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Pop Quiz: Getting Good Groups

Recently we received this question from C^2:

I taught a lab class (college physics) for the first time last semester.  I noticed that my one female student would always let the male students do the setup/assembly, and she would watch and/or take data.  Given that I don’t have enough lab equipment to give every student their own setup, I would appreciate any suggestions for how to give my female students the motivation/permission? to jump in and help do stuff.  The only thing I’ve thought of so far is to assign all the female students next semester to all-female groups.  But that seems like avoiding an underlying issue that I don’t know how to address.  Thoughts from the community at School of Doubt?

I teach a lab based Physical Science course in 9th grade at a public school.  This is not the same environment, but I think there are some universal truths that come from any lab based course or for that matter group work in general.

First, effectively working in groups is a skill and students come to class with various levels of ability with this skill.  Like many skills learned in lab it is transferable to other situations so I feel that it is never wasted time to explicitly teach how to work in a group.

How I do this is in my pre-lab talk about safety and common mistakes I add that there should never be a time when you are standing there doing nothing.  During the lab as I am walking around asking leading questions about the lab, I praise those groups who are working effectively.  When I see a person not participating I often ask, “So what is your roll in the group?”  If they shrug and don’t know I offer a suggestion, often it is: are you sure they are putting the equipment together correctly? Why don’t you double check to make sure or why don’t you read ahead so that you know what comes next and your group can continue to the next step right away. After the lab with the closing of the class as I do the normal reminders about due dates I also ask the groups that worked well together to say what was effective.  As a rule I do not point out groups that did not work well together.

Another thing I like to do is to mix up the groups and pushing the class out of their comfort zone.  You can then have one lab of single gender groups and then labs of mix gender groups.  This might be chaotic at first, but my students get used to coming to the lab, looking at the board to see which lab station they are working at and with whom.  I like to get each person the opportunity to work with every other person in the class, though this technique might be difficult if not impossible if a lab group is assigned a particular set of equipment for the entire semester.

The last thing I do is directly address negative group behavior to groups or individuals privately.  In your situation I might ask the female student why she never sets up the equipment, and/or ask the lab group why this is the case.  It might be that no one thought about it, and honestly didn’t notice.  It might also be that the female student really wanted to be more active, but was too shy, or she felt her partners actively shut her out.   It might be that one person is really assertive and has trouble letting anyone else affect something that might impact their grade.  It might be that your female student is afraid of making a mistake or of breaking something.  It is when you know the reason behind the behavior that you can most effectively alter it.

My last suggestion is the down and dirty kluge, “I noticed this and don’t have time to address it fully”.  I’ll tell the female student (or any student on the periphery) I will give you 5 bonus points if you assemble the equipment, and to her partners I say I’ll give you 5 bonus points if you are helpful and supportive as she does it. For me 5 points is a drop in the bucket of a semester grade, but for my students any whiff of extra credit tends to be a huge motivator.  This might be the little push that the whole group needs to be more equitable.

So what about you School of Doubters how do you address this issue?  How do you get that person who sits on the periphery of a group to become a full active member?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

Featured image Dorchester High School Science Class by A.H. Folsom – City of Boston Archives (Collection number 0420.027)

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.

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