Balancing Group vs Individual Work

For over ten years now, my classroom has been setup for group work and talk. Currently, I have desks in groups of three and I reshuffle the groups after five class meetings using flippity. One of the courses I teach is called Honors Calculus. It is a differential calculus course that is an option instead of AP Calculus AB. What is typically done be the first week of December in the AB course takes us into May. This allows much more time to review algebra and trig ideas and to really dig into the mechanics and principles of Calculus. I don’t skimp on the level of analysis I ask for in this class, we just have more time to settle in. This year, after a conversation in the first trimester, I settled in to a routine where we have group quizzes – I write five versions of each quiz – but we have individual tests. My hope was that this would decrease the level of stress in the classroom, that it would increase the level of communication between the students, and that hearing multiple voices would increase the likelihood of ideas and techniques sticking with my students. What I have witnessed is that this process has decreased the level of stress overall because a handful of students just don’t worry much knowing that they are paired with confident kids who can carry them to the finish line, the level of conversation HAS increased, but only for a subset of the students who end up in the role of explainer, and ideas are NOT sticking. Mistakes made in November are still being made. Skills practiced (or at least skills that have been available for practice) are not embedded. On our most recent individual test about 15% of my kids did not recognize the need to use the product rule when taking the derivative of a product. I have asked a variation of the exact same question for the last three tests and there is no noticeable improvement in answering that question.

There is another feature of our class that is at play here. In the 2017 – 2018 academic year our department adopted a test corrections policy that I wrote about previously. For the 2018 – 2019 academic year the department voted down this policy. I had spent a considerable amount of time and energy promoting this policy and talking about its importance in the learning process. In the wake of this decision I reached an uneasy compromise with the two courses where I am the only instructor. They can review a test when it is returned and they can reassess on up to three questions from that test with the possibility of earning up to half of the credit they missed. There was a lot of debating in my mind and with my students before we arrived at this imperfect solution. This was in place before the conversation with Calc Honors about group quizzes. Looking back, I feel that the combination of group quizzes AND opportunities to reassess provides too much of a sense of safety net and many of my students are pretty clearly not preparing themselves too carefully or they are simply not practicing much. With the level of practice opportunities provided/the number of times to talk together in class/the class conversations led by me with examples and old assessments offered as practice/etc. I simply should not be seeing the test performances I am seeing. I am clearly complicit in all of this due to the decisions I made about assessment and the decision I have made not to collect or check HW practice. In my last post I thought out loud about the idea of frequent, low stakes, skills-based check in assessments. Had a great twitter chat last night with the #eduread crew (prompted in large part by this article ) and I went to sleep convinced that I need to incorporate some of these ideas into this course next year. I also need to remove the added layer of reassessment, it has not worked in conjunction with the group quizzes. I think I probably still need group quizzes separate from the check-in layer of ways for me to see progress AND as ways for kids to feel that they can buffer their grade with legitimate skill progress. I hope that the combination sends a couple of important messages about what I value. I really (REALLY) like the conversations that do happen in the group quizzes. I am more than willing to write multiple versions of quizzes so that conversations can happen out loud without worrying about giving away information. Our discipline, I think, allows this more easily than some others might. I do not want to collect HW daily for all sorts of reasons, but I think that frequent low stakes check ins send a message about the importance of mastery of topics. I think that I need to adjust my problem sets so that they feature more reminders of topics. My kids know how to take derivatives with the product rule. They probably need to be periodically reminded of it in a more tangible way. I also wonder about balance in point values between these three ways of assessing and reporting on my students’ progress. I do not want to retreat into a mode where I am scaring (or bribing) my students, but I do think I need to be more clear and explicit about what I value and balance it accordingly when/where I can.

As always, any words of wisdom here or over on the twitters (where I am @mrdardy) are much appreciated.

3 thoughts on “Balancing Group vs Individual Work”

  1. This whole constellation of behaviors is one of the reasons why I am liking my whole-class skills quizzes more and more. Their GRADE is an average of everybody’s individual score, but their individual results provide formative assessment feedback to them on their personal level of understanding.

    The idea of the whole-class quiz is a community-based one. As a class, our goal is to get EVERYBODY over the finish line. That realigns the incentives leading up to the assessment event. If you need help, your responsibility to the community is to do your best as a learner. If you have understanding and are able to give help, then your responsibility to the community is to share your understanding and support the learning of others.

    I’ve been amazed — and really moved — at how this has changed the culture of opportunity hoarding in my classroom. I really like the values it is promoting because they are much more aligned with the values I believe we should be teaching. It also has pushed agency and authority downward, which is good because I am no longer the sole source of authority in the room.

    I wonder if this approach might not encourage your students to help each other to solidify their learning. I also wonder if this might help you to avoid having to have assessments (higher stakes) so often that they become numbing.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for sharing this thinking out loud.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    1. Elizabeth – first off, thanks for dropping by. My head is spinning thinking about this idea of yours. A couple of early thoughts here, first off is I wonder about my admin response to this idea. We have a very grade driven community of learners and parents here and I am worried about pushback. I suppose that one way to address that is by balancing weights in an appropriate way. Second, I am thinking of a structure with escalating weights (a) Very frequent five minute check-ins on current skills, then (b) group quizzes, then (c) cumulative tests. When/where do you think the conversation should be about a class average grade? The check ins, as I am envisioning them, feel too short in time and the quizzes are already collaborative in nature. Perhaps I need to refine my vision for one, or all, of these categories.
      I would love to hear how you set this up and what the response has been of your dept colleagues and admins.

      1. I teach in one of the most competition-minded public high schools in the country and I do not say that as a *good* thing. This is why shaking up the incentive structure has been powerful.

        At first, I had some very competitive students who pushed back this idea and asked why THEY had to share their understanding when THEY already understood things.

        I told them very calmly that THEIR educational experience is always going to be richer and more interesting if they are surrounded by the most capable possible peers. We need to enrich the community’s understanding if we really want to enrich our own understanding.

        If all they want is to feel superior to other learners, then my class is not going to be a good place for them. I told them they needed to try it.

        After the first day of this kind of work on whole-community skills, several of my most resistant students came up to me and told me, I totally get it now about what you were saying about this. I think it is a healthy approach.

        The only way to change the incentive structure of your classroom culture is to change the incentive structure of your classroom. If the only thing that gets measured is the sorting of individuals, then that is the outcome you are going to get. But my theory is that if what you measure is the collective proficiency of the room, then you can cause that to become a much more valued outcome of your collective work together.

        I also struggle with a LOT of students and families who culturally value speed of individual attainment over anything else. But I find this to be a shallow, greedy, unhealthy, and unwise basis for motivation and assessment. By refusing to take this bait, I am also living my values and working to create a more equitable environment.

        I haven’t had any families push back against this framework yet, hopefully because it is wise, consistent, and more fair. But I will let you know when the inevitable squeaky wheel pipes up.

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