Small Group Activities - Rationale and Tips

Physics curricula tend to have a spiral structure. The physical quantities used in upper division courses are usually introduced in lower division courses. Upper division students are expected to use these quantities to solve more abstract problems and to use more sophisticated mathematical techniques in their solutions. This leads to the situation where the students are assigned problems that get more complicated at a faster rate. In other words, the problems are probably further outside the students' ”zone of proximal development” than in lower division courses.

In many ways, this situation is desirable. It helps students develop the important problem solving skill of tackling problems that they don't immediately know how to solve, and to be comfortable trying to develop novel ways of solving problems. It can also lead to more discussion among students, because different students may contribute at different stages of the solution. It provides opportunities for students to learn how to ask productive questions. Complicated problems offer a variety of talking points and provide teachable moments for students with a range of ability.

In the classroom, however, often there is not enough time for unguided exploration of a problem, and unfortunately, students are often used to “template problem solving”, where the instructor (or text book) solves a problem and students are then asked to solve a new problem using a similar method. Older students tend to be more entrenched in these norms. Asking students to solve undemonstrated problems can be uncomfortable for some students, and students quickly get frustrated when they don't know how to even begin tackling a problem.

Given the limited about of time spent in class, we suggest that unguided exploration of problems should be reserved for homework. (In fact, universities often expect students to spend more time working outside of class than in class.) In class, instructors should be assertive about giving help during small group activities. Not only is this more time-efficient, but it also allows the instructor to model professional problem solving skills in a more authentic setting than lecture.

It is also recommended to interrupt problems, breaking them into chunks. The instructor can let groups work on a problem until several groups get stuck on the same issue, then briefly interrupt the groups for a whole class discussion. Once the issue is resolved, the groups can go back to working on their solutions. A given problem can be productively interrupted several times for discussion, with a wrap-up discussion at the end.

There is a delicate tension between helping individual groups when they get stuck and monitoring the progress of the whole class. It is easy to get absorbed in a single group and lose track of time. We suggest that if you do lose track of time, do the wrap-up summary at the beginning of the next class meeting. In this circumstance, it is helpful to set the expectation that students should be prepared to discuss their solutions at the beginning of the next class.

Breaking problems into small-group-activity chunks is also an effective technique for making derivations interactive. Derivations often have pieces that the students can do themselves, punctuated by steps that would be extremely difficult(/impossible) for the students to generate. We recommend for students to work the manageable chunks in groups, interspersed with the instructor's demonstration of more difficult steps. This helps students to realize that derivations are something that they can (and should) study.

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