‘Just-in-time facilitating’: Tips for unpacking problems and guiding collaboration in STEM-focused groupwork

Students working at the whiteboard in a classroom on a common problem

If you are teaching a topic, it is likely that you have a high level of preparedness, intuition, and ability that has been developed beyond the level of many of your learners. Unpacking a complex problem into logical steps, assessing what information is necessary to begin and move forward, and understanding what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ or ‘plausible’ answer may happen almost unconsciously!

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (2005) suggest that there are distinct steps, or stages from novice to expert. The highest level of skill  – expert – is marked by ‘intuition’ which is built through time, trouble shooting, struggle, metacognition, and reflection

‘expertise is based on the making of immediate, unreflective situational responses; intuitive judgment is the hallmark of expertise.’ (pg 779)

While some may disagree with the fine points of the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model, they do agree with the general process through which expertise is developed. At this high level of understanding, much of the early conscious decision making has been incorporated into unconscious processes that happen behind the scenes.

Thus, teaching this material to many novice learners requires a conscious ‘unpacking’ of the problems/material.  The ability to unpack more complex problems may be one of the key features of the peer-educator ‘Super Power’. Being able to take apart the problem that is being shared via lecture, in real time, even if the Professor may have ‘intuited’ and thus not shared some of the sub-text, is incredibly helpful for ones own learning and the ability to share it with peers.  This is not a skill that all learners have.

Lacking the ability to easily ‘unpack’ problems does not mean that one won’t learn the material, only that they are coming into the challenge with a different knowledge-base and skillset.  Keeping a growth mindset is critical! The generic model shared here is a tool to help peer (and other) educators remember to make explicit the steps, to consider the assumptions about what knowledge is needed to move through the process to the solution, and how to facilitate the procedure through the problem using guided questions.

Asking learners to use the model can also enhance their metacognition, make clear the gaps in their knowledge, and kick-start the self-evaluation (metacognitive) processes.

General order of operations for facilitating group work using 'guide from the side' strategies.

Once the educator has helped the learners breakdown the problem and students are working through the problem in small groups (3-5), the most powerful learning will happen when the facilitator acts as a ‘guide on the side’ by practicing listening, asking questions at appropriate cognitive levels, inviting the group to answer their own questions, and by using questioning strategies. This is the most challenging part of facilitating group work.  At first students may resist the attempts the facilitator makes because there is cognitive work involved in answering guiding questions.  If students are new to working in collaborative groups and are focused on solutions and getting there quickly, they may initially find it frustrating to receive a question in response to their questions.  But once this is the expectation in a class, most students will begin to see the value, and become more comfortable with the uncertainty they experience with struggle. A few may never value this process.  The learning literature confirms that the deeper, long-term learning that happens in collaborative group work is worth the effort.

Below is a checklist of tips that can help create a learning environment that will result in the best outcomes for small-group collaborative learning.

  • Tips for Guiding Small Group Discussion – ‘Just-in-time facilitating’

    • Create an inclusive environment in which learners feel they can take risks
      • When you approach a group that seems like they are facing a challenge say something like, “Oh yes! This problem, this is a hard one!” (or, “This is the hardest part of this, I think!”)
        • Seeing you admit that it is challenging will allow them to feel better about the struggle and take the risk of discussing it!
    • Encourage ALL learners to participate
      • Keep the discussion from being dominated by a subset of learners.
        • Allow sufficient “wait-time” when learners or you ask questions. Try to be aware of who is quiet and give them time to prepare to contribute – without singling them out, you can ask, “Is there anyone else who can add to this part of the process?”
        • Intentionally ask the group members to take turns leading parts of a problem or different problems. Explain that the role of the leader is to begin the problem, invite others, and watch that group members are actively listening and sharing equally.
        • Listen actively and non-judgmentally, and encourage learners to do likewise.
      • Build what learners say into the discussion
        • When you are reiterating a question you have heard, try to weave the ideas of the group into the reiteration so they feel heard and valued.
      • Help learners communicate and build on each other’s contributions
        • Model being patient and encourage learners to do likewise.
        • Build what learners say into the discussion.
      • Use mainly open-ended questions or comments
      • Start with, “How is this problem going?”  Follow with, “Is everyone feeling good about it, or would some discussion help?”
      • Then use factual, or probing questions (remember the cycle: a) listen (maybe repeat the question back to all), b) invite the group to answer, c) choose a guiding question, and finally, d) give a hint (repeat).
    • Encourage active listening
      • Modeling this in your group (as above) and inviting the group members to try it when each of them share questions can help group communication be more equitable and bring everyone into the conversation.
    • Foster dialogue amongst the learners and help them to see multiple points of view
      • After someone makes a comment or shares an idea: Wait for the others to think for a few seconds, acknowledge and appreciate the answer, and then ask, “Does anyone want to add to that, or have a different idea?”
    • Probe the learners’ understandings and foster higher-level thinking and discussion
      • Using the probing questions at this point will help foster more process-oriented thinking – higher-order thinking.
    • Help the learners digest what they are hearing
      • In a short session like the one you are working in, a collected short paragraph reflection as the students leave could be really valuable to get the feedback, but also to let students convert experience into understanding through reflection.

