U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can We Learn History in Groups?

I’m migrating this discussion from my Facebook page to the blog, because I think it poses an important pedagogical question: can we learn history in groups?

I gave my undergraduate students course evaluations last week. Their responses reveal that they really like my class in general—they enjoy my lecture style, and the way I lead large group discussions. But their one big complaint (other than that I assign too much reading, which is a complaint my American students typically make as well) is that they want to do more group work. Danes work more by consensus and this apparently carries over into their classroom expectations. One student even wrote: “More group work would be nice—we are Danes, after all!” In contrast, I never liked working in groups as student, and I don’t particularly like assigning group work as a teacher.

This is not to say that I don’t have experience using group work in my classroom. I taught high school for two years, where group work is often expected, and sometimes even fruitful. And in my position at Illinois State University, I regularly teach a teaching methods course for students training to be secondary history and social studies teachers. In that course I sometimes put my students in groups, mostly because I know they will be expected to do the same as teachers, and thus need pedagogical models.

But even with such teaching experience, I don’t particularly like putting students in groups. I think it breeds conformity, which then acts as a barrier to thinking. I realize this probably reflects my biases, as an American perhaps, or more likely as someone who simply learns best in solitude—reading, writing, and thinking. So what say you all?

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, I am a bit surprised at your thoughts here. How is it that group work breeds conformity? That depends on the activity, group work can actually produce the opposite, real dialogue and debate, exposure to other students’ views, which is the end of consensus-building after all (anarchism 101, but you don’t have to be an anarchist or a radical leftist to actually see this as productive). Better to enact a sense of intellectual community, than depending on the romantic idealization of the lone thinker, no? Aside from the fact that the research on the subject points to group work being more effective in enlightening our students.

  2. Kahlil: When I intellectualize my attitude about group learning, I’m a bit surprised by my thoughts, too! There are different types of group learning. In a history or humanities class, I think it can work well to put students in smaller groups to discuss a text that is inherently open to conflicting articulations. It does them well to voice their interpretations among smaller peer groups. But here’s what I mean by conformity: often I’ll put students in groups to discuss a text and they will form a consensus on the text based on how one or two of the students, usually the most articulate or most outgoing students, interpreted it. Of course, this is a danger more generally. If the text is discussed as a whole class, the students might come to a consensus on the text based on the professor’s views of it. I trust myself, and professional scholars more generally, to provide multiple perspectives, often rooted in historiography (which is a theory of knowledge at odds with the lone thinker model). But perhaps that’s hubris?!

    • I haven’t found that the members of my small groups automatically conform to each others opinions. I encourage dissent when I visit my small groups (see my long comment below on how I do this). And if they did, in fact, create a consensus about a wrong opinion, I would correct that in the larger public discussion. – TL

    • Gotcha, Andrew. I confess myself to feeling like you, because in Puerto Rico we followed the lecture format, even in small classes. Adapting to the active learning framework fostered in liberal arts colleges et al has been a challenge, but I’ve found it fruitful,as Tim suggests in his reply. There’s a story here about the history of higher education and the evolution towards active learning, it would be interesting to analyze these shifts, how they’re shaped by evolving pedagogical theories and research, which are of course tied to ideas of individual and collective learning, and how they are different depending on the school. I also think there’s a disciplinary component here to be taken into account, how the lecture format is linked to creating a narrative, much like the texts one would discuss in a history class. My problem in teaching literature classes is balancing this with close reading, if there’s a complaint from my students is that I lecture too much and my classes are too passive (again, this also has to do with the particular student body, education is context-based after all).

      Anyhow, wonderful discussion, I am definitely bookmarking this for future

  3. When I was an undergraduate, if any class indicated there would be group work, we dropped it immediately. Not only is group work useless, it’s downright harmful. At that stage, students aren’t capable of analyzing data or arguments on their relevance or merits. (That’s why they’re taking the class.) Instead, students at that age are immensely peer-oriented, and attuned to the various signals by which little group-hierarchies get established. Whichever member of the group is most driven to dominate, will, because merely having a good argument can’t be expected to prevail among folk who don’t have enough knowledge to assess the various contending arguments. Moreover, the sorts of personalities that value good data and good arguments are rarely interested in impressing folk who don’t value those things, so they refuse to expend the energy necessary to counter those simply bent on dominating. Whether that breeds conformity in the long run, I’m not sure. As I said, most independent thinkers will have selected themselves out of the class to avoid the group-work in the first place, and will continue on their way.

