By Inés Vañó García and Naomi Lewandowski

Being part of The Open Teaching Initiative’s Class Visit Exchange Program has been an opportunity to reflect on teaching and learning strategies from a brand new point of view. Although as Ph.D. students and adjuncts we deal with Faculty Observations each semester, this time was an entirely different experience. Not only did it allow us to share our teaching and classroom practices with a fellow graduate student—and one from outside our field of study—it also allowed us to consider connections between two disciplines that are rarely linked: Biology 1001 Laboratory and Elementary Spanish for Heritage Speakers.

Although at first sight, there might seem to be nothing in common between our two courses, during our observations and post-observation conversation, we quickly realized the similarly fundamental role that group work plays in our classrooms.

In both of our classes, students spent the majority of class time working in groups of three to four. While their assigned tasks changed a few times, group make-up remained the same (in our conversation after the exchange, we realized in the future that we might spend more time thinking about formation of the groups: How often should this it vary or completely change?) We both followed a similar pattern of assigning a task and then visiting each group to check in, answer questions, and guide students’ investigations. Students were largely engaged with the material and comfortable with their group members and the instructor. This typical classroom flow allowed both of us the opportunity to make contact with every student during each activity and allowed students to learn from their peers when we were not present; however, we both wondered if we efficiently articulated the assessment process and how our students’ group work was going to be evaluated. In short, we think that in the case of each class, monitoring the group work was effectively carried out and group learning facilitated continuous learning.

For us, then, group work is a part of our daily students’ learning experience. However, during our conversation, we both identified the need to reflect on this teaching and learning technique since there’s often a tendency for instructors to assign group work without thinking and simply  out of habit. We see group work as much more than an approach or a method to share students’ opinions and ideas; it is a cooperative learning strategy that influences the social interaction of the classroom. As such, there are a number of factors to consider when implementing it in your courses.

First, there are important logistical questions: from the ideal number of students in each group or the time spent on the assignment, to the physical arrangement of the classroom space and how the mobility of chairs and tables impacts group dynamics. Then, we must think beyond these questions and apply a critical as well as cognitive lens: what is/are our learning objective(s)? How can group work help us to achieve this objective? Why is group work beneficial for students?

In addition to  the affordances of group work, we also identified constraints to using it.  One of the substantial barriers we’ve encountered in our own classes is the issue of internal group conflict. There will always be variation in personalities and work ethics that can easily strain group dynamics. The question is how do we as instructors prepare for and address these conflicts: how can we highlight the diversity of perspectives as one of the principal advantages of group work? At the same time, how can we actively engage students in learning to communicates and resolve conflicts among themselves? While both of us have distinct strategies, we also share a general commitment to maintaining an openness with our students that will encourage them to approach us with any group-related issues. Starting with hearing the student’s point of view can be effective when handling conflicts, as it models the importance of listening in successful communication.

We know that we come from completely different areas, Science and the Humanities, disciplines which are, more often than not, kept apart—which in turn limits possible forms of collaboration. We would like to take the chance to highlight the interdisciplinary potential of opportunities like this one. We hope that this initiative will inspire more collaborative teaching and learning projects in the near future.

Naomi Lewandowski is a Ph.D. student in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the Graduate Center and an instructor at Brooklyn College

Inés Vañó García is a Ph.D. student in Hispanic Linguistics (Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages) at the Graduate Center and an instructor at Lehman College and Brooklyn College. As of Fall 2017 she will be a fellow with the CUNY Humanities Alliance.