Educators, even peer educators, need to deliberately articulate the assumptions, prior knowledge, and process steps that can help new learners into and through a complex problem.  Helping novice learners unpack the problem and guiding from the side with careful listening and probing questions, while the learners share the struggle of trouble-shooting, will result in the best learning outcomes.  It is this process, facilitated with a growth mindset, that helps create equity and inclusion and starts all learners along a path to self-assessment and, with time, expertise!!

Heading ‘Back to the Future’ of the Classroom not ‘Back to Normal’: Reflections on opportunities to benefit from our online experience

Ready or not! Here we go, back into the classroom! Back to teaching in physical spaces where we can see each other by simply turning our heads or wandering over to a corner of the room to offer needed support or direction, rather than popping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms like Samantha on the popular 1960’s TV show ‘Bewitched’.

Let’s go forward to our classrooms, not back in time

Many educators have reminisced about, and longed for, the ability to read expressions and body language that was denied them while teaching on Zoom or another platform. It is difficult to feel like one is on solid footing when a lot of cameras are off and when you are learning how to use a different set of tools to teach through your computer screen.  Now, once again, many will have students gathered in a common physical space! If they come to class, the dilemma of whether or not we can see them is gone.

Overall though, remote teaching has been a mixed-bag with both challenges and silver-linings, depending on who you talk to.  Looking at our own undergraduate peer educators in the fall of 2020 – after a semester and a half of emergency remote teaching- a surprisingly large proportion (42%) reported enjoying online learning because of their ability to create engagement. Getting comfortable with the technology was the biggest challenge, while only 29% and 25% respectively considered collaboration and engagement negative aspects of teaching online.

Creating engagement is difficult any way you slice it, and we have learned some big lessons and  valuable takeaways from our time in the ‘Zoom classroom’.  As we head back into the more familiar face-to-face environment, we should do at least these two things: 1) remember how to use physical space to its best advantage and 2) reflect on what we have learned and strive to keep some of the tools and strategies that can enhance and improve what we do.

Remembering how to work the room

Training undergraduate educators for in-person summer support courses, and working with  TA Consultants to develop evidence-supported teaching and learning workshops and deliver them to new TAs, reminds me that it takes some getting used to to suddenly not have the control panel at your fingertips on your computer keyboard.  Here are some things we have been wanting to do ever since they were denied us.  Why not take full advantage of all the things you’ve been missing!

  • If you’ve transitioned to using PowerPoints, stop at some points and do the work on the board where students can follow and share in the process.
  • Get students using the whiteboards in classrooms or the chalkboard to collaboratively work on problems.
  • Move among your learners/groups when they are working on group tasks
  • Interact with your slides or other media in a real way.
    • point out/laser the take-home messages
    • describe the axes of graphs and interact with figures so students can interpret them
    • ask students to interpret the figures for you before you describe them (think pair share)
  • Embed active, student-centered learning in your class every 5-10 minutes – use variety of reflective, paired, and group activities
  • When you’re using high tech, make sure you have a low-tech plan B. In a classroom, as much  can go wrong with technology as on Zoom (maybe more).  Mix up the ways you have student working in the space (Paper, String and Colored Pencils work too!)

Use what we have learned (through some hardship!) about how to create environments where learning happens best

Not having a captive audience in online learning spaces seemed to highlight the importance of creating engagement and constantly building community so that all students would want/need to engage.  We should remember the creativity and inclusive practices that worked best to encourage student participation online, and not take for granted that being in a physical classrooms means students are emotionally and cognitively present!

  • Intentionally build community everyday in your classroom. Do not assume that being in person will result in community!
  • Continue to craft structured learning activities that require collaboration and that allow application and retrieval of content information.
  • Clearly articulate learning objectives and share them with students
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your students to bring their laptops/devices and continue to use work on shared documents
  • Use asynchronous discussion boards to supplement your in class time, gather feedback, generate discussion.
  • Continue to use animation in power point slides if you use them, to give students one step, or concept at a time
  • Use polling technology to practice retrieval of information and gather ideas and feedback
  • If it makes sense provide videotaped lectures or record the audio from your lecture so students can revisit it
  • Now that you’re familiar or comfortable with being on a camera try sending weekly short 2 to 3 minute videos but reiterate the most important points that students should be focused on or you’re learning objectives for that week

As we were when moving into COVID-forced remote teaching, we are now in another transition. After more than a year of changes and a steep learning curve, students – especially new students – in our institutions may face a whole new set of challenges that we will need to help them to overcome. What we have learned by educating through a pandemic about intentionality, creativity, options for modes of engagement, feedback and compassion, assessment that focuses more on process than product, are all skills and strategies that will continue to be extremely valuable as we move back into the classroom and forward into the ‘new normal’. Best of Luck to everyone!

