Students work in small groups on a task/problem during class.
- Students immediately practice applying a physics ideas introduced in class
- Instructors are available to help if students get stuck
- Problems provide a context for students to formulate questions to help their understanding
- Students share ideas and insights with each other during class
- Instructors see what students are understanding/not understanding and can respond & adapt.
- Complicated problems offer a variety teachable moments for students with a range of ability
Tips & Tricks
- The wrap-up discussion is a critical element of a small group activity - don't skip it! This wrap-up should address questions students posed during the activity and give students a sense of closure of the most difficult parts of the problem.
- We strongly recommend that each group have a 2ft x 3ft whiteboard as a shared solution/brainstorming writing surface.
- Every student should have a pen, an eraser, and easy access to a shared writing surface. Students should be encouraged to write right-side-up for themselves.
- Problems should be adequately difficult so that no student can solve the problem alone but easy enough that all students can get some traction. This encourages collaboration among students and ensures that the activity is a productive use of class time. The problem should not be very similar to an example already done by the instructor.
- Groups should consist of 2-3 students. 4 is too many.
- Give the groups some time to orient to the problem before jumping in with help.
- After a few minutes, be assertive about giving help. Asking students to solve undemonstrated problems can be uncomfortable for some students. They will quickly get frustrated when they don't know how to even begin tackling a problem.
- Make sure that the initial prompt is sufficiently clear. When students begin the problem they should believe that they know how to solve the problem. If there is an ambiguity that trips them up later in the problem that needs to be resolved, that's fine, because they will already be invested.
- If several groups ask the same question, interrupt the class and have a whole class discussion about the question. Once the issue is resolved, the groups can go back to working on their solutions. A given problem can be productively interrupted several times for discussion.
- There is a delicate tension between helping individual groups when they get stuck and monitoring the progress of the whole class. It is easy to get absorbed in a single group and lose track of time. We suggest that if you do lose track of time, do the wrap-up summary at the beginning of the next class meeting.
- Whenever possible, encourage students to answer each other's questions about steps in the solution. However, immediately answer questions to clarify the task and definitions (basically, anything that's unreasonable for a student to divine on their own). This alleviates unproductive frustration.
- Watch out for productive group dynamics. Encourage students to take space (share ideas) and make space (listen and encourage others to share ideas). Reassign the groups if necessary. Reassign the groups periodically anyway to give students a chance to work with new people.
- A good strategy is to give each group slightly different special cases of the same general problem to compare & contrast as a whole class for additional insight.
- Breaking derivations into chunks can make an effective small-group-activity. Derivations often have pieces that the students can do themselves, punctuated by steps that would be extremely difficult(/impossible) for the students to generate. We recommend for students to work the manageable chunks in groups, interspersed with the instructor's demonstration of more difficult steps. This helps students to realize that derivations are something that they can (and should) study.