Together, we learn

Experiences and research reveal that collaborative learning leads to better understanding. Priti Botadkar finds out more.

Together, we learn

The space is set, and the participants slowly fill out their places in the chairs so that the round table discussion can begin. Seems like a parliamentary move? No, it is just a postgraduate advertising class in the heart of the city, where twice in each semester, students engage in such discussions based in topics arrived at by thought and need. “Our culture in education has made them so fierce, that there is a race even in the learning, not just the evaluation,” says Rohini Parekh, who teaches these students Theories of Communication. Her constant struggle is to develop an understanding of collaborative learning, which translates into a model where students can learn and grow.

“It is the way in which students work in groups ask each other questions every day, before they ask the teacher. This can be lead by open discussions (even if at the chai tapri outside the college), to deepen their understanding of the material they read,” says Parekh. She developed this way of teaching and learning in a small way in her class after enagaging in such discourses while pursuing her master’s abroad.

A lot of research has gone into developing such models, and it shows that when students work outside together, it just kind of brings the group a little bit more together. In many cases, the practices of collaborative learning are both replicable, and affordable. That’s the good news!

According to a 2009 paper by D W Johnson and R T Johnson, Collaborative learning has been shown to result in

  • higher student achievement,
  • higher self-esteem, and
  • higher motivation

for all students, across socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

According to BMM coordinator Sheetal Jhaveri, “Individual work can be a great way to master content, but what the group work empowers and kind of enables is a student’s cultivation of a certain resilience, how do you look to your neighbour as a resource, how do you test your own theories, how do you understand if you are on the right track or on the wrong track, the sort of habits of mind which actually are the underpinnings of deeper understanding.” Jhaveri, like Parekh, was educated abroad, and hence understands the value of quality learning over the rat race.

“I design the class work problems to be much harder than the homework problems. The homework problems tend to be more straightforward and the class work problems are much harder, so to actually accomplish them, students have to talk to each other,” she says. In her experience, the best groups talk about the problem before they put pens to paper. “You can really tell. Their faces are directed toward each other, they are looking at each others’ papers, and they are learning so much more! They are learning how to be proactive and how to depend on their peers.”

For Parekh, with that, she needs the students to know that no questions is too simple, too obvious or too dumb. “What I do in my class is I try to make the students feel as comfortable and safe to be able take the risks that will create good conversation. On the first day of class, I ask my students ‘what are the values implicit of sitting around a large wooden table (which is imaginary, since we do not have large, round, wooden tables in our classrooms), and they come up with a list on their own. First and foremost is respect, with listening to each other, and also being courteous. Having the right geography of the classroom is really important. Before starting a class I make sure they can see each other and made eye contact with each other, otherwise I ask them to adjust,” she informs.

This enables students to be creative and take risks in throwing out ideas that are not fully formed, because then someone else can jump in. What’s important is to have a set of guide lines for the students, when conducting a class, so that they can be fully engaged.

“This way, when they are having a conversation, we make sure that everyone is talking, not like we are sitting at the back of the class not knowing who is speaking at the moment. Also it is a great way to help people exchange ideas back and forth and have everyone contribute,” says Karishma Shah, one of Parekh’s students.

Parekh goes one step further. She has one student drawing a map or a chart of the conversation, and based on that, she encourages those who are not talking to sort of come up, and have others help them with expressing themselves, because it is after all is a group effort! This chart is then compared with the new chart done at the end of the semester, and there is usually a marked difference.

Collaborative learning according to these teachers develops a culture of respecting the individual, celebrating the small victories, of kind of enthusiastically embracing all parts of the learning experience. But more importantly, it helps students get out of the stress mode, and encourages them to be themselves.

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