April 17, 2017

Learning Sociology through Collaboration

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

If sociology teaches us that we learn about our social world, others, and ourselves through social interaction, it stands to reason that a great way to learn about sociology is through interacting with others.

On the most basic level, interactive learning takes the form of class discussions. Many courses require students to conduct research, often through observation, interviews, or surveys, and this is also a good way to learn some of the tools of sociology.

But collaborative learning is more than just talking and conducting research. Collaborative learning involves problem solving with others, where students brainstorm, come up with research questions, seek answers, or work on large projects together.

Sociology is an ideal subject for collaborative learning. Students from different backgrounds might offer unique perspectives on issues like race, class, gender, sexual orientation or identity that their classmates might not have considered before. Working in small groups or pairs might make it easier for some students to contribute their ideas, as some students shy away from participating in larger conversions with an entire class, especially about issues that might be controversial.

I regularly use collaborative exercises and assignments in my classes. In one class recently, two students who are conducting ethnographic research decided to work collaboratively. They are both observing elementary school children, although the children are in different classes. When they worked individually, each shared with me that they felt stuck in their research, and weren’t sure of what their observations meant.

Through meeting and talking about their experiences regularly, they found some patterns that reflected some of the findings of the authors whose work we had read for the class. They were then able to focus more on how status hierarchies emerge in classrooms, when they are more salient and when they are less important. Their collaboration has helped make their analyses clearer.

That’s a best-case scenario. Let’s be honest, some people who work on group projects aren’t exactly collaborating as much as others.

That’s not always a bad thing. In some cases, strong students have less-skilled peers in their groups, and might be frustrated with the lower quality of their contributions. But this is still a learning opportunity for both parties: the more skilled student’s learning is deepened through helping to teach others what high-quality work looks like. And the less-skilled student can see from this process how specifically they might go about improving their work in the future.

I witnessed this with one group project a few years ago, when two highly successful students had a struggling student in their group. The struggling student attended every class, took notes, and paid attention, but had trouble with writing and using evidence for support in his essays. Through working closely with the other two outstanding students, he began to learn how to think critically about the course concepts.

This presumes that everyone gives the activity or project their best effort—clearly, some students don’t.

Each year I coach students on how to handle errant group members, sometimes by helping them politely release the non-contributor from their team. While this is an experience that rightly makes some students shy away from group projects, it is a reality that we all face if we work with other people (and there’s almost no way to get around working with others).

Some people are better at deadlines than others; some are very motivated, others are not. Addressing difficult situations professionally is a life skill that sociology students can take with them in any career path they follow; even if it is not formally on any exam, learning to complete a task through collaboration can be the most important challenge students face.

In order to address the accountability issue, I leave a portion of the project grade for anonymous teammate evaluations, and require individual reports on the specific tasks that they completed and what they personally learned about their topic and the experience.

How else does sociology lend itself to collaborative learning? Instructors, what collaborative activities and assignments do you use?

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