    There is also the question of justice. Many students, when allowed to speak candidly, will express disdain and even anger about group work. Peer-to-peer learning is what happens out there beyond the institution’s walls, and which students are paying a lot of money to escape. It’s somewhat like paying several hundred dollars to attend a concert, and then having the singer come out and say, “Just break up into groups and sing to each other.”

  4. I am so happy to see you bring this up. This is an issue I struggle with all the time, mostly because assigning group work does not come naturally to me, and the evals are very divided as to whether they like it or not when I do.

    As a student, I HATED group work. This was not because of anything inherently negative with the underlying pedagogy, but as a rather Type-A student, I felt as though I ended up doing most of the work and spending time navigating the interpersonal dynamics rather than focusing on the intellectual issue at hand (I am talking more about group projects than breakout groups for small discussions). I also had a very traditional view of the classroom – I was there to benefit from the professor’s expertise, and group work detracted from this.

    As a professor, it is more complicated. I am fully on board with my institution’s progressive culture that frowns upon anything that comes close to “sage on a stage” lectures (though there is one required lecture course for all undergrads). However, as a historian, I rarely feel that small group work is particularly effective. The best experiences I have had have been in using small groups to navigate a particularly challenging question I think would intimidate them one-on-one. And, perhaps obviously, they need LOTS of guidance to make small groups effective – I usually write the specific goals on the board. I am committed to keep trying this approach, though, because the comment I keep getting from students who dislike small groups is that they “learn so much more when you just lead, Professor.” They remind me of myself when I was a student, but it seems to me I am not fully exploiting the possibilities of progressive pedagogies if they leave my class thinking my voice is the most valuable.

  5. First things first, what’s “group work”? Like many other things in life, the phrase can denote many kinds of operations. So, Andrew, what’s the definition you have in mind? Or what was the definition your students forwarded? For that matter, how do any of us define it?

    For me, it means that students, from a class of say 30, are divided into random groups of 4-6. I change those groups weekly. I give each group a different question based on elements from the reading and my list of historical thinking themes. I let them discuss, within each group, for 10 of 15 minutes (or maybe even 20 if I feel the discussions are lively and productive).

    During that time I monitor everything. I go from group to group, listening to discussion and interjecting points. I ask questions of individuals within the groups, or provide hints about answers. In this time students are asked to designate a representative who will relay the findings/answers from the group during a larger discussion involving the entire class.

    When it reaches time for the larger discussion, I usually chalk those answers on the board, adding and emphasizing elements that I believe are more important. I also correct wrong facts and redirect students to more relevant sources (from their reading). At this point I also allow input from other groups and individuals.

    The key to making this work is giving the students appropriate texts and asking questions that require knowledge/familiarity with those texts. The reading has to be done before class.

    What about assessment? How do I grade the group work? I record who is in each group, and I put check marks by the names of those who participate based on both the quality of comments made (relevance, reflectiveness) and the quantity of comments made. I tell them that I’m monitoring it in this way. I give extra points (just a little) to those who volunteer to collate the group’s answers and lead discussion. If someone makes too many comments, I explicitly tell that person that I’m going to call on another student. They know I won’t let one person, no matter how smart, dominate the room. If a person defaults within the group, I tell she/he that I’m giving them a “0” for participation that day. Some default, but most know that I’m monitoring and make an attempt inserting something relevant.

    In my experience, students *generally* like this approach. I’d say about 70 percent approve. Does it satisfy them all? No way. Some love lectures alone. Is my method fool proof? Not 100 percent. Does it stymie individual excellence? No way. The stars still shine in small groups. Do the lazy kids hide in the small groups? Of course. But they do in larger classes too—even more so. In fact, I think my small group method gets a larger percentage involved.

