[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tudents arrive in our courses with a variety strengths and weaknesses. In a writing course, some students may struggle with grammar, while others are ready to practice alternative styles of discourse or more sophisticated rhetorical techniques.
For those students with deficiencies, it can be intimidating working with the better prepared students. Rather than learning from the more advanced students, the experience may reinforce insecurities they have about their own abilities. But that doesn’t discount the many benefits of working with peers. It all comes down to the design.
I developed a team model for my hybrid introduction to literature course, and it’s an approach that’s proven successful. This course is designed to serve a diverse student body, including first-generation students who often lack the preparation to succeed in a course that emphasizes writing and research skills. The team metaphor is ideal because a team is built on mutual support between players toward a common goal. Each player brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the team, and similarly, the online and face-to-face collaboration in this course allows each student to contribute in a particular way to winning the game, based on their role on the team.
To facilitate a team environment, I modeled the online components as practices and face-to-face sessions as game days. Students work with their team in the online component to develop their assignments, and then during class time present what they learned. In this way, the team is supporting each student much like athletic teams do for each player.
One of the most successful tools in this hybrid course turned out to be made of paper and plastic: the course notebook. On the first day of class, I put students into groups and gave each student a slender notebook binder with section dividers, paper for notes, and copies of all assignments and handouts. As a team building exercise, each group assembled the notebooks in class; they chose a group name; they talked about their individual strengths and weaknesses as writers. Finally, based on their self-described individual strengths, they delegated specific writing, editing, and research responsibilities to each member. Each group became a unique team, and the notebooks became the game plan. Students indicated that having a tangible guide with them made the game plan easier to follow.
Each student was responsible for online discussion board postings and contributing to drafts and finished assignments, as well as responding to the other students’ posted drafts and comments. The team captain was responsible for monitoring the discussions. My role was that of a coach—supporting, evaluating, and encouraging—as opposed to the usual characterization of the instructor as the referee. I initiated each discussion board thread with a question and interacted in the ensuing discussion. I also critiqued each draft of each essay that was posted (after each student in the group had submitted a critique).
The teams used the face-to-face class sessions for final editing and oral presentations of final papers, which other students evaluated using a rubric. The competition in this course was “friendly” since the teams were competing against the rubric’s requirements, not against each other. Students readily embraced the team approach, and high-risk students found support from others, not judgement.
Four strategies for effective teams
Faculty interested in developing their own courses on a team model need only keep a few best practices in mind:
- Create an incentive for students to help one another. In this course, each team received the same final score on a project; however, it was not a “group grade” but the combined total score of each team member; therefore, students were motivated to help each team member achieve their best, since helping individual team members succeed let the whole team succeed.
- Coach students on teamwork. The teams who were most successful communicated frequently throughout the course, using primarily email but also the discussion boards to ask questions or receive feedback on drafts and papers. Since students in a group are usually loathe to criticize their peers, in my role as “coach” I asked team members not to criticize but to give encouragement and possibly offer guidance, but with no requirements as to the email or post’s length. Often it was a simple “high-five” but they would also offer ideas on how to improve.
- Treat the course as a season. The notebook was an idea that grew from my own need to organize the course well in advance; however, it allowed them to see where the course was going and to locate the exact assignments and handouts for each date and deadline, while they worked by themselves online. This allowed them to view the course as a kind of season with assignments as games.
- Make the face-to-face component important. Faculty often struggle to come up with interesting activities in the face-to-face component of a hybrid course. In our case, because they were either game days or preparation for game days, students realized that each face-to-face class period was important. The limited time together greatly enhanced the use of that time, forcing the teams to collaborate toward accomplishing the goals of that day.
The peer pressure on each team member on “game day” became apparent around midway through the course, and those teams that were struggling revised their game plans. In the end, all of the teams received an A or B in the course. About two-thirds of the students were student-athletes, and among the non-athletes, two students were weaker members of their teams and one dropped the course. However, the non-athletes were drawn into the team sport aspect of the course, perhaps because a required course had transformed into preparation for a fierce but friendly game-day competition.
Consider transforming your hybrid courses into a team model to improve the performance of all students.
Bradley Bowers is a professor of English at Barry University (Miami Shores, Fla.).