Cooperative learning in the lab

I teach fourth and fifth graders in our school’s “Discovery Lab.” With over 700 students I am constantly brainstorming procedures to help the lab run smoother. One thing that I want to try is to assign student roles for group work. Do you have suggestions for these roles or any other information that might be helpful?
—Melody, Grenada, Mississippi

Defining roles is a key component of cooperative learning where students share the responsibility for learning. The literature on cooperative learning describes a variety of roles: ones commonly used in science classes include group leader, data recorder, measurer, equipment manager, liaison/questioner, artist/illustrator, researcher, timekeeper, and notetaker.

However, most of these traditional roles focus on logistics and procedures. I recommend the article “Teaching Students to Think Like Scientists During Cooperative Investigations” in the April/May 2008 edition of Science Scope. The authors (Voreis, et al.) describe how they use cognitive, or thinking, roles to help students develop inquiry skills and focus their activities on higher-order discussions and questions. The article has detailed descriptions of their roles (evidence collector, prediction manager, skeptic, and researcher), guidelines for the type of questions and responsibilities for each role, and an example of an evaluation sheet.

Regardless of what roles you decide to use, have job descriptions for each. These could checklists, a bulletin board display, index cards, or a page in the students’ science notebooks. The job descriptions could include mini-rubrics and conversation starters.

If you have students with unpolished interpersonal skills, start with brief and highly structured activities. Model cooperative behaviors and examples of appropriate language. Ask students to describe how they and their teammates did their jobs (this could be an exit activity). Rotate the roles so students have a variety of experiences. Once students are comfortable with these roles, they could create video clips of what the roles “look like” in the lab setting.

To keep the groups focused and on-task, be sure students understand the expectations for the project or investigation. Share the rubric ahead of time. Monitor the groups as they work, eavesdropping on their discussions and observing their interactions (this can be a formative assessment). Cooperative learning models emphasize the importance of both group work and individual accountability. You could have the group create some parts of a report together (perhaps in their notebooks or with a class Wiki or GoogleDoc page) and then have each student write an individual conclusion or summary. Some teachers hold each student responsible for one part of a project, evaluating the components separately and then assigning a holistic evaluation for the entire project.

Working with 700+ students in a lab setting is a challenge. In addition to your cooperative groups, there are other ways you can organize activities and materials to preserve your sanity:

  • Establish a routine for getting ready for class, such as posting an agenda on the board with what students need for class (notebooks, textbook, pencil, assignments to turn in, etc.).
  • Have a box or tray for each lab group to make it easier to organize and count the materials and to make sure everything is in place for the next class. Label or colorcode the trays so each group can find theirs.
  • Have assigned seats, assigned lab groups, and assigned roles for lab group members. These, of course, can be changed periodically.
  • Designate and label places to turn in assignments and equipment trays.
  • Put labels on shelves or tables to help students locate materials they may need during class.
  • Colorcode materials and handouts as much as possible to distinguish grade levels, homerooms, and lab groups. Have a graphic, number, or other code that students put on work they hand in so that you know to which section it belongs.
  • Be sure everything is in order before students leave.

Establish communications with the homeroom teachers (assuming they also teach science lessons) to help students make connections between the lab and classroom activities. A quick glance at a few science notebooks would let you know what the students have been doing since their last visit to your lab. And the homeroom teacher can see what projects the students are doing with you. Perhaps one role would be class secretary—a student responsible for bringing the notebooks to the lab and updating you on their other science-related activities.

Photograph:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/kasimetcalfe/118471837/

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