Originally published in CULtivate June, 2014
Can you engage and activate more than 60 students at one time? The last two years, associate professor Rasmus Brun Pedersen has tried out doing just that – using the jigsaw group work method for his course European Politics. CULtivate visited his classroom to see the methods in action.
It is Monday noon, and the grey light of April has a hard time getting through to room number 123 in the Nobel Park. Guest lecturer Jakob Tolstrup has just finished a two-hour long lecture on the political system in Russia, focusing on foreign politics and Ukraine. Now the 50 students present studying BA in corporate communication and European Studies are about to start the jigsaw-group work.
The students know the drill, for this method has been used after every lecture during this semester. First, every student is allocated a group, by counting one, two, three and four. All the students in group number one will discuss specific questions related to course text and all the students in group number two will discuss another question, and so forth.
After twenty five minutes, the first round of group work is over and the students make new groups with a representative from each of the first groups. The new groups then go through all the questions of the day and discuss the results of the first group work.
“Ideally, this way of organising the teaching should increase student preparations, as it is frustrating to present for your co-students without being prepared. There should really be an atmosphere of expectations of preparation when you show up to a lecture – because, apart from being responsible for your own learning, this type of group work also gives responsibility for your fellow student’s learning. You become responsible for whether your fellow students have valuable inputs and notes to take home,”
“The four’s go here!’ A female student is effectively organising her co-students. Now she has gathered ten fellow students. They look at each other in silence.
“I’ve got to be honest and say that I have not prepared very well,” the female student then says.
”Has anyone prepared?” asks another. The question is answered with silence.
Apparently no one has prepared. So, the female student starts the process: “Right, now what was the question we should answer?”
This situation clearly illustrations what some of the students were keen to tell the CULtivate journalist off the record: The gains from this method of teaching depend very much on the level of student preparation. And students appear to be lacking in their preparations.
“I don’t think it works,” one of the students says – and points out that she thinks it would be better if the students should do presentations. “Because then you HAVE to prepare,” she explains.
Rasmus Brun Pedersen is very aware of this problem. And when the course will be rerun next year, he will assign the preparations as part of the student reading groups.
“Ideally, this way of organising the teaching should increase student preparations, as it is frustrating to present for your co-students without being prepared. There should really be an atmosphere of expectations of preparation when you show up to a lecture – because, apart from being responsible for your own learning, this type of group work also gives responsibility for your fellow student’s learning. You become responsible for whether your fellow students have valuable inputs and notes to take home,” he says.
Little by little, the group work starts going, but the energy seems to be lacking. Maybe this is due to the groups today being very big, with 8-10 students in each – which means that not every student gets to have a say.
“I don’t know why they have made these groups today, because it works much better when the groups are smaller. Maybe they are doing it because they did the same when they had another lecturer last week,” Rasmus Brun Pedersen says. He is not always present when other lecturers are visiting.
He hopes that the importance of the organisation of group work becomes more apparent when the course will be placed in the first semester, with one main lecturer staying in the class at all times, thus creating more unity throughout the course.
Now it is time for the second round, in which the students get together in smaller groups and start explaining to each other what they have learnt in the first group work.
There is a little bit more time for this round, and suddenly it seems there are a lot less problems with the group work energy. As time goes, both the sound levels and the student engagement are increased.
Sentences like: “ … and then we talked about…”, “Wow, we didn’t talk about that …”, and; “I just need to read my notes …” pass through the backdrop of grey noise now and then.
One of the groups have reached question number four.
“Should the West intervene if a majority of the people of Crimea in fact want to be a part of Russia?” one of the male students reads. He forms his lips to a “Phhhew! This is actually a hard question”.
But still the talking continues. And to Rasmus Brun Pedersen, starting a discussion in which the students actively express themselves in relation to the course reading is one of the main points of the group work. It can create a synergy with the oral exam for the course, in which students are indeed expected to discuss questions of European politics.
One of the students, Shkumbin Gashi, finds the group work a positive experience.
“I become more active and write a lot of notes,” he explains.
But he does think it crucial that the lecturer of the day follows up on all the questions put to the groups.
“Without a follow-up you only learn what the other students think of a question. That’s ok, but I would also like to have the teacher’s point of view,” says Shkumbin Gashi.
His fellow students agree. They too are unsure if the comments from other students are good enough to be used at the exam table.
Rasmus Brun Pedersen points out that the goal with the jigsaw-groupwork is to combine lectures with a more activating teaching, forcing everyone to discuss and take notes. With this many students in one room however, it appears challenging to give feedback to all group discussions.
”As teachers, we are always present in the classroom, so it is possible for the students to ask if they have any questions. Also, towards the end we do follow up on all the different questions. Still, it seems that an atmosphere of doubt of each other’s contributions is emerging among the students. That is a shame really, as it is my clear impression that it is indeed in the dialogue with each other that they step up academically,” Rasmus Brun Pedersen says.
When the class reaches the end of the day however, there is total silence in room 123, as Jakob Tolstrup follows up on the political system in Russia. Jakob Tolstrup works his way through all the group questions. And apart from him, all you can hear is the hum of fingers hitting the keyboards as the students diligently take notes.
As Shkumbin Gashi notes: “There’s not a lot of time left to be on Facebook in these classes.”