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Adventures in Group Work in the Classics Classroom

Theodora Kopestonsky

University of Tennessee

Transmitting information in the impersonal environment of a large lecture is problematic. Best practices suggest that breaking students into smaller groups helps to facilitate discussion and aid in the comprehension of material. When placed in informal and smaller groups, students should be less intimidated or anxious. There, the instructor can provide more personal attention. For smaller classes, groups allow students to tackle issues with the instructor acting as a supervisor. In such a scenario, the professor forms a meaningful relationship with students while encouraging engagement. This is the ideal, but the reality often falls short. While small groups can be a great tool to create comradery and to engage students in discussion, I have encountered many unforeseen problems.

I have utilized group work in a variety of courses with a range of success and failure. Drawing from my experience of teaching a large archaeology survey, a mid-range Greek Civilization course, and a small literature in translation class, I consistently struggle with group work. As a naïve instructor, I had imagined that students did the reading before class, read my instructions, and worked as a unit to answer my questions thoroughly. My reality is that many students come to class unprepared and superficially listen to instructions. When groups were tasked with the analysis of a passage, object, or question, the goal seemed to finish quickly with hasty answers based on discussions which devolved into chatter. One person tended to do the actual work and little true examination happened. Simple in-class and complex out-of-class assignments each came with their own issues due to communication, work distribution, and apathy. Instead of learning, the whole assignment becomes an exercise in futility and stress.

I cannot offer absolute solutions since every course, college, and teacher is different, but I can make suggestions which can be adapted. I have learned that prompts need to be meticulously articulated with all the specifics, including point breakdown and deductions, planned in advance. Although it pains me to reduce the exercise to a chart, students will read over a bullet point rubric which in turns creates a better understanding among the group. I try to build assignments which ask for straightforward answers as well those that require a supported stance to make students debate amongst themselves. I roam the classroom and when students are working and if they move off-topic, I re-engage them with follow-up questions. To prevent the creation of factions and to foster comradery, the optimum group size is two or three individuals, depending on the assignment. I encourage students to choose their own group members so that they work with those whom they know and trust. While these techniques along with others have helped, I am still grappling with making it part of a meaningful, educational experience. With audience’s participation, I hope to open a dialogue where we can all manage student work better.

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On Being Calmly Wrong: Learning from Teaching Mistakes

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