Forming Collaborative Groups for Online Teaching

Thinking classrooms is heavily predicated on students working on thinking tasks in collaborative groups. Our research showed that how we form these groups (visibly random and frequently) and the size of the groups (two for grades K-2; three for grades 3-12) has a big impact on how well these groups function. Forming random groups creates a situation wherein all students’ abilities are seen as equal and creates the possibility that all group members will be able to think and contribute their thinking to their group. Doing so frequently (about every 60 minutes) prevents leadership roles from calcifying.

The group size limits were a product of maintaining a balance between redundancy and diversity (Davis & Simmt, 2003)—elements needed in order for a group to be generative—while at the same time managing the logistics of social interaction. Redundancy, in this context, are things that a group of students have in common—language, interests, experiences, knowledge. Without these commonalities they cannot even begin to collaborate. But if all they have is redundancy, they will not achieve anything beyond what they enter the group with. To be generative, they also need diversity; the things that individual members of the group bring that are not shared by the others—different ideas, viewpoints, perspectives, representations, etc. The smaller the group the greater the redundancy—but the less the diversity. The bigger the group, the greater the diversity—but the less the redundancy. In f2f environments groups of three seems to have the perfect balance of redundancy and diversity. Although true for f2f environments, this is not true for online environments.

Anyone who has tried to create collaboration in an online environment, however, will know that groups of three often do not accomplish much. This is because these online environments are diversity depleting spaces. In order for diversity to have an effect it must be mobilized—students must share their varied ideas. In online environments, however, many students opt to not share their ideas with many even turning off their cameras and microphones. The diversity that may exist is lost to silence. This can be compensated for in two ways. First, increase the size of the groups. We found that groups of five or six students in an online environment has approximately the same amount of mobilized diversity as a group of three in a f2f environment. As your students get more comfortable with the environment and become more likely to share you can gradually pull back on the group size.

The second thing that you can do is give students time to work on the task on their own before entering the collaborative environment. In the f2f thinking classroom, this proved to create too much diversity for the groups to function well. But in the online environments, providing this time, seems to boost the diversity to a minimum functional level. Again, you can pull back on this as your students become comfortable in the online environment and are more likely to share their raw and untested ideas.

Thoughts? Examples? Stories?

2 Replies to “Forming Collaborative Groups for Online Teaching”

  1. Good suggestions that reinforce what I’ve seen in my virtual break-out rooms. Also, as you outline in Chapters 8 & 9 in your book, many of the behaviors we want displayed by students need to be modeled, taught and encouraged in this new space. TIME to task is also longer, as students become familiar with the random group members w/o being able to see them (Would love your thoughts on cameras on/off. I’m opposed to forcing it as I think it dampens participation in grades 6-8, rather than increasing it. Also, I think it’s more about us than them, but I could be wrong about that).
    I tend to hop around to groups, encouraging sharing of screens, assigning roles, etc. I’ve never been one to formally assign roles in my regular classroom, preferring to allow this to develop organically before I make suggestions. Virtual space also means this paradigm has shifted. When I ask who is presenting, I’m always faced with a student who has NEVER shared their screen in our platform, and doesn’t know how to do it. The learning curve in this space means students need more time, initially, to create collaborative groups.

    Students frequently get into their breakout rooms, then decide quickly to work alone, then come back together. By the time I get to all the groups this dynamic is difficult to break. I have to set parameters about how the groups should work BEFORE they go to breakout. Just like all else in a virtual environment, things I could correct in a quick glance around the room in person are herculean obstacles virtually.

    I took a page from the ‘random-ness’ of grouping in my room by sharing my screen when I created the groups and making a LOT of noise about how Google Meet allows me to randomly assign groups, then re-assign them with a click. I noticed a shift in their behavior and participation rates as soon as they witnessed this for themselves. It was startling.

  2. One day I forgot to explicitly remind my students to turn cameras on and microphones on …and it was a disaster! They were in breakout rooms, doing individual work. There was no way for me to get a sense of what was going on…

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