According to Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching (1993), students learn best when they

According to Barbara Gross Davis, author of Tools for Teaching (1993), students learn best when they participate actively in the process. A lot of research has been made on collaborative learning, or learning in groups, and it has been proven that no matter the subject matter, students learn more this way. Working in groups help students learn and retain more about what is taught to them than when they are taught using other means. Davis enumerates three general types of group work. The first type is informal learning groups.

These groups aren’t permanent and may be done in a single session. An example of this is asking the students to turn to their seatmate and discuss a particular question. In any case, this kind of grouping may be done in a class of any size at any time to check the level of understanding of the students, give them a way to apply what they have learned or to have a change in the learning pace. The second type is formal learning groups, which can be organized to do specific tasks like writing a report, doing a lab experiment or making a project.

The tasks can be completed in one session or over a few weeks, until the students have finished the activity and are given a grade. The last type of group is a study team. Such groups are usually long-term, like a whole semester or course, and have permament members wherein each member is responsible for helping each other to complete course requirements and assignments and to provide support and encouragement. A student with a study team can ask his teammates to update him on classes or activities he might have missed.

Study teams are valuable in courses that have a large class size and a complex topic. With that in mind, it is then appropriate to inquire as to how to group these students so that they would learn the most. Davis cites examples on how one could group the students: the teacher can assign randomly so that a mix of different students are in one group; the teacher can let the students choose their groupmates; the teacher, himself, forms the groups taking into account the students’ differences; or the teacher asks the students first on their preferences and then makes assignments.

Whichever the case, Davis argues that these types of grouping have their own advantages and disadvantages and can be used depending on circumstance. After all, the teacher cannot assume that just because the students have been grouped and asked to work cooperatively, that they would actually do so. It should always be remembered that a group is composed of different individuals with different personalities, skills, concerns, temperament, etc. Thus, the teacher should be flexible, yet firm, and always ready to give assistance.

In addition to considering the combination of students in a group, its size should also be given equal attention. According to researches done by Cooper (1990), Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) and Smith (1986) as cited by Davis, groups with a maximum of five members would work best since a larger number would decrease the opportunity for the group members to actively participate. They also add that the group size should be smaller if the members are less skillful and time available for the group work is shorter. Furthermore, the level of the task should also be considered.

Simple tasks like solving a math problem or planting a seedling would be enough for small groups. On the other hand, complex tasks, such as a chemistry experiment that would require students to research and report, are better done by a bigger group (Knowles, 2005). Of course, students are individuals that have different learning abilities. Some teacher group the class according to these abilities. According to the Westchester Institute for Human Services Research (2002), ability grouping is the practice of dividing students according to their perceived learning capacities.

The two most common ways of grouping via ability is within-in class grouping and between-class grouping. The former refers to the division of students with the same abilities into small groups. This is usually seen in Math or Reading classes. Between-class grouping refers to division of students into varying courses or classes according to their achievement. In a nutshell, ability grouping caters to the difference between students. Each group formed with this strategy may be using different materials that are unique and will address their needs.

In general, research shows that within-class grouping produces better results than mixed ability grouping. Within-class grouping can promote faster learning since the students are learning with people of the same level and pace. Thus, fast learners can cover more topics without being dragged by the slow learners. On the other hand, as learning progresses it is only appropriate that the task difficulty also increase, and in line with that, the group composition and number. A more difficult task would require a larger group to execute successfully.

Thus, if a class was previously divided into smaller groups, the teacher can merge these groups to form a larger group. In relation with this, the teacher should again consider the composition of the groups. Ideally, it is better that the group be as heterogenous as possible but should also contain a fair number of the assets, those with previous relevant coursework or language proficient, and liabilities, those with negative attitudes toward the course or language problems, in a class.

Whole group instruction is usually used when introducing a new topic, new materials or new strategies to the whole class. In this way, the teacher can build a common experience between the students which can later be an avenue for further exploration of the topic and improvement in their problem solving and other skills (Valentino, 2000). On the other hand, group or collaborative learning cannot always be used despite its good results. Since topics have to be discussed within a certain timeframe, it is very hard to use collaborative learning often since such strategy really takes a lot of time.

Thus, for courses that covers a broad, complex topic, like general chemistry or physics, it is advisable to make the students form a study team. For example, in chemistry, experiments may be done by a whole group. They can perform one experiment and help each other analyze their data and understand what they just did. In such a setting, not only will it minimize the concerns of the teacher, it would also help those students who come to class unprepared. At least, with group mates, there would still be an avenue for them to cope with the lesson. Also,

Also, collaborative learning would be beneficial if the class size is large. As mentioned earlier, a heterogenous group is ideal. A teacher would want to distribute those who’ve already understood the topic or are fast learners among those that are still coping or having some difficulty. What the teacher can do, then, is determine the students that could be classified among the two groups. Generally, the teacher can determine the ‘assets’ and ‘liabilities’ by observation, diagnostic tests or group dynamics activity or by asking other teachers and his students.

Such a technique would ensure that someone in the group knows what’s happening in class and possibly give assistance to his groupmates. In conclusion, group or collaborative learning is very beneficial to students. However, the success of such activities would depend on the composition and size of the group, as well as the level of learning of the students. The teacher should know when to use this strategy and he should be well prepared, organized and flexible when doing so.

References Davis, BG. (1993). Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Team. Tools for Teaching.Retrieved August 16, 2007, from http://teaching. berkeley. edu/bgd/collaborative. html Knowles, P. (2005). Thoughts on Student Grouping: Teaching Decisions. Retrieved August 16, 2007, from http://www. netc. org/classrooms@work/classrooms/peter/working/grouping. html Valentino, C. (2000).

Flexible Grouping. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from http://www. eduplace. com/science/profdev/articles/valentino. html Westchester Institute for Human Services Research (2002). Ability Grouping. The Balanced View: Research-based information on timely topics. Vol. 6, No. 2.

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