m not suggesting that we have to adopt PBL in order to achieve successful collaboration – as with any approach, it has its deficiencies and problems – but I think we can certainly learn from it with regard to establishing collaboration.

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One thought on “Designing better collaborations

  1. I think that this sentence:
    “they are expected to understand everything – not at the end of the semester but immediately”
    identifies one of the key benefits of collaboration. In our off-line discussions about collaborative pracs for Distributed Systems, I’ve often noted that students realise that they don’t understand enough to answer the questions and have to remedy it IN THAT SESSION. They can’t put it off or pretend that they know it – or that they will “get it” in time for the exam.

    Really interesting post, thank you! Expect to see a riff on the key sentiment I mentioned here in my blog. 🙂

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