On Groups

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In my flipped general chemistry class we start off with a group quiz and continue with a worksheet, also performed in a group. The nature of the quizzes and the worksheets are important, sure, but so are the nature of the groups. This post is about handling the groups.

When I first started flipping, I was teaching a class of 80 students, which in my small chemistry department at a small state university is considered “large”. I was in a stepped classroom, with fixed tables that would seat four students. At the start of the class, I used the rows for groups. The groups were essentially assigned by however the students arranged themselves. The groups were enriched for groups of two or three friends that were coming to class together.

After the first exam, I had the bright idea to make groups that consisted of a student from each quartile of the class. So each group would have a good student, two middle students and a student from the bottom quartile of the class. At the time, I was giving each group a single worksheet and one person was in charge of filling it out. I did this mostly to cut down on the grading time. The room was a glorious roar of activity as the students chewed their way through the worksheets.

Bt the end of the semester, I had realized that only the best groups were making it to the end of the worksheets. For most of the class, this left significant swaths of information uncovered. I decided to give each students their own worksheet and require them to turn the worksheets in completed by the next class period. The roar of the classroom diminished by a factor of ten.

I soon realized what had been going on. When the groups only had a single worksheet, only the most motivated student would work. The other three would talk about football, deer hunting, or whatever until time ran out. When everyone had their own worksheet, everybody had a stake, and the frivolous talk went away. Lesson learned.

After that year, I was able to move into a smaller classroom, one that held about thirty-five students. For our small state school, this is a “normal” class size. I decided to assigned the groups by test score so that some groups were made up of the top-scoring students and some were of the poorest scoring students. The department had been talking about instituting a placement exam for the freshman chemistry students to allow us to screen out the totally unprepared and assign the less-prepared students to our non-majors chemistry class. I decided use a variation on that them, start the students off with a first-day quiz, and use that to do the initial assignments. The first-day quiz contained some math problems, some simple chemistry problems, and a logic problem. I used the scores to arrange the groups.

The flaw? There was little correlation between the first day quiz scores and ultimate (or even immediate) performance in the course. The quiz can measure basic skills, but it can't measure gumption. See Brand Tenn's post, Developing Grit. Of course, I didn't realize this until after the first couple of exams.

What to do? I started to rearrange the groups after the first exam, using the exam scores to make up the groups. The advantage of this was that I could get all the top students together and they could advance as fast and as far as they could. Having the poorer-performing students together isn't an entirely bad thing. They quickly discover that there isn't one “good” student who will do all the work. Sometimes these middle groups turn into learning machines as the students help each other. The other advantage of identifying the poorest performing students is that I know who they are and I can give them more attention in class.

There are some problems with using the first exam to guide group formation. One is that quite often the results on the first exam stem from prior knowledge. The students are running on their high school chemistry and aren't doing any work. When these students run out of high school savvy, the course, which had been easy, is suddenly hard. Then they have to discover a new work ethnic, one that contains actual study. Some do, some don't. So the first exam isn't a good predictor, either. One can rearrange the groups after every exam. Students, of course, hate this. Once they get used a group they are loathe to change. However, they do quickly settle down into their new groups. One might even consider this valuable experience in “teamwork”, which the state is always in a tizzy about.

After several years of coping with groups, here is what I am doing now. I still give a first-day quiz. I use it only to see if there are any students who can't do any math (see my recent post, It's That Chemistry Algebra, where I found a student who couldn't solve X – 2 = 0) and to lament the generally sorry preparation of students in math and chemistry.

Now, I initially arrange the groups by major. I lump the pre-professional students together with the honors students and form as many groups as I can. I find that by using the major as the guiding principle, I wind up with groups that internally have similar motivations. The pre-professional students are motivated by grades. The chemistry and biology majors sometimes show a little interest in the subject material. Most of the rest of the students don't want to be in the class, they are there because their major requires it. They are motivated by survival. This initial arrangement of groups by major works better than the other methods I've tried, but I'm still looking!

Other group caveats: groups that are all men don't usually work. The guys tacitly or explicitly decide that it isn't cool to be too interested in this academic stuff and so spend the whole class pushing their worksheets around the table trying to look busy while they shoot the bull. Three men in a group doesn't usually work either unless the woman is unusually motivated or outgoing. Groups with 2+ women, even groups of entirely women seem to work fine.

Groups can be derailed by the disgruntled student. I always get one or more students who are very unhappy with the flipped classroom. After all, I don't teach. (They equate lecturing with teaching.) An unhappy, vocal student can poison a group, sometimes even an entire class. I try to head this off in the beginning by explaining the ideas behind flipping and citing the success of the flipped classrooms compared to the non-flipped classes in our department.

I have not tried to micromanage the groups. That is, rearrange the groups as we go along depending upon the skills, motivations, and personalities of the individuals. Unfortunately it seems that by the time I can get a good feeling the individual qualities of the students in the class, the semester is over.

Occasionally, I find a smart, motivated student who can actually explain things to his or her co-conspirators. In the vernacular, we call these teachers and I wish I had one per group.

About the Author
John Osterhout received his B.S. in Biochemistry from Rice University and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. John was a member of the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge Massachusetts for thirteen years before moving to the University of Arizona. Since 2008 John has been Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. John's research interests are in protein folding, Trojan horse inhibitors for HIV and snake venom proteins. He teaches general chemistry and biophysical chemistry. John uses flipped classrooms for both courses.