Cooperative Learning

This reflection was written as a response to a B. Ed. assignment.

 

Expectations

This lesson took place near the end of my time with the two grade 9 Academic classes I was teaching at Humberside Collegiate. I had taught the entire unit on solving equations and word problems, and there was a period allocated on the schedule for review before the test. I felt I had a good rapport with the students, and wanted to try a large-scale co-operative learning lesson with them. Although my mentor teacher would have just assigned questions and given them a work period, she didn’t mind me trying something different.

The expectation from the Ontario curriculum being covered by this review was “solve first-degree equations, including equations with fractional coefficients, using a variety of tools (e.g.., computer algebra systems, paper and pencil) and strategies (e.g., the balance analogy, algebraic strategies)”.

The Tournament Format

The students had adapted well to strategies such as numbered heads and working and presenting in groups during the unit, so I was reasonably sure they could handle the more complex tournament activity I was introducing. The social expectation I wanted to focus on was good sportsmanship during competition part of the tournament. Students had worked relatively well together in groups during the unit, although keeping some groups on task was sometimes a challenge. For those students, I expected the tournament to engage them; but I was afraid that it would engage them too much, and they would become overly competitive and perhaps even get carried away enough to try and cheat on the tournament questions.

The tournament activity comes from the book “Cooperative Learning: Where Heart meets Mind”, by Barrie Bennett. Students are placed in co-operative groups where they review material, then move to competitive groups where they answer questions in turn to earn points. At the end of the tournament, students return to their co-operative groups to total up the group’s score.

Both the co-operative and competitive groups were groups of 3 students. I had previously done a socio-metric survey of the students, as described in the Stan Shapiro’s book Classrooms That Work. Students assumed that I had selected the groups according to who they said they wanted to work with, and I didn’t correct them. I did avoid putting together students who didn’t want to work in groups together, but in actuality the groups were assembled according to their marks in the course to date. Each co-operative group had a high, average, and low mark student in it. The competitive groups, on the other hand, were homogeneous groups with all three students having a similar rank in the class.

Each co-operative group was given three questions to work through as a review. Then, students moved into their competition groups, and had 20 minutes to work through another series of review questions. In each group, the A person asked the first question, and B answered it. Then B asked C the next question, C asked A the third question, and so forth until all questions were answered or the time was up.

The Lesson Flow

I started the lesson by taking up the previous day’s homework in a structure the students were familiar with. While volunteers put the answers on the board, I circulated to check off who had done their homework, make sure everyone was participating, and answer a few questions where necessary.

I started off the activity by explaining that we were going to have a tournament, but they would get to review in groups first. I had prepared one sheet for each group ahead of time, with the student names listed. The first student (alphabetically) was responsible for getting their group together and leading them through the review. I circulated to make sure they were going through the questions and how to solve them with their groups. Each student got a sheet with a copy of the review questions, which they could also use to review for the test at home.

The tournament itself was intended to be a bit like a game show, with students asking each other questions and listening to the answers to see if they were correct. This gave everybody an opportunity to think about how they would answer the questions. The competitive groups were listed on the same sheet as the cooperative groups, so the groups re-formed and started the competition.

About ten minutes before the end of class, I called a halt to the activity and got the students to add up their marks, then declared a winner. Students then put their desks back in place before going to their next class.

Reflection

I did this activity with two classes in the same day; one with 20 students and the other with 29. Fortunately the day’s schedule allowed me to try the activity with the smaller class in the morning, and the larger class in the afternoon.

In the first group, students got excited by the activity and were interested in the competition aspect. In fact, their excitement meant that it was difficult to get their attention once they had started. This was a problem since I had not given all the instructions at the beginning. Because a few students were away, I had to dynamically change some of the groups to try and have three students in each group. Two of the students who ended up in a group did not know each other previously, but turned out not to work together well at all.

Handing out sheets of paper to students seems like the simplest part of a lesson, but I realized during this activity how many ways it can go wrong. With the first class I handed out the instruction sheets as they walked in, so they could get familiar with the rules and what we were going to do. This unfortunately backfired, as they started talking excitedly about who was or wasn’t in their group, and it was difficult to quiet them down. I handed out the review questions during the lesson, but since the review questions were on the back of the instruction sheet, students didn’t realize that they were supposed to have their own copy. I should have had a pile on the desk for students to take on their way out.

The questions for this type of activity have to be short and punchy to keep the game flowing well. I did start telling the students to work on the questions simultaneously to save time, rather than A asking B and A and C just watching B work on the one question. However, this removed the benefit of getting to see someone else work on a problem to reinforce in the students’ minds how they would do it themselves. Questions could be shorter, possibly by having students just do one step of a problem. For example, students could just create the equation for a world problem.

My question sheet had two errors – one question mentioned a “square” garden, then gave different lengths and widths; another mentioned a “sheet of paper” that had a size that was not 8.5” by 11”, which threw off a surprising number of students.

As students entered the class for the second period with this activity, they were exceptionally rowdy (they were always noisy when entering the class). I had to be quite stern with them to get them to quiet down, even more than usually. It set the wrong tone for the period, and I wondered if the social expectations of this group were at a high enough level to handle the complex activity that was planned. It did turn out to be very difficult to move them from one stage to the other – to get into their cooperative groups, then into their competitive groups, then back to the cooperative groups to get their team score. In the future I will be more aware that two different groups of students may be at a different level socially as well as mathematically, and that activities may have to be modified as a result. There is no reason I need to present the same activity the same way for two different classes.

One way of handling the second class could have been to put them back into their regular rows for the competition part of the tournament. This has the benefit of simulating the test and helping some students start to get over their test anxiety, but takes away the benefit of seeing other students answering questions.

In the second period, we ran out of time, and did not get through all the competition questions. In general, because competition groups were grouped according to ability, one or two groups tended to be finished first. Those groups should be given an extra round or two of bonus questions to answer on their review sheets.

Although my reflection after the class focused mainly on things to improve for next time there were some very rewarding parts of this activity. Several students who were not very strong academically excelled in organizing their co-operative group, asking another student “how do you do this one?” and then checking to see if every student in the group understood. I didn’t observe any student not wanting to answer questions in their competitive groups, so I believe grouping them according to ability worked well. Students who would have done well on the test in any case got to show some leadership skills, and all the other students got help from two other classmates (in their cooperative group) and two more (in the competitive groups).

I will definitely use this type of complex activity in the future, after building up to it through the teaching of other social expectations.


Bibliography

 

Bennett, B., Rolheiser, C. and Stevahn, L. (1991) Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind, Educational Connections, Ontario.

Shapiro, S. and Skinulis, K. (2000). Classrooms That Work: A Teacher’s Guide to Discipline Without Stress. Practical Parenting, Ontario.

 

 

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