Monday, December 9, 2013

An Interesting Idea

The basic idea is this: How to motivate students to help one another improve their understanding.

In our most recent department meeting, one of my colleagues described a group work system that he has been trying in his classes.  Here are some basics about the structure of our homework that I need to mention before I describe the system further:

- We have two-day homework.  That is, there is a day in between the lesson and the due date to allow for questions to be asked in class.
- Actual homework (what is done out of the book) is not part of students' calculated grade.  On the due date for an assignment, they take a short half-sheet quiz that we call a daily assessment, and their grade is based on the score they earn.  They may use their homework as a reference on daily assessments.
- If students have completed a short list (10-12 problems, usually) of "required" homework, they have the opportunity to retake their daily assessment to earn back lost points.  They have to complete some additional practice problems first.  We call the retakes "reworks".

At the start of a unit, my colleague creates groups of 3 to 4 students.  He puts one top student and one low-achieving student in each group, and tries to pick the other two students based on who might work well together.  On the day between the lesson and the daily assessment, he has these groups work on a few practice problems based on the previous day's lesson.  While students work on these, they often get their homework out to reference and compare, and many of the homework questions get answered within the groups.  So, while more time is spent in groups, there is a reduction in how much time is spent on homework questions as a class.

The especially interesting part of this group system is the incentive my colleague attaches to it.  He calculates each group's overall average grade at the start of the unit, and again at the end of the unit.  If a group's average rises between the start and close of the unit, he awards all of the members of that group extra credit points on their unit tests.

The great thing about this incentive is that it gives excelling students a good reason to help out the ones who are having difficulty.  After all, the students with the lowest grades are the ones that have the most room for improvement.  Alternatively, it's hard to bring a 98% up a whole lot.  Helping a struggling group member is the most promising way of earning those extra credit points.  Teaching is the great way to learn, so there's a benefit to the excelling students also.  My colleague says he has seen students taking an interest in each others' progress, and that group members begin holding one another accountable for doing their homework and doing reworks as needed.

I'm not a big fan of extra credit points in general, and I might be even less comfortable with adding them to test scores.  In some form or another, though, this sounds like a great idea.  Does anyone else out there have a good method for getting students to invest in each others' learning?

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