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Collaborative learning refers to an instruction method which requires students to work together in small groups toward a common goal. In this issue of CDTL Brief, glean from the authors’ experience with Collaborative Learning and discover how it can be used to promote meaningful learning among university students.

April 2004, Vol. 7, No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Weekly Review and Integration of Ideas and Abilities
Tara W Mohanan
Associate Professor
Department of English Language and Literature

Students are constantly bombarded in classrooms, textbooks and on the Web, with fragments of information, conclusions, beliefs and opinions. An important ingredient of becoming educated is the ability to figure out for oneself which of these assertions to accept as true or credible, and which ones to reject.

Another important ingredient of ‘educatedness’ is the ability to convert the fragments into a coherent, integrated system of knowledge. Only with such integration does the mind learn and grow. Without the integration, information crowds and clutters the mind. For such integration to happen, however, one must be able to first distinguish those fragments that might qualify as knowledge, from those that would count as trivia.1 Students who don’t make the distinction learn words and sentences as answers to questions, without any transformation or reorganisation of their internal knowledge system. They also end up with logically inconsistent beliefs without awareness of the inconsistencies. The ‘fragmentedness’ can also hamper their ability to transfer ideas and abilities across domains.

One way to consolidate what a student learns in a module and connect it to what she has already learned, both within the module and elsewhere, is to have an obligatory weekly review exercise involving individual as well as collective effort—a strategy I have found useful in my modules. Each week, within three days of a class session (or lecture), students are expected to think about what they learnt in the session, in terms of both knowledge and abilities. They pool their thoughts together at an ‘affinity group’ meeting, and send me the collective ‘review and integration’ (one submission per affinity group).2 The ‘scribe’, one member representing the group, writes and submits the weekly review by e-mail, with a copy to the other members. Once all the submissions come in, I put together a consolidated version, with any additional comments I might have, and make it available to the class.

Students get a template for organising the review: the Obligatory Weekly Review and Integration (OWRION) [auri∂n] as we call it. The core template, modifiable to suit the level of the class and its needs, is as follows:

While the weekly review is expected to be a product of group discussion, students can include individual questions or disagreements within the group. Members of the group are required to take turns being the scribe, so that in addition to their regular assignments, I see at least two short pieces of ungraded work by each student in the class during the semester.

Such weekly reviews serve several functions. For the students, at the end of the semester, the points under (1) compiled from all the weekly reviews results in a picture of what they should know and be able to do as a result of having taken the module. Item (2) ensures that they have a list of all the handouts, readings, exercises and assessment tasks in the module. Item (3) helps to keep track of what they need to do each week (tests, assignments, readings and such). Together, items (1)–(3) help the students, particularly those less organised, keep abreast of the class.

Item (4) of the review gets students into the habit of active listening in class, paying attention to important points and noticing special highlights. (5) provides them the opportunity to contribute to the direction of the class, and make it relevant for themselves. Item (6) allows difficulties to be sorted out as and when they occur, rather than leaving them to the end of the semester. In sum, the review forces students to think about their own understanding of the issues dealt with in the classroom, readings and exercises, integrating the different parts, and to identify gaps and misunderstandings that need to be remedied.

The weekly reviews serve an important function for the teacher as well. (1) provides feedback on whether the students have perceived the teacher’s priorities, separating the central ideas from the peripheral, with a sense of relevance to the rest of the module. (2) and (3) serve as a reminder to the teacher of the various deadlines. Item (4) gives the teacher an idea of what interests students, and an insight into the nature of the student cohort. (5) and (6) provide timely feedback on what the students have learnt, and what needs clarification or intervention.

Being a group exercise in the context of a module where inquiry-based classroom activities involving constant student participation replace lectures, the weekly discussions and reviews carry additional benefits. Genuine, engaged discussion, anchored as far as possible in empirical grounds and rational argumentation, can stimulate deeper learning, depending on the group dynamics. The result of such collaboration is often more than the sum of the individual inputs. The exercise also gives members of each group a structured forum for articulating ideas, formulating conclusions and refining statements collectively.

The weekly review exercise has mostly drawn positive reactions from students in my modules. One mild objection has had to do with pressures of time, which defeat the very purpose of the reviews. Each review is essentially the work of the scribe rather than that of the group, though sometimes with input from other members. The net result is a higher workload for teacher and students, without substantial benefits. To reduce the burden on both the teacher and the students, I have sometimes found it necessary to trim the review down to items (5) and (6). Nevertheless, having used the strategy now for over two years, I believe that retaining some version of the OWRION is still worthwhile and rewarding for both the teacher and the student.

1 The inability to distinguish knowledge from trivia is reinforced by TV shows that equate intelligence with the ability to access trivial fragmented pieces of information, such as How to be a Millionaire and Singapore’s Brainiest Kid.

2 For a discussion of the strategy of affinity groups, see Mohanan, T. (2003). ‘Affinity Groups: The Idea and Its Potential’ in Ideas on Teaching. Vol. 1, pp. 14–15. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
Using Online Forums as a Replacement for Face-to-Face Discussion Groups
Weekly Review and Integration of Ideas and Abilities
Collaborative Learning: Some Issues and Recommendations
The Impact of Teaching Assistants on Students’ Learning Experience: A Study on Teaching and Learning in an NUS Chemistry Laboratory
A Model of Collaborative Learning Project for Japanese University Students