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As a TA I always try to get students to help each other during office hours, because when I was in college I never had people to work with, and I strongly believe college is a lot more fun if you have problem set buddies.

So if someone asks me for help with Problem 4, I'll be like "That group over there is also working on Problem 4, why don't you come join us?" Or "That guy is the expert on Problem 4, maybe he can help you with it." And then they will usually start working together.

But sometimes when one person helps a group, I notice they don't actually include him in the conversations, they just ask him for help. Usually he will chip in his bit of advice, and then stand around awkwardly the rest of the time while everyone else is laughing and joking. This happened today, and when he left the others were like "maybe we should add him to our GroupMe," but I think they weren't actually going to. And in the end they will keep working together, and he'll still have no one to work with.

How can I integrate my students better so everyone has people to work with?

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    $\begingroup$ That's a tough question! When I read the title I thought it was about getting students to work together at all. But getting a well-formed group to include someone new? It is extremely rare to find groups of people of any age who will do that, letalone teenagers. $\endgroup$ – DavidButlerUofA Jan 27 '15 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ You're starting with the assumption that study groups are a good thing, but the available evidence seems to be to the contrary. There is some discussion of this in Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa, 2011, pp. 100-103. Time spent studying with peers is negatively correlated with improvement in critical thinking skills. Sociologists had theorized that "social engagement" was positive for learning; actually, the evidence is that it's negative. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jan 29 '15 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reference @BenCrowell! I think it's really easy for study groups to be abused and for people to use them to get through problem sets without learning anything. I saw a lot of examples of this in college. But if everyone involved has the proper attitude towards the problem sets I think it's helpful to have at least one or two contacts in the class that you can discuss problems with when you get stuck on something. It's also helpful once you leave college and need references for getting jobs. $\endgroup$ – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 29 '15 at 23:28
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To repeat my comment: if you are looking for ways to help students to break into already-formed groups without awkwardness, then I think you are trying to solve a problem that is bigger than just your office hours!

That said, there are strategies I use to get students working together in my Maths Learning Centre and in tutorial classes.

I find that grouping people together works best when everyone in the group is still working on the problem. It never works nearly as well when someone has already finished it and is helping the others because the others are in "receiving mode". So perhaps look out for more times when everyone in the group is struggling with the same problem, and encourage them to work together. You might need to stay to help them ask each other useful questions, but it seems to work better than the alternative.

If you do send a more experienced student to help a group, then remember that it is most likely that the more experienced student will be acting in the teacher role, regardless of your original goal. Therefore what you need to do is help that student to get better at passing on what they know. I find the best way to do this is to go with them. The experienced student knows they have you to fall back on if they mess it up, and you can support the other students to respond appropriately and offer more of their own thoughts, and you can help the experienced student to stay or leave when the explanation is over (thus avoiding the awkwardness). Finally, being there lets them know that you really do care about students helping each other.

You can get groups working together at blackboard/whiteboards. In my Maths Learning Centre, the moment anyone starts writing on a whiteboard, students will drift towards it to join in. Because working on a board is more public, people are usually more inclined to ask questions and offer opinions. It also has the advantage that they can change what's written there more easily and so construct a better solution than if they were writing on paper.

Finally, you need to set the ground rules. In my first tutorial, I would tell the students we would be working in groups at whiteboards because they needed practice at solving problems where they could get advice as they were working. I would tell them that they were expected to ask each other questions if they weren't sure, and to explain what they were doing as much as possible, and especially if anyone asks. I also told them that there were no stupid questions, but that a specific question like "how did you get from this line to this line?" is better than one like "What's going on?"

So in summary:

  • Get people to work on problems they all haven't finished.
  • Help more experienced students to be better teachers.
  • Stay to support the interaction.
  • Get people to work at whiteboards/blackboards.
  • Set ground rules.
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I have to also agree DavidButlerUofA's comment, it is quite hard to make people work together with a new person.

What I find is that many students do not understand that it is more beneficial to their learning to work with students other than their friends who might, perhaps, know the material a little better. The students frequently prefer to be around people they get along well with socially, perhaps to enjoy doing the required work more than if they were just independent. The issue is that this often leads to distractions and 'joking around' instead of efficient work. For this reason, it is hard to get a new student to join a study group who is not a friend or social contact of the current members. Additionally, friends frequently come to office hours together which would explain the situation that you have in that the "new student" in the group is awkward around them.

It is hard to combat if the study group meets and works nearly exclusively outside of class time. You have no control over who they choose to work with (nor should you particularly try to have any control). What you can do is to try to make them realize that they are making this choice. I would announce at the very beginning of the semester that this class is not meant for the students and their friends to hang around each other more. They need to consider how their interactions affect their grade and to consider working with people who are just as dedicated to doing well as they are. They all know of the one person in each group who slacks off and is just there to goof around. It is harder to deal with them if they are a friend than just a colleague. They should consider study groups more of a group of business colleagues than friends meaning that they are just there to do efficient work, not hang out.

When in office hours, you can try to break up the group a bit more. Consider making them work in pairs instead of large clusters. This might force one of the students (many times, the poorer quality student) to work with the new student who might know the material better.

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I'll quite agree with David's comment above. However, I want to make a distinction between "friendship groups" and "working groups". You have hardly any power to add someone to a FG, but as a TA you can actually include someone in a WG. Provide some problems that actually need group-work. My favorite non-example is solving quadratic equations after one knows the general formula. There is no point to ask people to work a couple of those equations together. It is better done individually. Now, assuming that you have a number of good questions worthy of group-work, set the working groups as you wish, and in particular, include that particular student in one of the group. I am sure you can find some general advice on the web to guide you about different ways of setting working groups to get the best out of each group.

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I'd try to form the groups working on the problem before they get to work, so nobody is in "I've solved this already, you have to..." mode. Office hours/class is ideal for this. Might even try to form different groups each time.

It is crucial to learn to work together with a random group of people, as that will be the situation they'll find themselves in as a matter of course during their future professional life. This is hardest for students in more technical oriented fields (engineering around here).

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