There are many ways to incorporate discussion groups or teams into the course, including think-pair-share, team-learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, jigsaw method, simulations, gaming, and service-learning (7, 8). These techniques differ from one another, but all are valuable in promoting good learning opportunities. The primary consideration in choosing a specific approach is the learning objective you are pursuing. For example, the think-pair-share process is a very effective technique for increasing communication among students and for having students learn concepts from one another. The jigsaw method increases both cooperation and an appreciation for the value of interdependence. Problem-based learning requires students to work through real-life applications and demonstrates that many problems have multiple solutions. Service-learning shows how specific content within a course may be applied to directly benefit society. A benefit to all these methods is the instilling of cooperation and loyalty among team members.
The following hints provide a foundation for the effective use of discussions or teamwork.
Present good scenarios; ask good questions. To ask students to work together to discuss relatively easy knowledge-based questions will typically result in a simple division of labor without any meaningful discussion. The issue or problem should challenge the groups and demonstrate that there are no easy answers within the area of study.
Be clear about expectations. Some group tasks are ill-defined; others have a more specific structure. Regardless of process, the concept of the task and the expected outcome should be understood by all before beginning.
Monitor progress as appropriate. In some cases this will mean remaining in the room and listening in on groups as they work. For other assignments, monitoring progress might mean checking in periodically to ensure the group is on schedule and also to address any challenges they are facing. Be prepared for confusion at times and assist with clarifying procedural points.
Be willing to adjust. Group and team work introduces additional uncertainty into the course, which is very good at times, but may also take the group in unproductive ways that will greatly hurt the final product. Therefore, be ready to get groups back on task if they stray from the essence of the task at hand.
Monitor input from yourself carefully. Ask questions of the groups as they proceed, but be careful NOT to be drawn into the discussion. The “effortful” part of group work is their work to do.
Make the groups accountable for their results. They may hand in a summary of the problem or “report out” to the entire class, depending on the size of your class and the amount of time you have available. You could certainly also have one or two groups report out and all turn in a summary. The point is they must document work accomplished. Without accountability groups quickly learn they can get by without doing the work.