How do you get the most out of efforts to learn? If you’re like me, this question arises in the context of beginning-of-semester planning. I want to increase student learning in my courses. But there are plenty of other contexts in which the intellectual fruits can be more or less abundant. Think of those in the boardroom attempting to learn the lessons of a shareholder survey, or those in the clinic trying to grasp new protocols for patient care. These are all groups of learners, and it would behoove those of us charged with instruction to think about how to best help them learn.
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There are gains in learning to be harnessed from putting minds together. With some forethought and planning, a group can become much more than the sum of its parts. Working together can yield insights no individual group member could have discovered all on their own and engender enthusiastic momentum that carries projects and inquiries forward. This post highlights three strategies for cultivating a learning environment with just these sorts of benefits.
Keep the tube in the family room. Research has repeatedly shown that children with a TV in their bedroom weigh more, sleep less, and have lower grades and poorer social skills. P.S. Parents with a television in their bedroom have sex less often.
Let’s begin by noticing that, whether we’re talking about a class or a cohort, we’re talking about a group of learners, oftentimes a rather large one. The first strategy is to break larger groups into smaller ones of approximately three to five members. The second strategy is to structure these small groups’ tasks so that everyone is actively engaged in the learning process. These strategies are supported by the pedagogy literature.
There is a growing body of evidence that active learning techniques improve student learning outcomes in a variety of disciplines. The basic takeaway is that when students take an active role in their learning—when they do things like break into small groups to collaboratively solve an equation or to critically analyze a policy proposal—they exhibit greater retention of the information, increased enthusiasm about the subject matter, improved ability to apply what they’ve learned to novel contexts, and more.
The contrast here is with traditional, lecture-based instruction. Think of it as the difference between a classroom where the instructor is standing behind a podium, talking through PowerPoint slides and one where the instructor is walking around, eavesdropping on small groups of students, encouraging their progress, answering their questions, prompting further reflection, and then calling the class back together to discuss the solution each group has arrived at and why.
The Psychology of "Othering"
Active learning works. But it’s not enough to just break students into groups and give them a task. You need to structure student engagement. This is especially important when considering the benefits of an inclusive classroom. It’s good practice, of course, to make sure you know everyone’s name. But familiarity does not a successful classroom make. Even an instructor who knows everyone’s name, and some personal details to boot, may fail to effectively get everyone involved.
Tina Fey (mom to daughter Alice): “I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible - oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”
Hence, the importance of structure. Students need explicit, clear, and digestible directions when assigned group tasks. What, precisely, are they supposed to be talking about? How long will they talk about it? What role will they play in the discussion (note-taker, debater, listener, respondent)? Will they take turns speaking? Should they introduce themselves first? The more explicit the instructions, the better; visual and verbal cues are good. In this way, you can encourage quiet students, who might otherwise stay silent, to speak up and feel comfortable doing so. You can guard against a single individual dominating the discussion. You can provide space for everyone to listen attentively to their peers’ contributions.
When done correctly, active, inclusive student engagement in the classroom increases learning. There is good reason to think that these benefits would accrue in other contexts as well. Consider, for example, employee training sessions. Using active learning techniques and developing a structure that promotes inclusiveness can help trainees better retain the information they’re being presented with, as well as better motivate them to implement new strategies and procedures.
Or consider attempts at group problem-solving in a corporate setting. Clear articulation of the problem to be solved, along with explicit guidelines for how to structure the group and its activity, can contribute to greater success. It can also help to harness the benefits that come with the diverse perspectives that make up the group.
This brings us to a third ingredient for maximizing learning outcomes in a group context: diversity. There are different types of diversity. On the one hand, there is “cognitive diversity”—people have different sets of information, different amounts and types of knowledge, different mental models, and so on. On the other hand, there is “identity diversity”—people are of different races, sexes, genders, ages, physical abilities, and so on. These two types of diversity are not entirely separable and interact in important ways. For example, people of different identities often have different life experiences, which will provide them with different sets of background information. But cognitive diversity is not reducible to identity diversity, and vice versa.
"We spend the first 12 months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up."- Phyllis Diller
There is good reason to think that cognitive diversity is a key ingredient to getting the most out of group collaborations. The basic idea is this: We can think of cognitive diversity in terms of people having different tools in their kit to bring to bear on a given task. When the task requires a set of tools that outstrips what any one person could amass, then a group that includes members whose toolkits contain a greater variety of relevant tools will outperform one that includes members with more homogenous toolkits.
There are many such tasks, including solving complex problems, designing social policies, and conducting research. The “diversity bonus” is, then, something that may be harvested in a broad range of contexts, including the classroom, the boardroom, or even the clinic. And the notion of a "diversity bonus" would seem to apply to learning as well as innovation . This is especially so in contexts where the subject matter is complex, requiring a great deal of background information and prior knowledge, or where the problem under discussion is one for which there is no widely accepted correct answer, such as issues of public policy. These are precisely the types of topics likely to crop up in the college classroom or corporate retreat.
A new study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking examined Instagram use and drinking patterns in young adults between the ages of 18 to 29. The only group in which heavy Instagram use was associated with heavier drinking was in people who experienced a strong sense of belonging to their peer group.
In addition to attending to the structure of a group’s work, it pays to attend to the group’s composition. This is the third strategy for creating a better learning environment. An inclusive group of actively engaged members will tend to bear intellectual fruits that go beyond those of a group dominated by a single member. But those fruits will grow even more abundant still if the group is composed of members that complement each other in ways that enrich the overall set of tools at the group’s disposal.
Building confidence. Use descriptive praise to build confidence. An example would be “I like the way you picked up your toys. You’re so helpful,” instead of “that’s great.” Praise strengths unrelated to talking as well such as athletic skills, being organized, independent, or careful.
So, next time you plan a training session or class meeting, consider (1) breaking the class or cohort into small groups (of approx. 3 to 5 members each), (2) composing these groups so that each one is cognitively diverse, and (3) providing them with explicit directions aimed at making space for and encouraging everyone’s active engagement in the learning process. As you facilitate the learning during your time together, see if you can feel the excitement as everyone reaps the increased abundance of the intellectual fruits of their labor.