    So there’s how I do it. It’s idiosyncratic to my style of teaching (i.e. I avoid explicit lecturing). – TL

    • BTW: I’m not doing classroom teaching right now (just a few individually designed electives), but I’m always game for improvement suggestions. I can take it!

    • Curious: If you only do these discussions for 10 minutes, and you don’t lecture, what happens the rest of the time? Or do you have a series of 10 minute discussions?

      • John: I give each group 10-15 minutes, then each group presents their answer(s) to class. That part takes up the next 35 minutes, or even stretches into the next class meeting. Indeed, I’ve had this take up two 50 minute class periods, depending on my (and their) enthusiasm for topics on hand. So I’m sort of “lecturing” when I put their answers on the board—correcting answers, emending, etc. Does this make sense?

  6. Great discussion. Thanks especially to Tim for explaining in detail how you structure group work.

    For me, classroom groups work in two ways: 1) groups get together to do projects; 2) groups get together to have conversations about texts. I can see the merits of both approaches, but I also see problems with both.

    Tim: You’ve explained the technical ways in which you implement group work. But what is the pedagogical rationale for your approach? Why do you prefer it to lecture?

    More and more I’m becoming pedagogically conservative or traditionalist. I think lecture, which I approach as an argument/conversation, is the best method in most history classroom settings that involve more than 15 or 20 students, particularly when the students can’t be trusted to have done the reading.

    • AH: I do this for several reasons, some of which are personal, some are professional, and some are connected to larger perceptions about the discipline. Much of what follows were articulated by Lotte Da on the S-USIH Facebook page.

      On the professional, in terms of teaching philosophy, I lean strongly toward interactivity. Though the students are often neophytes in terms of our topics, they *need* to learn to articulate the discipline in conversation. Some want to do this, but I feel all need to learn to do it. So group work gives them a chance. Interactivity also helps energize the class when they’re groggy (even at 10 am), but it also dispels with what Freire (I think) called the bank deposit theory of education (i.e. students want info deposited, with the idea it can be simply withdrawn later). More interactivity also helps with memory. It’s part of the active learning model, and it helps vary the intake which in turn helps with memory.

      Personally, I crave the interaction with my students. Some don’t want this, of course, because it requires some accountability and engagement outside the book. I confess that introverts have some trouble with my course. But I can usually get them to come around with personal interactions (through their groups, or in office hours). I enjoy lectures when I’m 100 percent sure that my audience is interested, such as at conferences (where I enjoy listening as much as giving papers). But outside of conferences I have no confidence that my students are going to listen when they are allowed to be passive. So in some ways my group work helps me get them beyond their cell phone, iPad, and laptop distractions. I’m forcing person-to-person interaction, which is where I believe the value in brick-and-mortar education lies. This last point gets to professional issues beyond my mere personal preferences.

      As Lotte Da said on the S-USIH Facebook page, I think some of our students crave the interaction. I’ve found that some students actually get to know each other during my course. I think some have even gone on to study together and/or date. This makes me happy. I think it’s part of what college is about (fostering community and camaraderie). I’m might be instilling some communitarian ethic and feeling, but that’s just a utopian/socialist dream of mine.

      Finally, I don’t want to be the proverbial “famous historian” lecturer. That’s a perception of the field that is still out there. I would rather model more dynamic behavior for my students. I want them to know that I my “9 Cs” can be discussed and debated. It is my belief that historical thinking is best learned in conversation. That’s part of the reason I LOVE this blog—this professional creation that has so invigorated all us. I think we love the feedback, and small-group work gives us a chance to let the new generation taste that excitement.

      Okay. I’ve droned on long enough–giving everyone a taste of my “Statement of Teaching Philosophy and Practice.” Actually, what I’ve articulated here is probably better than my actual statement.

      – TL

      • Tim: Thanks for this. I agree with your pedagogical rationale about not wanting students to be passive. But the way I lecture, or try to lecture, does not breed passivity. Rather, I make it interactive. Students are encouraged to think about my lecture as an argument, they are encouraged to ask questions, disagree with me, think about alternative models/arguments. This is an approach to lecture that our mutual friend Jason Stacy writes about in his excellent article:

        Stacy, J. E. (2009). The Guide on the Stage: In Defense of Good Lecturing in the History Classroom. Social Education, Oct. 2009, 274-277.

