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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Group Work in Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here and for the  five step approach that I am using, see here.  Recent posts have focused on the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments. 

One of the biggest challenges in law school classrooms this fall will be figuring out how to have our students do collaborative work in class.  No matter what your teaching situation is, it will be difficult.  If you are teaching in a physically distanced classroom with students in masks and 6 feet away from each other, you will need to figure out how to get students to work together without shouting from across the room.  If you are teaching remotely, you need to figure out how to use breakout groups effectively.  These are very different challenges, but I know they are on people’s minds these days.  Here are some tips for doing group work in these two classroom settings.

Group Work in a Physically Distanced Classroom

Group work will definitely be challenging in physically distanced classes.  There aren’t any easy ways to allow five students to work together in class when they can’t get within six feet of each other.  Yet, it would be a shame if we abandoned group work entirely this fall.  With all of the new health requirements, we already feel more distant from each other, so we need to find ways to connect in our classes, and group work is a good way to do that.

So how do we do it?  I’ve been in a fair number of physically distanced classrooms lately (one of the “perks” of being an associate dean…), and I think think-pair-share will still work.  Even at six feet apart, students can still talk to the person next to them fairly easily and then share their thoughts with the whole class.  If the groups get bigger than two students though, it gets harder, especially as everyone raises their voices to be heard across the six foot distances.  So we can do group work in class as long as we limit the groups to two or perhaps three people. 

Alternatively, we can try group annotation.  I was skeptical of this option at first – I’ve seen too many online learning books that suggest having students “talk” to each other in a chat box or google doc, which just seems weird, at least if the expectation is that they will engage in complex work through these techniques.  But I think it feels less forced if students are working collaboratively to edit or comment on a single document.  So, for example, you might give groups of three or four students a copy of an operating agreement or complaint and let them edit it together, through comment boxes or redlining.  I wouldn’t overuse this technique, but I could see it being helpful for a 10-15 minute exercise. 

Finally, we can move the group work outside of class.  This approach is admittedly contrary to the idea of in-person classes, but it also reflects the reality that physically distanced classrooms are just different from traditional classrooms and we need to adapt to that.  Perhaps you lecture a bit more in class and then move the group exercise to a set time out of class.  Or you put students in assigned groups and let them come up with their own time to meet.  If you do that, you need to adjust the other work they are supposed to do outside of class so you’re not overwhelming them, but it could work for those group exercises where you really want them to talk with each other.

Now what may not work -- I don’t think we can do Zoom breakout groups while everyone is in the same physical classroom.  I originally thought this was the perfect solution.  Just have everyone log into Zoom while in class (perhaps wearing headphones) and then you can send them all into breakout groups to talk to each before resuming an in-person discussion with the full class.  But we tried it in our classrooms here, and the feedback from all of the mics on all of the computers was loud and drowned out everything else.  That said, I’ve heard from professors at other schools who have been told by their tech team that this option can work.  If you’ve tried it successfully, let me know your secret -- I'd love to try it in my classes!  Either way, though, if this is your plan, you definitely want to test it ahead of time.

Group Work in Remote Courses

This is one area where remote courses are definitely superior to physically distanced ones.  Group work is just a lot easier on Zoom or a similar platform where you can send the students into breakout rooms.  But as many of us learned this year, it is hard to keep students on task in breakout rooms.  It’s easy for them to start talking about their weekend rather than the assignment.  So how can we design breakout groups to enhance student learning? 

Discuss shared norms.  Breakout rooms are new for all of us, so students may not know how to work in them productively.  It’s worth having a discussion about the group’s shared norms at the start of the semester.  Discuss ways that groups can get off track and how to address them.

Clear deliverables.  This one is key.  Don’t send students into breakout groups to “discuss” a topic.  Instead give them an assignment with a clear deliverable that they have to turn in at the end.  For example, you might have a specific question they need to answer when they return to the full discussion.  Or you can have ask them for their top three thoughts on a given topic.  I have used Google Forms in the past where students need to fill in their takeaways and then submit it in the assigned time. 

