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David Morrow

Amen, Marcus. But I do take issue with one claim you make: You say that "there's only one problem with [Gallanty's argument against group assignments]: everything in it is false." But that's not right; there are other problems with his argument. In particular, his conclusion doesn't follow from his (false) premises. Even if students dislike group assignments, they might be worthwhile if they get students to learn more.

Speaking of group assignments, I'd be interested to see a post on the kinds of group assignments you give. Most of mine are, IMO, just okay. I'd love to improve them.


I'm also with you on pretty much all of the substantive content, and would also love to hear more about the specific kinds of group assignments that you use.

I do have one quibble, though - *you* may be able to dress like a hobo and have students not care at all. But given the correlations for women between high course evaluations, being thin, and being traditionally feminine, that is probably not good advice for all of your readers.

Rob Gressis

I agree with David Morrow -- I'd like to see some examples of group-assignments you give. Apparently, they're group-assignments where all of the work is done in class?

Also: how many of your students gets Fs or Ds? You mention that you penalize people severely for padding or not doing the group-work. Does this threat deter people, so that you don't have the employ the penalty? Or do you have to penalize some once, so that they will get the message? And if so, how severely? Do they fail the assignment?

Marcus Arvan

Hi everyone: Thanks for comments!

David: yep, you're right. ;)

Rosa: very good point - you're absolutely right!

Rob: Yes, the group assignments are *entirely* done in class. They are interspersed throughout my lecture. Usually, I have anywhere between 2-4 of them per class meeting. Some of my assignments make them summarize and then critically evaluate an important passage/argument from the text. Other assignments have the students critically evaluate an argument I have given/defended in my lecture. Also, yes, students do get D's or F's relatively often, at least early on in the semester -- but (A) I try to make assignments "doable" with sufficient effort, (B) students tend to get enough of a hang of them to not get D's or F's after the first several weeks, and (C) I have a semester-long bonus point competition tied to the group assignments that given the groups incentives to work hard. (I don't want to go into complete detail on this, but basically, teams are assigned some number of "competition points" for an A (10 points), B (9 points), etc. Then, on every subsequent assignment, they "bet" on the quality of their answers -- where an A multiples their bet x2, AB x1, Bx0, BCx-1, Cx-2, etc. The team with the most points at the end of the term wins some bonus credit, 2nd place wins less, etc. This REALLY incentivizes hard work on the group assignments -- and it's also a lot of fun.

Finally, yes, a student who does not participate equally gets their name left off the assignment (or struck off by me), and they receive no credit. This happens only very occasionally, and the student it happens to invariably starts participating effectively thereafter.

Anyway, a typical group assignment of mine may have something like the following questions:

1. Summarize, as clearly and succinctly as you can, author X's argument on p. Y.

2. Motivate the best objection/worry you can about X's argument.

3. Explain how you think X might *best* respond to your objection/worry.

Or, alternatively:

1. On the previous powerpoint slide, I put the following argument into premise-conclusion form. Is the argument logically valid? Are all of its premises well-defended by author X? Explain.

I'll often get more creative than this, but this should give you an idea of what my assignments are like.

Tim O'Keefe

Did you see the the author bio:

"Galanty Miller
Contributing Writer, Onion News Network"

And then in the "read more" (articles on this subject) right underneath are listed:

Read more
College Professors, Academics, College, College Students, Learning, Professors, Teaching, University, Comedy News

If you want to use the article as a launching off point for a fruitful discussion of group work etc., great--but I'm pretty sure it's mostly tongue in cheek.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tim: Yes, I noticed - but while it might have been tongue-in-cheek (it's pretty obviously written that way), the remarks he made are relatively common canards that I think are worth dispelling!

Justin Caouette

Thanks for sharing your strategies, Marcus.

I do a lot of what you mention but not all. I'm reluctant about group work given the size of my classes (50-100) but I do see the value in it.

Christopher Stephens

I do group work especially when I have large classes (100+). Without regular small group activities, not enough students get a chance to talk and do philosophy in such large classes.

Michel X.

I always loathed group work (and assignments) as a student. It partly had to do with equal participation, and partly with *quality* of participation--if we're getting graded together, then I didn't want the football bozos bringing me down with their sub-par contributions. But it mainly had to do with the fact that I didn't think that I got very much out of it (my peers weren't helping me understand stuff, and I didn't think I got much out of teaching them). I'm not claiming I was a reliable (or good) judge of the value of group work, I'm just relating my own experience with it. Honestly, I can't recall ever participating in an enjoyable or useful group activity in a classroom setting.

Now, I've attended a few teaching-improvement-type seminars/sessions/whatever they're called run by the university, and they've universally recommended (and commended) group work. As a result, I've tried several different group work activities (not assignments) in the classroom as a TA. On the whole, I'm not convinced they were particularly successful except when spaced out quite a bit--something that I'm sure has as much to do with me and the activities as it does the students.

I did load quite a bit of (fairly different types of) group work into one semester recently. I had the students give me mid-semester feedback, and the results were that 69 respondents hated the group work, and 1 appreciated it. I'm happy enough to concede that I perhaps wasn't doing it right. Running group work well seems like an acquired skill, and not one that one can just drop into the classroom. But my own experiences with it have made me a little leery of all the praise it gets. I'm sure it's got a role to play in the teaching arsenal, but I'm not convinced it's as universal as everyone makes it out to be.

Marcus Arvan

Michel: Thanks for your comment. Well, given that your students (69 out of 70) hated group work and the vast majority of mine appear to like it, perhaps there is difference in the *kind* of group work we are talking about?

The kind of group work I do does not simply involve "getting into groups" and discussing a question. I did that early in my career, and it was too unfocused. I hated it, and so did my students. But this is *not* the kind of group work I do now.

First, my students say in the same groups all semester long. Second, they have to write and turn in detailed answers to the questions they answer. Third, their group grades have a large impact on their end-of-semester grades. Fourth, the questions I have them answer are challenging and tightly targeted. They do not let groups just muck around. There are specific arguments I ask them to summarize and then critique. Etc.

In other words, I think it matters a great deal how the group work is organized. It takes a lot of thought to put a good group assignment together, and incentivizing hard work. But, I've found, when one does these things well, students LOVE it.

Justin Caouette

Chris, I haven't had a problem with students speaking in class. About 40-50% involve themselves on a weekly basis (in large classes). I structure my lectures so that 20 minutes or so is dedicated to discussion at each class meeting. And, since they also meet for much smaller tutorial sessions (held by the TA) each week, they get the chance to speak up if the larger size class deters them. SO I'm not really seeing the benefits of using groups in the larger more intro-type classes.

Given that most students in those classes are just starting on their philosophical journey I think it's more important for them to hear someone lecture about these ideas and dissect the arguments with precision rather than discuss their half-baked thoughts on material with students who may or may not have done the required reading. That's not to say I don't encourage discussion, it's just that with the prof. running those discussions I think the students get more out of it (at that level). Upper level classes are different.

Now, maybe one could add a group element that does not take up class time and my worries would be alleviated. But this seems like a lot of work and I'm not sure what I would cut out of the current course set-up to make room for it.

What's likely the case is that I'm just not thinking of the right *kind* of group project coupled with my bias against group work as I, like Brent, loathed doing such work for similar reasons.

Justin Caouette

I meant "Michel X", and not "Brent". Sorry about that.

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