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Reflective Practice

It Takes a Village: Creating Spaces for Collaboration in a College Classroom

By Lais Duarte

The intellectual and emotional labor that goes into teaching and learning with a college level course can be overwhelming for both instructors and students. The mental health crisis that has kept many students from successfully completing their studies and led instructors and students to be diagnosed with high levels of anxiety and depression can be linked to the neoliberalization of higher education. This has contributed to the creation of a teaching and learning culture that has made many 21st century classrooms increasingly susceptible to fostering values of successful neoliberal subjects, such as competitiveness and individualism.

Recent studies have shown a correlation between the rise of neoliberal capitalism, the establishment of audit and ranking systems of academic performance, and the production of academic spaces characterized by “economic efficiency and intensifying competition” (Berg, Huijbens, Larsen 2016). Indeed, such classrooms can increase anxiety levels, which in turn makes learning more challenging for most students and teaching much harder for many instructors. Evans’ (2018) survey of 2,279 students from 26 different countries reports that graduate students, many of whom are also instructors, “are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.”

In order to combat these issues, students and instructors can help each other through the creation of collaborative classroom environments. Fostering collaboration in the classroom can help increase student engagement, encourage the development of interpersonal skills, reduce the instructor workload, and help students become much kinder, compassionate, and trusting of their peers.

In my past 5 years teaching college students in CUNY classrooms, I’ve been drawing from feminist pedagogical strategies based on the model of collaborative learning which have helped me to teach against the individualistic neoliberal model. These strategies include the use of

  • task-oriented small groups,
  • term-long assignments that take the form of project based-learning,
  • peer-review workshops that model constructive criticism to encourage students to be supportive of each other’s learning processes,
  • and bi-weekly memos that allow students to give me feedback on my teaching.

These four suggestions, described in more detail below, can help instructors build collaborative learning spaces in their classrooms.

Task-Oriented Small Groups

Who:  College students, from freshman to senior level.

What:  Activities that require the labor of multiple students to be completed successfully.

Where: In-Class meetings.

When : At least once a week for a class that meets twice a week.

Why:

  • To avoid the concealment of what’s not understood and regurgitation of jargon, which often prevents a depth of engagement with new concepts.
  • To encourage students to adopt a vocabulary that can translate complex ideas into accessible terms in the group.
  • To help students work through the challenges of thinking as a collectivity and also enjoy the rewards of being able to rely on one another to complete difficult tasks.
  • To help students develop interpersonal skills.

How: I apply the Feynman Technique, which consists of four steps, including the invitation to produce an explanation of the key concepts that emerge from assigned readings which can be understandable to an audience unacquainted with the material we’ve read. Sometimes I suggest an audience, such as a fellow student trained in a different discipline or a middle-school student. Subsequently, students are invited to take note of possible challenges that arise as groups attempt to complete the task. I find it helpful to assign roles which can help students divide the labor among the group participants. Finally, they are encouraged to revise the explanation they have produced and to share the paragraph and the process of coming up with the answer with the rest of the class.

Project Based-Learning

Who:  College students, from freshman to senior level.

What: Term-long assignments proposed by students, built in collaboration with the instructor and divided into small tasks.

Where: In and outside of class meetings.

When:  Throughout the semester.

Why: To increase student engagement in assignments design which in turn motivates students to take ownership over their learning process.

How: I invite students to propose projects after offering a variety of possible formats and topics. Next, I group students based on interest, assist each group in the process of scaffolding the project, and in distributing responsibility among group members. I continue to meet with students once a week to help them make and commit to a schedule, to set attainable goals, and to assist with the project’s development in every way I can. At the end of the semester when students turn in the final product I collect artifacts that show collaboration in the process of project realization. My intention is to help students learn the value of both the production process with all its ups and downs, as well as the outcome.

Peer-Review Workshops

Who: College students, from freshman to senior level.

What: Peer evaluations.

Where: In-Class meetings.

When: Devote 15 minutes of each class in the six weeks leading up to the deadline.

Why:

  • To help build trust in the classroom,
  • to hold students accountable for each other’s learning process,
  • to model constructive criticism,
  • to reduce instructor grading workload.

How: Divide into groups of 4 or pairs of students to explain to one another the rationale behind their projects, the research question they have chosen, their thesis statements, the steps they have taken to complete the assignment, and the possible challenges with which they could benefit from the help of their peers. Subsequently, I show samples of constructive criticism, explaining traditional evaluative approaches such as the “red-pen” where evaluators scan the work for errors and less punitive approaches whereby the evaluator engages the work looking for strengths, weakness and by sharing specific suggestions for improvement, using compassionate, helpful, and honest statements.

Memos

Who:  College students, from freshman to senior level.

What: Short reflective writing pieces.

Where: In-Class meetings.

When:  5 minutes at the end of  class.

Why:

  • To help diminish the hierarchy between students and instructors,
  • to check for understanding,
  • to invite students to reflect on what they have learned,
  • to allow for clear communication,
  • to include student’s voice in the structuring of the class.

How: Students are invited to write a short reflection on a concept or framework which they have learned,  or partially understood or felt confused by during class, and to share with the instructor suggestions for readings or activities that can be done in class.

The application of the above mentioned activities and pedagogical strategies have helped me collaborate with my students to build classrooms that embody an anti-hierarchical collectivity. There have been moments too where students were resistant or unmotivated to engage these rather non-traditional approaches, and such moments taught me how to practice deep listening, to communicate with openness, and to negotiate my students’ individual desires, the group’s needs and my pedagogical goals.

Overall, my goal is to allow for these practices to become habits that can help my students become much kinder, compassionate and trusting human beings who are cognizant of our interdependence as people who share time, space and worlds with many life forces, not only in but also outside of the classroom.  I believe that as instructors we can start to challenge the individualism of the teaching and learning culture fostered by the neoliberal model of education. These small changes, when carried on consistently, can help open our students’ eyes to the types of people we can become when we trust and care for one another’s well- being by engaging in collaborative learning experiences.

 

 

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