Assign students different roles.  Another way to add structure to the breakout groups is to assign students to play specific roles in the breakout groups.  One student is the moderator who is tasked with getting the discussion going and keeping it on task.  Another student is the reporter who will have to share the group’s output with the rest of the class.  I also assign students to be the devil’s advocate to ask hard questions and push the discussion deeper. 

Make the prompts visible.  I’ve been in too many breakout groups where the first five minutes are consumed with questions about what exactly we are supposed to be doing.  Make the task clear, and give them a written summary that they can refer back to when they are in the breakout rooms.  The easiest way to do this is to cut and paste the prompt into the chat.  I’ll often have a word document ready to go with the specific text I plan to paste into the chat.  Alternatively, if you want them to refer to slides in their groups, you can have an email to the class set to go with just the relevant slides or you can post them in your learning management system perhaps in a section called “Materials for Today’s Class.”  Either way, remember that any slides you have screenshared before sending students into breakout groups won’t be visible in the groups, so you can’t just rely on screen sharing to share the prompt.

Monitor group progress.  Zoom allows you to visit breakout groups, but I personally think it is disruptive when the professor suddenly appears in the room.  A different approach is to have students document their work in a Google Doc that they share with you.  You might send them a link to a single google doc in the chat that includes links to other google docs named for each group (i.e., “click here to go to group 1’s workspace.”).  That’s a bit tricky to set up logistically, but once you get into a rhythm, I don’t think it will be that hard, and you can then monitor the group’s work in real time. 

Name the Groups.  Consider naming the breakout groups, as laid out here.  This name will show up in the left hand corner of the groups’ screen, so they can easily see it.  Naming the groups has a few clear benefits.  First, if the groups have different tasks, it will let them know which tasks they are responsible for, preventing a “wait, are we the plaintiffs or the defendants in this exercise?” moment.  Second, if you are using google docs to direct them to a group workspace as explained above, it will tell them which workspace is theirs.  Third, it will allow you to direct questions to specific groups when the class gets back together again. 

Pre-Assign Groups.  Zoom lets you assign students to groups manually or randomly.  I used random assignment in the spring, but this fall, I plan to put students into assigned groups that they stick with for a few class sessions, mostly to let them get to know each other a bit better.  Rather than assigning groups on the fly during class, which always feels stressful, I will use the pre-assign feature in Zoom.  Full disclosure – I’ve been using this feature this summer, and it’s really glitchy, bringing maybe 50 percent of the students into the assigned rooms – but it’s still easier to start with pre-named rooms and some of the students already assigned than to do everything during class while the students are waiting. 

Use a Timer:  Zoom has the option to set a timer for the breakout rooms that shows students how much time is left in the groups.  It is easy to enable, and it helps focus the conversation as time is running out. 

In my next post, I will talk about how to incorporate community-based learning into physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses.

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 29, 2020 at 12:32 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


For the group commenting/annotations in a document, I suggest using Perusall.com. I recently published an essay on how I used it for my Property class pre-virus (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3558169) and it’s been that much more useful since.

Posted by: Tim McFarlin | Aug 1, 2020 3:06:57 PM

Last semester, I had frequent breakout groups over zoom in one of my courses, and followed the pop-in-and-out strategy. It didn't seem that my doing so was disruptive (in the sense that my students didn't pause, get distracted or even remark on my presence when I appeared in a room---and a couple times the students acted as if they weren't sure whether or not I was really there). I think the key is to pop in and out as quietly as possible, with camera and video off, and only interrupt if the students really need redirection.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jul 29, 2020 5:28:38 PM

Thanks, Jessica. These are great suggestions. One thing to note on the group work in a distanced setting, given aerosol transmission. The louder students have to speak to be heard, the more aerosols they emit. Also, more students speaking mean more aerosols are emitted. To me, these counsel even further against group work in a socially distanced, masked classroom, as they increase risk in addition to being impractical. I agree with you that group work works better in a remote classroom.

Posted by: Angela Walch | Jul 29, 2020 12:47:05 PM

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