Nicholas and Alexandra–and the Drawbacks of Group Work

14th March 2019

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Last week’s mention of Queen Victoria’s status as a carrier for the gene for hemophilia brought to mind what we believe to be one of the greatest biographies ever: Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, by Robert Massie.  Massie first became interested in the Russian imperial family because Massie’s own son was born with hemophilia. This gives Massie’s book an extraordinarily sensitive understanding of the tsarevitch’s hidden illness,  which ultimately led to the royal family’s murder. The story of Rasputin’s influence on the royals—along with the bizarre circumstances of Rasputin’s death—are some of the creepiest stories ever told. This is a book that’s nearly impossible to put down. One of Massie’s other books, Peter the Great: His Life and World, is our very favorite biography—it also won the Pulitzer Prize. If you’re looking for good, long audio books to take you through many driving hours, these are great choices. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)

Group Work Is Less Creativethe Bigger the Group, the Less Creative It Is

Over the last fifty years or so, we’ve noticed an increasing trend towards glorification of group work in education. Group work is thought to be particularly valuable in increasing creativity. Now, along comes a remarkable study in Nature, “Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology,” revealing that group work appears to diminish creativity—the bigger the group, the less creative the work.

As this New York Times article on the work notes: “Psychologists have found that people working in larger groups tend to generate fewer ideas than when they work in smaller groups, or when working alone, and become less receptive to ideas from outside. Why that would be isn’t entirely clear, but it runs counter to intuition, said Suparna Rajaram, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.”
“‘We find that the product of three individuals working separately is greater than if those three people collaborate as a group,’ Dr. Rajaram said. ‘When brainstorming, people produce fewer ideas when working in groups than when working alone.’”

What’s the alternative to group work? Direct instruction—but broken up with active (“diffuse mode”) breaks, which can sometimes include work with groups.  Here’s a bit of insight into how to do this in a classroom.

MOOCs—Much Like Books—Struggle with Rock Bottom Completion Rates

This Financial Times article gives a nice overview of the strategies being employed to help nudge completion rates upwards in MOOCs.  We believe part of the challenge with current MOOCs is how they’re designed and created—videos can sometimes be so boring that it’s all you can do to swivel your head, zombie-like, back towards the screen. But notice our mini-headline here. Wouldn’t you love to know the completion rates of electronically-purchased books?  Someone, somewhere, has that data, and our guess is that it would perhaps approximate MOOC-completion rates. So, we ask, tongue-in-cheek, should maybe we get rid of books? [Article hat tip: Ramiah Ramasubramanian MD, FRCA)

Online Students Multitask More (Or Do They?)

This article by whip-smart Doug Lederman in Inside Higher Ed describes study findings that show how online students seem to be more inclined to multitask than they are in face-to-face classes “presumably because instructors and peers are watching.” But note the extensive discussion of problems with the study. For one thing, the study asks students to remember their activities in online versus face-to-face classes—“remembering” can be a dicey proposition, as other researchers studying food intake have found. And as online instructor Laura Gibbs noted: “Online and face-to-face are delivery modes; they are not course designs… To say that online courses are alike because they are online is like saying that rocky road ice cream and tater tots are the same because you find them in the freezer section.” Finally, one can question the quality of “in house” university online courses, compared to MOOCs, built with economies of scale from a presumably more select pool of instructors.

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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