Humanizing Student Group Work

Either as a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or faculty member, I’ve been teaching math to college students for nearly 25 years. Dating back to the start of my teaching career, I have always made substantial use of group work in my courses.

To guide students through experience of collaborating, I always give students group work instructions. I’ve recently been pondering these instructions and realized that they are lacking. They’re too procedural, they’re dry, and they don’t give students anything to aspire to.

I recognize that some students like group work and some (likely MORE) despise it. Regardless, I think that collaboration is a wonderful thing to learn and can open the door to many positive life experiences. So I have officially thrown out my old instructions and replaced them with, heaven help us, my feelings. See below.

Guidelines for collaboration in this ungraded class:

  • You are all on the same team.
  • This is a learning community. This means that it is everyone’s job to make sure everyone is engaged and is learning. Your particular position may ebb and flow in time. Sometimes you might be the person who needs to be drawn in, and at other times, you might be the person who needs to draw others in. But whoever you are, it’s all good, because you all have each other’s back.
  • As a corollary, this means that the group never leaves anyone behind. If you are feeling lost or overwhelmed during group work, there are multiple routes to resolution. Because two-way communication is always helpful, I encourage you to speak up and express your needs so the group can support you. But additionally, there is a responsibility for the group to be frequently checking in with each other to make sure everyone is on board.
  • Helping someone learn something is more important than completing the assignment quickly. Did I mention this course is ungraded?
  • If you are someone who participates a lot and talks a lot <looks in mirror> that is wonderful, but please consciously step back a little to make space for others. If you are someone who is a bit quieter or more shy about group participation, consider stepping up to contribute more actively to the group and to make your voice heard. No matter who you are or what you are like, you should frequently ask yourself questions such as “do the voices in this group feel equal?” and “is everyone being treated with dignity?”
  • Groups must behave ethically, equitably, and inclusively. If you experience or witness discrimination, harassment, bullying, or assault, I ask you to please report it to me immediately. If I do not feel like an appropriate and safe resource for you, please report it to any of the other resources listed in the course syllabus.

Final note: For me, collaboration is THE thing that keeps me going in my research life. I have a rule: “don’t work with jerks.” (But in my head, I’m using a word more extreme than “jerks.”) By surrounding myself with a warm, compassionate, thoughtful, and engaged group of collaborators, I have found great human connections, learned a tremendous amount of math, and taken much joy from the work I do. Now, I recognize that we don’t always get to choose who we work with (uh, this class being a case in point). And sometimes bad things happen in groups. If you are having negative group experiences, you should not blame yourself and you deserve not to be gaslit. You should seek support from outside the group. In the case of this course, that means me, and it’s my job to intervene, support you, and provide a restorative solution. Regardless, I hope that throughout the semester, you’ll build skills of group collaboration that set you up for a future of positive group experiences.

I am grateful to Dr. Piper H whose wise, thoughtful, and compassionate approach to the teaching and practice of mathematics always inspires me. While I am sure I never succeed, when I write pieces like this one, I try to think to myself “how would Dr. H do it?”

Professor, data scientist, applied mathematician, social justice researcher and activist, nonprofit leader. See www.chadtopaz.com and www.qsideinstitute.org.