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Brain Dump about Promoting Collaborative Work in Physics I

January 31, 2015

This semester I am back to teaching first-semester physics. One thing I have noticed about myself this year is how much more direct I am with students about my expectations for collaborating in groups and for the quality /care that should go into whiteboards.

Beyond just communicating expectations more explicitly, I am assessing more and intervening as necessary. I have noticed myself deploying three different kinds of interventions:

– Discussing with students that collaborating over intellectual work is a skill that one develops with practice and that it’s a specific goal I have for them. In these conversations, I’m not only reiterating expectations and communicating that I am serious but I am trying to situate it within a growth mindset. I try to be sympathetic but firm with students here. When I see them making efforts or progress here, I specifically let them know they what I am seeing.

– Modeling and providing specific talk moves. There is a range here, but a common one I model and give them is simply for one person to verbalize their thinking and then someone else has to either affirm (agree) and say why, or ask a question back about what they said, or disagree and give reasons. Often times I do this after I’ve helped facilitate such a dialogue. For example, I’ll ask one student to explain something and then reflect that back to the group. Another student agrees and I probe them to say why. Then I’ll recap what happened with group, pointing out the good contributions that each made, and talk about how they could have that same conversation without me.

– Making analogies to help students get in the right mindset for noticing each other’s bids for collaboration and being kind to reciprocate. The two I’ve been using are dancing and conversation with a friend. The friend analogy that has come up is when you are really trying to get something across to your friend and then all they say back is, “yeah” or “ok”, and you sort of feel like, “well they don’t even really care, or weren’t even listening.” We talk about how a good friend conveys they were listening and that they care by stating back the gist of what was said, and by perhaps affirming or acknowledging parts of the story. The dancing analogy has mostly been about how it takes more than one person to dance, and that both partners have to be attentive to each other to make it go smoothly. After this conversation, I might walk by a group and notice a student verbalize their thinking and no one looking up from their own work, and just say in passing, “Wyatt is asking someone to dance…”

Some students have told me that they are not talkative, implying that it’s a burden or just won’t happen. I realize that there are differences between introverts and extroverts, and a lot of our classrooms can favor extroverts. But I have introverted students who quietly and productively collaborate with each other, so… ?? What I’ve been telling students is that I’m not asking them to jabber jaw or to just be chatty. I’m asking them to practice the skill of talking as you engage in collaborative intellectual work. I negotiate with some groups about the balance between “think, then talk” vs “talk as thinking”. We’ve also talked about how sometimes you need to say, “hold on hold on, I need to think about this for a second.” So far, listening to students concerns, negotiating forms of engagement, while holding my ground, has gone well with students.

Overall, each day we’ve been making incremental progress, but yesterday seemed like a lot of groups passed a threshold, where they are naturally and enjoyably engaging in intellectual work with each other. I had a dozen students staying after class ended to continue working on physics problems, and the quality of work and collaboration made me think that these students could easily be mistaken for physics majors.

I’ll keep tending to the fire.

And I definitely have one group that is not clicking well. I’ll need to devote some time to observing them as they work.

And I need to build in some time where students have choices about how to work–by themselves, with others, on paper, on whiteboards, etc.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. vsawtelle permalink
    February 4, 2015 11:01 pm

    Brian, I don’t know if I’ve told you this directly, but I appreciate your blog so much! I have gotten lots of really good practical ideas from reading, sifting, and reflecting on your posts. Thank you for making this public and sharing your thoughts!

    • February 15, 2015 3:03 pm

      Hey Vashti, thanks for the encouragement to keep writing. 🙂

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