Cornell Engineering Tutors: Exemplifying the Benefits of One-on-One Support


Dhruv Sreenivas

 

“I enjoyed helping other people out, and tutoring also helped me get a stronger hand on the material, which actually helped me in courses I took later on in college.”

We are sending off seven ‘21 graduating Engineers with our utmost gratitude for their exceptional support mentoring students in the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) tutors-on-call program.  Thank you Acacia Tam, Dhruv Sreenivas, Lynn Jeannoute, Michael Richardson, Sijia Liu, Stephie Lux, and Veronica Nobrega for your talent and compassion and a combined 32 semesters tutoring and 852 tutor appointments!  These ELI tutors supported engineering students in 14 challenging core engineering courses.  They participated in 3 tutor trainings and small group check-ins each semester to prepare for and grow in their role as one-on-one peer educators.

Tutor Training

Sijia Liu will move on to work in New York City as a software engineer!

Trainings focused on active learning strategies for tutors to use in their meetings with tutees.  Tutor community building is important, so when shared dinner during tutor trainings was no longer possible due to transition to online- tutors made connections in a smaller group training format and formed bonds in break-out rooms using the online zoom platform. Throughout this transitional time, ELI tutors relied on one another for support and shared best practices.  Even with success mastering online tutoring, it will be exciting to be back to in-person tutor appointments in the fall.

“I like meeting people and sharing my studying strategies with those eager to learn and improve. I really enjoyed the time being an ELI tutor.”

Benefits for tutees and tutors:

Acacia Tam will pursue a Master in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University.

A key component of all of our peer education programs is the focus on evidence-based practices. Peer education is no longer something that happens on the margins of higher education where ‘at-risk’ students enroll in or are assigned tutorial support.  These days peer education is an opportunity for all learners who anticipate or discover the need for a little more clarity on a particular topic, or a longer-term investment of time to deepen understanding of challenging conceptual or technical knowledge (Latino and Unite, 2012). These opportunities happen with groups of learners, typically associated with a certain course, or as one-on-one interactions through tutoring.

“I loved tutoring for ELI! It was always so rewarding to see that I had helped a student better understand a concept or prepare for an exam. Additionally, it made me happy to see that I could pass on some of the tips and tricks I had learned while taking the class to other students. Finally, I loved meeting new people whether in person or online! It made me feel more connected to the Cornell community!”

Tutoring requires all the components of other student academic support including collaboration, retrieval (pulling information out of students rather than putting it in) and open-ended questions to generate reflection, metacognition and critical thought.  There are some unique opportunities in this valuable type of support.

The Role of ‘Coach’

The very personal nature of a tutor session creates a great opportunity for tutors to mentor and coach students regarding practices that generally improve student outcomes. Research has shown that helping with study behaviors was a significant factor improving student outcomes (Gurung and McCann, 2011).

Lynn Jeannoute

“The classes I tutored were geared towards mostly freshman year students and I know how hard it can be transitioning from high school to college, so I especially valued not only being able to assist in their coursework but being able to give them general advice on how to study for exams and stay on top of their work and things like that.”

As coaches, our undergraduate tutors: keep a growth mindset, listen to student challenges, and suggest various ways to overcome them. They ask the right questions, inquire about preparation for evaluations, suggest study practices, encourage, and give specific feedback. Research on the role of peer coaching in higher education suggests that some effective strategies are: being nonjudgmental, listening, shared accountability for the interaction, and asking questions (Ericksen et al 2020).

Stephie Lux is headed to the National Institutes of Health, where she accepted a Cancer Research Training Award to study tumors with a surgical oncologist.

“I can very effectively help others break down an academic problem, and I have also found new ways to be creative when communicating and teaching. Beyond developing my teaching skills, I made several lasting friendships with students I tutored and with  other tutors. ELI Peer Tutoring was a very important part of my Cornell Engineering experience.”

As peers, tutors help build community one student at a time by developing acquaintances and friendships, finding common ground, sharing empathy, working together on a level playing field, and sharing academic and social challenges.

The quotes shared by these tutors exemplify the practices that make tutoring a very powerful form of academic support.  Mentoring students who are just learning to navigate busy schedules and challenging assignments, building community, and breaking down complex ideas using active, collaborative learning, are practices that benefit both the tutor and tutee.  We are so grateful for the hard work of these graduates.  In the past year tutors had to become comfortable working with their peers remotely due to COVID-19.  We are so proud and grateful for the difference ELI tutors made for students finding their way during this very unusual and difficult past year!

Sources used and further reading:

Eriksen, M., Collins, S. Finocchio B., and Oakley J. 2020. Developing Students’ Coaching Ability Through Peer Coaching. Journal of Management Education, 44: 9–38
Gurung R.A.R. and McCann, L.I. 2011. How Should Students Study? Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls
(https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-should-students-study-tips-advice-and-pitfalls)
Latino, J. A. and Unite C.M. 2012. Providing Academic Support Through Peer Education.
New Directions for Higher Education, 157:31-43. DOI:10.1002/he.20004