Explore potential strategies.
Students have very different background knowledge and skills.
You may have students in your class with very different background knowledge, skills, and motivations. Differences within your student population can spark rich learning opportunities when group members bring their various perspectives and skills to bear on the project and teach one another. However, without proper planning, differences in skill-level and abilities can also create problems. One of these problems is known as Common Information Sampling (CIS). This is the process by which individuals within groups “dumb down” their own expertise in order to find a common ground with students lacking that expertise. When CIS occurs, groups become less, rather than more, than a sum of their parts.
If there are skills (for example, facility with a particular software, experience with a specific research methodology, mastery of a technical vocabulary) that your students simply must have to succeed in assigned projects, make this clear in the course description and again on the first day of class. Students without the designated skills then know they must either make up the missing skills and knowledge on their own time or not take the course.
Consider administering a diagnostic pre-test in the first week of class to assess students’ relevant prior knowledge. If a small number of students lacks critical background knowledge, you might consider advising those students to (a) fill the gaps in their knowledge by doing remedial work on their own or (b) drop the class. If a larger group lacks the necessary knowledge, you might designate a class period or special tutorial (led, perhaps, by a TA) to cover the critical material. If the majority of your students lacks essential background knowledge, you should plan on teaching it yourself. While this might mean that you have to scale back your expectations for the course as a whole, that is preferable to pushing ahead before students have the proper foundational skills.
One possible strategy to compensate for uneven skills among your students is to compose groups with an eye towards balancing knowledge and skills. For example, if you know a subset of students in your course is particularly weak (or particularly strong) in a specific area, you might put these students into different groups to prevent any one group from suffering or benefiting unduly. This also provides opportunities for stronger members of each group to help bring weaker members up to speed.
Whether this is a good solution in the context of your particular course will depend on the nature and extent of skill disparities among students. If the disparities are such that members of the group can reasonably teach one another, balancing knowledge and skills can be a good idea. If the disparities are truly significant, it might make better sense to group students according to ability. For example, in a class with graduate and undergraduate students, creating skill-based groups might make better sense than distributing skills across groups.
Uneven skill sets can be an asset when group members bring different experiences and knowledge to bear on a task. Highlight to students what skills each of them brings to the group, perhaps by having them collectively complete a group resume (Barkley, Cross & Major, p.39). Some instructors involved in service learning or project courses use these group resumes as a way for student groups to present themselves to outside clients.
After identifying the range of skills students possess, structure the assignment to make it advantageous for the group to draw on these skills. Take, for example, a computer-aided design course, in which there are both computer science majors (with strong technical skills) and design majors (with strong aesthetic/design skills.) If the course assignments include projects in which these skills must be combined, and each group includes both computer science and design majors, students find themselves in a situation where they must (a) exercise their particular talents to accomplish the task and (b) communicate what they are doing to peers outside their discipline. Depending on your goals for the assignment, it might be sufficient for each group member to contribute expertise from his own discipline. If the goal is for students to learn to apply a set of skills outside their disciplinary expertise, however, then the assignment must be designed so that students cannot confine their contributions to those areas where they are already comfortable, but must develop their skills in new areas. To facilitate this, you might require students to switch roles at certain points in the semester, so that the computer scientists must make or justify design decisions and the designers must apply programming skills. You might also require a paper from individual students explaining what they learned from doing the assignment, so that you can assess the extent to which they have developed skills they did not originally have.
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