This week:

  • I describe how one professor uses group quizzes to build community and help students keep up with the reading.
  • I share your ideas for finding teaching buddies.
  • I ask what you think sets this semester apart.

Making Students Interdependent

For many students, attending college during the pandemic has been isolating and unmotivating. So as he prepared to teach this past spring, Michel Estefan turned to a technique he’s used before to help students stay on track and cultivate community: Group quizzes.

Group quizzes have several selling points. They can probably work in any discipline, with any class size. And, Estefan notes, they meet another criteria he looks for in a teaching technique: They don’t depend on an instructor’s charisma.

Estefan, an assistant teaching professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, first used group quizzes to find common ground among students from many different backgrounds as a graduate student instructor. Estefan drew inspiration, he said in an interview, from something he taught in that theory course: Émile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society. The core idea, Estefan says, is that before the modern era, societies were bound by “strong, shared cultural norms,” but the modern norm is individualism. “The thing that holds us together,” beyond that shared embrace of individualism, Estefan says, “is the fact that we depend on each other for everything.”

Durkheim was writing about the economic division of labor, Estefan says: “I cannot produce all the food that I need to survive, and sew my own clothes, and build my home, and put my car together.”

In his own context, Estefan figured, “if I have a very diverse group of students and I want to build a sense of community, I have to make them interdependent. I have to make them interdependent in a way that makes sense in the classroom.” That, he decided, meant students would rely on each other to some extent when it came to their learning — and their grades.

With a bit of trial and error, Estefan found a way to adapt the quizzes for the synchronous online courses he taught last year, one on policing and one on social justice, as he describes in this article for the newsletter of the American Sociological Association’s section on teaching and learning.

Each week, Estefan had students turn in a set of reading notes, which served as an enticement to keep up with the course and as preparation for the quiz. During class time, he’d randomly assign students to breakout rooms in Zoom to take the quiz. Each small group of students was required to turn in a single set of answers. Then, each group member independently completed a self-assessment, describing how well they shared their perspective — and how well they encouraged their group members to do the same.

At the end of the quarter, Estefan surveyed his students, asking if they felt a strong, weak, or moderate sense of community in the course; if they felt a stronger sense of community in his course than others they took that quarter; and which features of the course made them feel that way. The results affirmed that students felt an especially strong sense of community in his classes, and identified the quizzes as one of the main reasons for it.

While Estefan was able to reap the benefits of group quizzes online, he did miss one other benefit they bring. In the classroom, hearing students’ discuss the quiz gives him a window into how well the class understands the material. The professor can jump from one Zoom room to the next to listen in, he said, but it’s not the same as having an ear out for all the discussions at once.

Estefan, whose children are too young to be vaccinated yet, is teaching online again this quarter. But he’s thought about how professors might use group quizzes in person when students aren’t moving around the room as usual. In a larger class with fixed seats and/or distancing, it might work best for students to talk to their neighbors in groups of two or three rather than be put into groups of four or five, he said. Another option would be to use technology, telling students in advance to bring their laptops.

Like many professors, Estefan is still figuring out what his fall will look like. But students’ need to find a sense of community remains a safe bet.

How You Found Your Teaching Buddies

A couple of weeks ago, I shared Regan A.R. Gurung’s ideas on how professors can build a community of fellow instructors with whom to talk about their teaching. We got a number of helpful responses from readers sharing what’s worked for them, many of which emphasized the benefits of having a local community as well as a national network. Among them:

  • Wayne Jacobson, assessment director in the office of the provost at the University of Iowa, put in a plug for campus teaching and learning centers. “They may be seen as ‘preaching to the choir,’” Jacobson wrote, “because of the self-selection of participants. But for the purpose of making connections, I think that’s a major drawing point. As they say, choirs need to practice together, and that’s all the more important for people who feel like they spend most of their time singing solo when it comes to focusing on teaching.”
  • Jelane A. Kennedy, a professor of counselor education and family therapy at Central Connecticut State University, wrote that “I was fortunate at the first college I was a faculty member that someone before me had created a lunch group called “What works? What works!” We met once a week, and it was a chance to share what was working in our classrooms, what we were frustrated with, and to ask other veterans for ideas.” They also read and discussed books on teaching.
  • Laura Le, a lecturer in biostatistics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, shared a number of examples, including an informal gathering of local statistics educators that drew in some high-school teachers as well as college professors.

An Unsettled Semester

“The theme of the fall has been sustained uncertainty.” I wrote that sentence last year, in this story, but so far it sure seems true of this fall, too. I’ve been pondering what sets students’ and professors’ experience of this fall apart from last year — beyond the changing nature of the pandemic and colleges’ mitigation efforts — as I report out a longer-term story that will, I hope, start to make sense of that.

So I wonder: What, if anything, do you think sets this fall apart in the classroom? Share your ideas with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and they may be included in a future newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beckie

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