Study Groups

See also the handout entitled: "Working groups" available on the Lecture Notes page.

The class will be divided randomly into 4–6 Study Groups. Why randomly? If you are reading this before the class has actually begun, try to answer this question for yourself before reading further. Be prepared to argue for or against this method of procedure as you see fit.

Here is our rationale:
Much of the subject matter is contemporary, controversial and complex. In addressing it we aim to proceed in as scientifically credible a manner as is possible. That means controlling (insofar as we can) for the presence and potentially biasing influences of at least some plausibly influential variables.

In a community like ours, one such variable is the likely presence among the participants of various "invisible loyalties". Beyond that, please recall what was previously said about each of us coming from a background that is separate and distinct from everyone else's. Precisely because "everything said is said by someone", and because each of us enters into this setting (i.e. "this collaborative learning system-in-formation") with certain default assumptions, preconceptions, expectations and attitudes already established, the explicit randomization of study group membership is a procedural step aimed at creating for ourselves a "level playing field". We know no better way to systematically control for the otherwise powerful sources of bias, including the putative existence of "visible and invisible loyalties (shared sympathies antipathies)" within this cohort of students prospectively comprising this class.

Study groups are to meet for 2 hours weekly, starting during the first week of class. Don't meet too soon after class. It is best to meet 3-5 days after class, so everyone has a chance to do homework assignments before meeting. The point is for you to start working your way through the syllabus and studying alone and together, independently of the instructors and other students. The workload thus includes attendance at and participation in weekly class meetings lasting a total of 5 hours per week. In addition, the situational "demand characteristics" nominally include one hour per day or 7 hrs. per week, of solo homework. (Time spent watching assigned videos with groupmates or doing assigned readings together, etc. does not count in fulfillment of the weekly study group meeting requirement.)

The time and place of study group meetings need to be agreed upon among the members and reported back to the instructors and other members of the class; however, certain procedural cautions and scheduling constraints apply. (See below and under F. Study group minutes".) Bear in mind that you are supposed to be meeting as a study group. What, precisely, does this mean? Think about this seemingly overly simple question and discuss this with your groupmates. Pick a meeting place and time appropriate to the purposes that the group is constituted to pursue. Schedule and hold weekly meetings Regularly at times and in places where interruptions, distractions, etc. won't arise and impair your ability to concentrate, to remain task-oriented, and to listen and talk with each other. Avoid public spaces; avoid distracting sounds and sights, avoid "floating" from one meeting place / time to another.

The group should conscientiously consider negotiate, devise, and implement equitable ways of working together. Recognition of the need for all basic social positions to be played (e.g. leading, opposing, following, bystanding) is essential. Question: should these roles be played by each person as appropriate to the situation of the moment or ought each role be assigned to particular people in a certain order? Should roles be assigned or be played arbitrarily?

These questions not intended to be "merely rhetorical"—we will stay for an answer. Respectful and sincere production and processing of meaningful feedback and serious negotiation regarding objectives may be required to achieve an open and effective learning system. Authenticity seems to correspond with "best practice." Insofar as possible, everyone should be expected to behave in every given instance as appropriate. Effort will probably be required to ensure that all members become involved in giving and getting feedback as needed in relation to group process and task. Strive for a fair division of labor and a workable system of checks and balances. Don't let the same people get stuck with the same routine tasks over and over again (e.g. aim for equitable rotation of note-taking tasks). Especially when the workload feels like it is becoming a bit too heavy, dividing ("jig-sawing") assignments will enhance the quality of the collaborative learning experience on all levels (individual, study group, and whole-class).

Study Group Meetings and Minutes

Each week each study group is responsible for preparing and submitting to the instructors–via email—a brief (1–2 page) collaborative report, henceforth referred to as "study group meeting minutes". (Or merely "Minutes").

"Minutes" must be received by instructor(s) 1 day before class. It follows that your study group should not arrange to meet later than the day before class in the afternoons / evenings or at any time on the day of class. As already noted, weekly study group meetings should not be scheduled to occur too soon after class. Everyone needs a chance to reflect on the previous class and get a good head-start on the assigned homework. It is thus best to try to schedule meetings on on 3–4 days before class, insofar as possible.

The minutes submitted by each group will be read and commented upon, successively, by the instructional staff. Everyone in your group will receive your annotated minutes by return email. Annotated copies of the minutes from each group will also be forwarded to all members of the study group that is serving as the "steering group of the week". This "steering group pro tempore", will carefully review all of the annotated minutes and find ways of incorporating pertinent items / questions / problems / comments into their already-ongoing plans to facilitate the next day's class meeting.

The steering group of the week will also prepare and distribute to the class as a whole a brief summary / overview of substantive or procedural "issues of note" raised in the minutes received (e.g. stressing common themes, general concerns, etc.) as well as a provisional agenda for the next day's class.

Important: The readers of your weekly minutes are looking for information that will contribute to the development of the class into a sustainable collaborative learning system. They are not merely or even mainly interested in "grading" you or in evaluating the quality of your study group's minutes. Facilitating the learning process here is mainly a matter of each and all of us constantly and recurrently formatively evaluating what is going on. Toward this end, we do not need or want a word-by-word transcript of "who said what" at your meeting. Nor will it suffice for us to receive a mere list of who was present and what was discussed. Rather, you should strive to produce meaningful "process notes" consisting of summary statements, insights, points of agreement / disagreement, queries, requests for clarification, and comments relating to all aspects of the learning experience (problematic issues relating to both process and content should be addressed). Minutes are most valuable in guiding the process when they contain something true and (for you) significant about either the form or content of your 9.70 learning experience. You can help most by reporting (e.g.):

  • "What is good and what is not good?" Identify points of consensus and / or disagreement regarding the presentation (in class, syllabus, text, etc.) of topically relevant issues; review and discuss assigned readings / films; comment on the quality / quantity of the assigned material; upon conclusions arrived at by the group and whether meaningful agreement was reached on any significant topic, and what that outcome suggests or implies.
  • Talk about the quality of the material; the quality of the class sessions, the quality of your group meetings, the educational value of your discussions and conclusions, the timeliness / completeness of attendance, the quality (valence / intensity) of group "feeling"– (e.g. positive or negative energy level, etc.). Acknowledge "local and world events"or "personal issues" that are having an influence on your life and learning experience.
  • Include concise comments on or answers to substantive or procedural questions posed in the syllabus, express your opinions about the questions, add personal anecdotes and other musings / conclusions / ideas on these subjects as appropriate.
  • Mention comments / questions / criticisms that some or all group members feel strongly about (e.g. organizational, procedural or substantive issues pertaining to homework—readings, films, etc.) or matters relating to study group and / or class meetings.
  • Comment as appropriate on the role and performance of the instructional subsystem. In all living systems, from cells to societies, corrective feedback–both positive and negative–is necessary in all aspects and at all levels of organization and development.

Weekly minutes should also include a brief summary statement from each member, regarding the form, content and quality of his / her own 9.70-related activities since the previous class session.

Subject-related conversations and electronic communications between / among study groups and between / among members of the class within and across study groups are strongly encouraged. However, experience shows that an excessive resort to "side-channel" or "back-door" lines of communication can engender mistrust and miscommunication. It is generally "best practice" to avoid ad hominem remarks and to include a "cc" to everyone who is referred to by name in such exchanges.

In sum, weekly minutes will be most useful to the facilitation process (see next section), if they provide honest and concise, theoretically and practically relevant, substantively and procedurally constructive feedback regarding the organization and development of the class and its subsystems (i.e. your study groups).