Flipping A & P: The Drama of Collaboration

Image by Colleen Roxas

It’s that time of the semester again, group assessment time.  I’m hoping it will resolve some of the group drama that I’ve been pulled into.

When I first started flipping my classes, I decided that my students would work collaboratively in groups.  I had been having trouble getting the students to participate in classroom discussions with me and I was hoping they would be more willing to talk to each other.  Boy, do they!  It can get very loud in my class sometimes.  As long as they’re mostly talking about Anatomy and Physiology, that’s a great thing.

During my first flipped semester I formed student groups based on where the students were sitting in one class and randomly in another class.  I would like to be able to say I did this on purpose to see which worked better, but it just happened by coincidence.  I thought that grouping students by where they sat would be random.  I know better now.  And it quickly became clear that a true random assortment worked much better than student selected groups.

Students sat with their friends and the classroom was segregated by type of student.  Students in the front row were go-getters and the back corners were filled with students trying not to be noticed.  I ended up with several super-groups and several flailing groups. Surprisingly to me, the self-selected groups had little drama.  They quietly excelled or quietly floundered.  The randomly formed groups had all kinds of drama.  I was worried about this in the beginning, but I came to realize that groups with issues were passionate and passion is good.

Something I didn’t expect happened in the random groups. These groups would have one or two successful students and several mediocre students.  The mediocre students began to look to the good students for help and the good students were happy to give it.  They became role models to the struggling students.  They shared good study techniques and would keep the group focused.  The drama would start when students felt they were working harder than others in the group or someone was too controlling.  The temptation for me was to step in and separate the warring parties.  But I knew that one of the benefits of working in groups is to learn to resolve problems on your own.  I gave advice and asked them to stick it out one more week.  For several groups it took two weeks and more advice and not a few tears, but the groups would resolve their issues or at least come to a truce.  Interestingly, the groups with the most drama at the beginning usually ended up being the best groups by the end.  They fought because they cared.

I’ve since discussed my early group experience with faculty friends in the Communications department and they just nodded knowingly.  They gave me a lot of great advice and I have implemented two suggestions so far. The first one is to form the groups more purposefully.  I now create teams based on student preparedness for the class.  I’ll elaborate on that process in my next blog post.  The other idea is to assign peer assessments.  Each student must evaluate every other student in the group, including themselves, using a rubric.  They assign points to each other that represent how much they feel that student has contributed to the group.  The average of the points counts as one of their group work grades.  The most helpful aspect of this assessment is the constructive (but polite) comments they make about each other anonymously.  The students receive all the assessment information as feedback and the comments may be the most helpful to counter the drama.  Student cohesion really improves after the assignment.  I’m hoping it works this semester so I can hang up my mediator hat for a while.

Collaborative learning may be noisy and like a soap opera sometimes, but I think it has been the most successful part of my classroom flip.


Image by Colleen Roxas, http://www.simplyaesthetic.net