  7. Group work never really seemed to work while I was in high school. Someone always did all the work, usually the smarter kid which always ended up being me, and the others did bare minimum and tagged their name on the project. You would get a great group here and there, but it generally was always the same. Although, if we were to categorize small groups, I would answer differently depending on the size. I am a former student of Professor Lacy and he taught a course on the History of Oil where we had four students in the class including myself. This was not a general education course, so the students in my class either had a love for history or were history majors themselves. In that group, we lead discussion, bounced idea’s off of each other, and were able to turn out great class sessions. We never did “group work” but we still worked together to not only learn from Lacy’s teachings, but our own observations as well. Small groups like this I feel are more productive and accomplish things more than assigning groups in a larger class to work together on a project. I haven’t had a course similar to this yet and I am about to graduate. The large lecture halls full of students who are either catching up on sleep, playing Tetris on the laptops, or talking to their neighbors just seems counter productive to me. But then again, I haven’t had a classroom of students over 30 in my entire life.

  8. Three things:
    First, Kudos to Tim for taking a good philosophical approach and trying to define the terms (what is group work?). It seems the conversation is still trying to use various, non-identical definitions of the term and so speaking at cross purposes.

    Second, to answer the question about learning in groups, it matters what an individual instructor is trying to get their students to learn. If it is neatly defined “data” (e.g., events, accepted interpretations, model methodologies) to be regurgitated at some later time, then group work would probably be less valuable. That said, group work could still get students to posit their (potentially/likely mistaken) understanding, which would then provide a framework for them to understand the accurate “data”.

    Third, to answer the question of whether we can learn history in groups requires considering the alternatives. To be clear, obviously, the answer to the opening question is not “no”. Something about history can be learned in groups. What I take the implied question to be is, “Can history be learned in groups as well as or better than it can be learned using other pedagogical strategies?” But to answer that question, we first would need to define the goal (what do we want students to learn–see above) and what are our alternatives strategies for achieving this goal. Trying to answer this question without looking explicitly at the alternatives to group work (whatever we mean by that) and evaluating their relative advantages and disadvantages is a recipe for poor judgment and lots of wheel spinning.

  9. Tim, your explanation above and your further comments make sense. It would be nice to see it in action, of course. I have a good friend who does almost the same thing–he’s extremely introverted (to the point he has difficulty making eye-contact) and so doesn’t interject himself in other peoples’ conversations, of course, but he does work very hard at crafting questions which are worthy of long discussions and take the students through the material and their own reactions to it.

    He’s an English professor, however, where there’s less contextual knowledge required to interact adequately with whatever the readings are.

    As a general point, I believe it’s extremely beneficial for students to have a wide variety of teaching styles as they go from class to class–and it helps if all of them are done well, too.

    Just as many lecturers aren’t as good as they could be, and many Socratic discussioners aren’t either, so, in my experience, group-work perhaps gets a bad rap from the examples of the people who show a video clip, have them break up into groups, and then leave for coffee until the last 5 minutes of class.

    From what I’ve gathered, students hate the run-of-the-mill group-work stuff with a passion. Your style sounds very good, but I’m sure it wouldn’t work for a lot of professors, or for many students. When I was a student, I would have dreaded that, and as a professor, I would not be able to function in that environment (I can’t bring myself to interrupt people, and I have a very hard time being in rooms where there’s more than one conversation occurring at a time, due to an inability to “tune-out” ambient conversations). But I can certainly see that it would work for some people.

    My biggest problem is related to Natalia’s point above: “I am not fully exploiting the possibilities of progressive pedagogies if they leave my class thinking my voice is the most valuable.” My question is: Why isn’t it the most valuable? (Not as a human being, but in the professional sense?)

    If I hire a plumber, and we’re discussing how to fix my pipes, yes, his voice had better be the most valuable among the two of us, or why the hell am I paying him?

    If I and a bunch of other historians go to hear some big physicist lecture on quarks and string theory, he damn well better tell me what string theory is, and not tell us to break up into groups and discuss what we think it might be and how we feel about it. If I wanted to hear someone who knows nothing about string theory talk about string theory, I could just walk down the hall, or email someone.

