My first class at Quest is now done. The students were a great group and I was impressed at how well they handled large amounts of difficult material in rapid succession. (At Quest, students take only one class at a time, so each class runs for a half-day, every day, for three-and-a-half weeks.) Most impressive, however, was the degree to which the students have their own ideas of how smaller classes ought to be run.
What did I learn? A number of very useful things:
In the right environment, students can be trusted to do work in small groups. In the past, I’ve always had to closely monitor group work to ensure that actual work was done. But that was not the case with my class, and I felt quite comfortable sending them off to work together, knowing that they would productively spend their time. I’ve no doubt that on occasion the small groups found themselves discussing matters other than their assigned question. But I take that to be a mistake on my part, either by failing to come up with a sufficiently interesting question or by giving much more time than is required to deal with the question.
Group work is efficient. Early on in my class, I realized that the students would get a better grasp on the material if they worked on it together in smaller groups, and then came back to the larger class to discuss their findings. This should not have come as a surprise, of course. Most teachers understand that you don’t really know something until you’ve taught it, since there’s nothing like teaching to focus the mind. Well, of course, the same applies to students: when they know that they’re teaching each other, they’re much more focused than if they’re just learning for themselves. We all of us can get a bit lazy when learning in isolation from others, and that sort of isolation can exist even in a small seminar. It’s the interaction that makes the difference, and one way to realize that difference is to give students responsibility for teaching each other, so far as they can.
Group work is a great way to start a class. Though I quickly realized the advantages of giving the students time to work together in smaller groups, it was only after a student kindly suggested we begin classes with a group assignment that I realized I had been going about things backwards. Usually we’d begin class by sitting together at our seminar table, whereupon I’d ask whether there were any questions or observations about the reading material. Occasionally some good discussions would arise from this, though more often I’d clarify a few points of interest to some but not all students. Once I began classes with a group assignment, the level of energy was notably higher. Even towards the end of the class, however, I still found myself falling back on old habits. One of my primary goals for the next class is to begin every class with a well-thought-out group assignment.
Students enjoy teaching each other. As educators, we often highlight the fact that learning should be sweet; but I at least had forgotten that teaching can be sweet, and that the students themselves would find it so.
Students can effectively teach each other, even when dealing with new material. I was initially rather suspicious of having students lead discussions on their own unless I had first covered the material with them. That made the discussions rather repetitive, as you can imagine. But my suspicion was based on having in mind a lecture-based model for learning. In a seminar, the same ground that can be covered by individual question-and-answer, or by pestering the entire seminar with key questions, or by having the students cover the ground themselves. And, invariably, when I went for the last option, they did in fact hit upon all the key points I’d otherwise bring up myself.
In sum, I learned a great deal from my students!