I was recently coordinating the final module of the thesis course at the bachelor’s in criminology at Lund University (RÄSA 02). Students need to write the thesis in groups of two, but many were against group work. The work was hybrid with They explained that group work often took more time than individual work, contradicting ideas and conflicts were common, and they did not see any major learning opportunities in this type of assignment. This illustrates the importance of teaching and learning that address the issues of motivation, meaning and structure in group work. In this case they were working online and in classroom. I had to improve the atmosphere in the classroom, with students being anxious about strict rules for academic writing, and being more worried about failing than ready to enjoy their thesis work. I was not sure how to address this issue, probably an earlier intervention in the course would have been ideal. Often in my teaching, I dedicate an important amount of time in the beginning of each course to build a collaborative learning environment, full of curiosity, respect for differences and diverse knowledges, providing spaces for students to lead in the learning process (inspired by the constructivist teaching philosophy).
In the ONL course, I listed to a lecture where Hróbjartur Árnason discussed collaborative learning in a collaborative way. He used something that can be called a sandwich model to allow for collaborative learning in the lecture in itself. He started with a question to all the participants, so we were active from the beginning and collaborating. Then he used a mind map where he could bring theory and concepts that were useful to answer to the questions we had as a group. He ended the session asking as for our main take aways. It was like a simple sandwich approach.
Going back to my current challenge in teaching, Hróbjartur Árnason recommended to open up the challenge to my students and discuss with them. Brown (2018) recommends allowing yourself as a teacher to be vulnerable in the teaching process, which is in line with a constructivist approach to teaching (Bada & Olusegun, 2015). I opened up to my students, told them about how I felt sometimes intimidated teaching in another language, saying that I understand also their fears and feelings of anxiety about the thesis, but that I was there together with their thesis supervisors to support their work. We had a round of sharing our feelings about the thesis work and I asked them to jointly reflect on avenues to reduce the anxiety and insecurity to be able to also enjoy the process of writing their thesis.
While the classroom atmosphere felt better, I still had to deal with the question of what to do with writing the thesis in peers. The easiest option would have been to simply say “this is what was mandatory and that this is how working life works”. But that would have taken away the possibility for students to get the best out of group work and in my experience working outside academia as the head of a unit, I have to deal with team members that did not get along taking an active role to create a good working environment. So, what could I do? Wlodkowski & Ginsberg (2017) dive into the key question of what are the drivers, pushes and motives in the process of learning. According to them motivation and learning are inseparable. They also suggest that motivation is strongly connected with meaning, in the sense that intrinsic motivation comes from the value we find in the learning process. How could I motivate my students to work in groups that added value into their thesis? I used a peer-to-peer learning exercise in a seminar where students had to present their thesis proposals. In zoom meetings, students were randomly put in groups of two and they took turns to present their thesis idea and receive constructive feedback from another student. I provided a one page document with guiding questions and time. My intention was to create a more collaborative environment to allow them to see with their own eyes the value of group work.
While originally five students did not want to work in peers, four of them changed their minds after the peer-to-peer learning exercise and only one was allowed to work alone (due to very special reasons). I provided them with additional tips and structure to facilitate the division of labour and be able to collect and analyse more empirical material, thus improving their time management. Many used google docs, where they can write at the same time and discuss ideas. While it is not perfect and I see that the time was not optimal, I believe I was able to solve some of the issues related to motivation and value in group work.
I often structured the learning process around collaborative learning, communities of practice inspired by Wegner’s work (1999) where groups work is a key component. There are of course many challenges, but in many ways the key is often in cultivating an atmosphere where students and teachers “listen to peers, respond to their questions, question their opinions, and share information” (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2013, p. 194). One way to foster these attitudes is to use some of the time in class for group work, the teacher can attend the seminars, provide guidance in the beginning about group work, let the students work in groups, answer questions, and then reflect at the end of the session. Group work can foster what Entwistle and Peterson call “formative assessment” focus on increasing students understanding and feedback (2004) rather than only focusing on the final grades.
Besides the tools I already was aware about (mural or jam board), I learn about:
From this weeks, I got inspired to use the idea about “communities of practice” to allow students to interact with others while writing their thesis. We could have communities about methods, about writing, about some theories. This could help them to not feel alone in the thesis process but also to allow to learn from previous year students. Collaborative learning in the online world brings many possibilities.