    As an undergraduate, much–sometimes I think most–of my education derived from discussions with fellow students. But these were groups of like-minded folk who had similar ideas about education, responsibility, and so forth. It would have been of no value had I been forced to spend time conversing with randomly selected individuals.

    And so I come back to, What are people paying for? A chance to hear from someone who knows as little or less than themselves? Or something else?

    This week we got into a discussion of the experience of being a slave. The students that spoke out were neo-confederate types who think slaves had it pretty good. Job security. Work outdoors. Food, clothing and shelter all provided. Etc.

    Yes, it’s good for students to discuss such things–on their own time. When I was a student, I was incensed at classroom formats that forced me to pay good money to listen to such folks–especially since I could hear them any time for free.

    Now that I’m on the other side, my views haven’t changed. On slavery, eg, I’ve read a dozen or more slave narratives, and hundreds of articles and books on the subject. I went deeply into debt for the privilege.

    So yes, my voice better be more valuable than some 20-year-old who’s gotten his info off the Sons of the South website! As well as someone who’s never read a thing or given it a minute of thought. If it isn’t, I’m in the wrong line of work!

    • This is an interesting discussion. I would like to bring it back to Natalia’s point and John’s response: History professors/instructors are not plumbers and teaching is not like plumbing. (Plumbers have better job security and at least compared to non-tenured faculty earn more.) To construct a response in such a dramatic way might be amusing, but it belies the fact that when it comes to history there is no straightforward answer because there are no straightforward “problems” to fix.

      I hear John’s concern to be that if *we* don’t assert our expertise (best asserted through, I take it, a lecture), then students are not receiving their money’s worth. (In my experience, they are not the ones paying and, perhaps as a result, care little about the worth of their education outside of the credential on their resume, but that’s another conversation.) I, however, would argue the opposite: _As a result of_ our expertise, we should put ourselves in a position to *show* students that history is constructed and reconstructed over time and, we do them a disservice if we only–or even primarily–*tell* them the story we prefer to construct. In this way, *our* voice isn’t the most valuable, but yet instrumental in helping students recognize when someone is positioning themselves as a sage and learn how to interrogate the assertions made rather than just listening because we–or anyone else–is on a stage. I don’t find Natalia’s concern problematic in the least because sometimes having the most valuable and expert voice in the room means knowing when and how to use it.

  10. I am a high school of six years in Illinois, a former student of Andrew, and a current graduate student in American/European History almost complete with my M.A. In my experience as a student and teacher, I have found that direct instruction is far more valuable than group work in a history class. I want to put one exception on this: Certain kinds of group work are valuable.

    At the high school, teachers must add a grading section on their rubrics that attaches a point value for some sort of individual performance within whatever group work is assigned. High school students, as has been noted similarly above, are still developing their intellectual capabilities and emotional intelligence. Many cannot hold their own in a discussion as would be expected in a higher education classroom. It is for this reason that I have found guiding the direction of lessons through lecture to be more effective. Now, I do use group work at times. But this is only after introducing new content through lecture. Then, I can expect my students to apply that knowledge and build their own critical thinking skills.

  11. I believe small groups work in very specific situations. In high school they rarely worked, as Justin pointed out earlier, because one person ended up doing almost all of the work. I would say this is true in gen-ed courses and intro level courses in college too. I took some classes from Professor Lacy, and small groups did work in the upper level courses he taught. At the beginning of the semester some of the more introverted students would be reluctant to participate in the small group discussions. By the end of the semester almost all of the students were giving their opinions on specific themes from the readings and were comfortable giving these opinions in front of the entire class. The small groups worked a lot better when it was an upper level course with students that really cared about the course subject. With Professor Lacy monitoring the groups, every student had to be prepared for the discussions.

  12. Yes, it’s good for students to discuss such things–on their own time. When I was a student, I was incensed at classroom formats that forced me to pay good money to listen to such folks–especially since I could hear them any time for free.

    Hear hear. Might as well break out fingerpaints in art history class.

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