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Group Dynamics in a Seminar on Food and Culture

BLOG PROMPT #2:  Group Dymamics

For this post, we were asked to reflect upon how well the group set-ups are working.  This would be a really short post if I were to address just this question as I allowed my groups to self-select! The course in which I am using the IF process is an upper-level seminar within the major.  Since the Interpersonal Major is small, students know each other well, having taken major courses together for at least two years. So students were allowed to choose their group members — after they understood the IF method, and after we modeled IF in class for two weeks.

I thought that the “fishbowling” of IF discussion was valuable in showing students how student-centered discussion worked (and how it shouldn’t work!).  Also invaluable were the Guidelines created by Rose Ernst that she graciously shared with us, and allowed us to adapt, after the IF 2009 Course Development Institute (appended below). Seeing what IF involved and how it worked before the formation of permanent, semester-long groups gave students an opportunity to assess their own skills and choose to work with others who complemented their skills and personalities. Maybe this is giving them too much credit because the groups have not been equally successful, but it seems to be working at least as well as other methods of group formation I have used in the past (random, computer-generation, etc.)

So, in short, of the four groups in my class, one group has not worked well for various reasons, and three are working very well. The group that has not been working well has largely suffered due to lack of preparation by members (an issue now remedied) and lack of commitment on their part. Since I discuss the not-so-successful group in more detail in my next post, I thought I’d focus here on the successful groups.

Why were the 3 successful groups effective?  The effectiveness and ineffectiveness of a group is not simple: effectiveness stems from a complex mix of factors including group members, group task, history, trust, roles and norms, distribution of workload…too many factors to be considered here.  Since my class was designed around the IF method, I’ll focus my discussion around IF and group effectiveness.

To my mind, effectiveness was promoted in my class by the manner in which the processes of IF were used by the groups to promote learning of content. The effective groups utilized the facilitation skills, discussion skills, and teamwork skills of IF to actively engage with the assigned topics – which were complex topics indeed.  (As discussed in my last post, our course is concerned with the central concerns in the study of food in communication and culture.) The IF method gave students practical tools enabling them not only to discuss concepts, but to listen, to focus, and to retain concepts. IF allowed them to construct meaning and develop understanding of content/material, while engaging in active, participatory learning.  What more can one ask?


I think Chickering and Gamson put it best:


Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening

to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.

–Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice,” AAHEBulletin 39: 3-7, March 1987


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COMM443: COLLABORATIVE PROJECT: GUIDELINES

Why do I have to do this?

We’ve all worked in groups, but not all of us love it.  Why must we do this collaborative project?

For one thing, the material we cover in this class is interesting but challenging. We cover a wide range of food-related issues this semester: from an examination of social, cultural, and psychological factors that have influenced foodways to exploration of environmental, ethical, and economic factors in food production and distribution.  Working with a small group of your classmates will help you better understand and retain this material.  (Yes, research does show that you, as students,  learn best when actively involved in the process of learning in small groups.)

As well, this collaborative project is designed to teach you skills that are critical s in any profession (and many classes!) connected with communication: skills such as facilitation, synopsis-writing, listening, discussion. All too often, we assume that these skills are just picked up over time or come to you with age.  They generally do not – they are communication skills that you have to practice. You will have a chance to play many roles in our project during this semester  (participant, listener, speaker, facilitator and recorder).  Not only will this reinforce important career skills, but as part of your group project they are worth a significant portion of your course grade

During your collaborative project the roles you will take turns at several roles: Facilitator, Recorder, and Participant. Here is a description of the tasks and responsibilities in each role:


FACILITATOR

Facilitation is not a “one size fits all” practice. Everyone has their own style of facilitation. The key for you is to learn how to evolve their style to one that works for them.

  • You should be able to guide the flow of the discussion so that the discussion group makes useful progress.
  • You should be able to set the tone and maintain a tone of discussion that is civil, useful, and insightful.
  • You should be able to ask probing questions that elevate the discussion to explore concepts beyond those that are obvious.
  • You should be able to involve everyone in the discussion.
  • As a facilitator you will keep brief notes of the discussion, consisting of the main points. Mostly these notes are short 3-5 word “place-markers” for the discussion, which can be posted on a note pad, on the board, on a flip-chart or whatever your group wishes. These notes are used to keep the discussion points visible during the discussion. They are primarily used during the discussion.


RECORDER

Note-taking is critical to the discussion. A designated note-taker or Recorder takes the second set of notes. These notes are a more complete record of what was discussed. (Please note that the Recorder will serve as the next facilitator in the rotation. That way, the student will have a good grasp of what was covered in the previous discussion and where the discussion will be going.)

1. The recorder keeps discussion summary notes which are an attempt to capture the main points of the discussion in a useful organization. There are many ways the discussion summary notes can be organized.

2. There may be discussion comments that don’t fit into any organization. There can be placed in a “Parking Lot.” Essentially the parking lot is a place-holder for thoughts that don’t fit into other thoughts.

3. The discussion summaries need to be prepared as soon as possible after the discussion. That way the discussion will still be current.

4. Discussion summary notes work best when they are developed as bullet statements rather than narrative text.

5. A one-hour discussion would typically lead to a discussion summary of 2-3 pages.


Here are some guidelines on constructing notes as a recorder, to give to your group:

Step 1: Review the meeting minutes. While you are reviewing these minutes, make a list of major organizing categories that seem to be present.

Step 2: Take one item from the category list and summarize key points from the meeting notes that seem to fit this category. These key points can be restatements of what was actually said. Often several discussion comments will be captured as one key point.

Step 3: Continue this process for all of the category list items. Often category list items will be dropped, combined with other list items, or altered at this step. There should be an approximate balance in the key points for each of the major categories.

Step 4: If any discussion points don’t seem to fit any of the major categories, place these in a parking lot for discussion at a later point in time.

Step 5: Email your group (and include me in the email) your notes when you have finished.  These must be emailed one class day before the next discussion session.


PARTICIPANT

The group members important to the group — as discussion could not proceed without you! Remember that for every one of you, the role of participant will be the one you most commonly play this semester. Outlined below are some simple guidelines to help you with your role as a participant in the group.

  • Don’t bring up a new subject until the previous topic has been fully discussed. Often we have a habit of blurting out a comment that is unrelated to the topic being discussed.
  • Eliminate comments that “drill down” too deep on the topic. Any conversation needs to strike a balance about how specific the discussion should become and covering the topic enough to do justice to the topic.
  • Speak up when you think a conversation is getting off track.
  • Eliminate conversations that are completely off subject.

* Modified from notes created by Dr. Rose Ernst from Interactivity Foundation material, and used with kind permission from them.