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I am teaching in a hybrid mode (zoom+classroom) this semester.

I would like to encourage collaboration between students. So I divided them into pairs and asked them to establish a communication channel between pairs, using whatever apps they like.

Then I give them exercises in class, and ask them to discuss their answer with their peers. After a few minutes, I choose a random group to answer the question.

However, it seems that the students simply try to solve the problem themselves, and never really talk with their remote pairs.

I wonder if it there is any way to change this?

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  • $\begingroup$ If you want to encourage collaboration between students, you just need to give them a take away exam to do individually. You can be sure that in no time it will be discussed in a very active WhatsApp group., $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Sep 10 at 15:28
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I have been using small groups in Zoom, typically 3-4 students per group. Typically random groups, but also more open and longer term tasks. Sometimes with a few minutes of individual work first, sometimes without. This has worked out fine, with people even using cameras a lot of the time when they are in those small groups.

It is quite a lot of burden to ask them to figure out their own means of establishing a workspace. You should teach them how to do this or you should make it as automatic as possible (which Zoom makes possible). The more they have to think and choose and mess around, the easier it is just to not bother and instead work by oneself.

Also, if the exercises are very short (a few minutes), the time it takes to set up an external communication is long when compared to the length of the task. Lots of friction there. And with only two people, they both have to be awake and active enough before communication can happen.

My concrete suggestions:

  • Use Zoom to set up the groups.
  • Have groups of three to five people, so that even if some of them are not active, the others can still collaborate.
  • Give clear but open-ended tasks or tasks that allow several approaches. This helps in creating mathematical dialogue. If the tasks are simple calculations there is a big risk that someone solves and shows, or that several people work in parallel without much discussion.
  • Have tasks that are long enough for the students to figure out that they should be doing group work, figure out what they should be doing, get started doing it, and have some time to do it, too.
  • If you use Zoom functionality, you can cycle through the groups, seeing what people are doing there, whether they understood the activity or not, how far they have come, and there is also the opportunity to have a discussion with them. I usually start with the smallest group, the group I guess might need the most help, or a random group, and visit them briefly starting from there. After a few groups are finished or have accomplished the main points (always good to have some extra activity for the fastest groups) I typically end the small group sessions. Then I select a random person or a random group and ask them to report what they have accomplished, asking if others have comments or commenting myself. This keeps the students accountable.
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. I could only add from my experience that it took my students some time to get used to this solution (I used breakout rooms in Zoom). Only after a few times they felt more comfortable with group work. $\endgroup$ Sep 9 at 10:14
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Tommi's answer here is excellent. Just to add some additional suggestions - in my experience, a main issue with online learning is that it requires more structure than in-person does.

  • Try adapting the Think-Pair-Share model - that is, give them some time to think about the problems before asking them to group up. It's a natural impulse to start the problems on their own, so give them a little room to do that before making them talk to each other.
  • Have group-work as an explicit part of the requirements (and the goals of the assignment). I.e., instead of "you need to solve these problems and the tools you have include group work", present it as "you need to learn to work with a group, and the way we're going to practice that is by trying to solve these problems". If you can, having part of your rubric (for the assignment or for the whole class) be something like "collaborates well with classmates" can help.
  • You can try assigning specific roles within the group (usually with groups of three to five, as Tommi suggested). Giving each student a specific role to play that isn't just "problem-solver" makes them feel more part of the group. Generic versions include having a "scribe" (who writes down the work) and a "reporter" (who's responsible for sharing back to the class later). If you know your students well, you might also try roles that play to their strengths. I had some success with one group when I had one student be the "idea-generator", one the "idea-refiner", and one the "accountability checker" - the first student was really good at coming up with ideas but had trouble critically evaluating whether they made sense, the second was really good at detail work once they had an idea to work with, and the third tended to struggle with the math but was excellent at spotting when someone was making an unfounded assumption or taking an unreasonable step.
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the 3rd part. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Sep 9 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ How do you, in practice, set up the roles in a group? Let the students decide? Just name them and the let the students take or leave them? $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Sep 10 at 4:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Tommi It depends on the maturity of the group. For older students, especially if we're a little ways into the quarter, I'll let them decide. But for younger students or the first couple of weeks, I'll assign randomly (online, give them a list) or set up the roles ahead of time if I want specific students in specific roles (again, giving them a list). $\endgroup$ Sep 10 at 5:21

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