Collaborative Learning & Video Homework in Elementary Algebra

Mark Bellavia, Monroe Community College, mbellavia@monroecc.edu

Background
At Monroe Community College (MCC) MTH 098 Elementary Algebra is a developmental math course that does not count toward college credit for our students. It is a course that has one of the lowest student success rates at the college, and instructors are consistently discussing different methods to improve the success rate. To try and improve success rate in the past,  I have tried methods such as including additional homework problems, additional take-home quizzes, and using more class time for students to work on problems on their own while I went around the room to check for understanding. As an increased effort to improve my students’ success I decided to implement collaborative methods in my own teaching this semester. This did not come without hesitation, as I did have some concerns of students missing class and not being able to participate in collaborative activities, but ultimately I wanted to answer the inquiry question: “How can I use collaborative learning in my Elementary Algebra classes to increase student ability?”

Inquiry Design
To implement my action research, before the semester began I planned the changes I would need to make to my teaching methods in order to make the collaborative learning effective. First I decided which topics I wanted to implement collaborative learning in throughout the semester. I picked these examples based on where I have seen students struggle in the past, who might have benefitted from additional practice and time to talk with one another. I also realized that I would need to make up for some of the instructional time I would be using on collaborative learning, so I created Video-Homework assignments for students to watch online to complete the instruction of some of the more difficult examples from class. I figure implementing the examples this way will give the students the knowledge they would gain from class, but still get them to practice on their own. In past semesters teaching Elementary Algebra I found that students attendance tended to fade throughout the semester, so another change I decided to add to my course was to include points in my grading system for attendance. The rationale behind this being that students will not be able to get the benefits of working collaboratively if they are not present in class.

During the second week of the semester I implemented my first Video-Homework assignment. I thought it was important to add this early in the semester, to set a precedent and get student buy-in to a new method of learning. On the day the Video-Homework was assigned 18 out of 22 students watched the video and completed the assigned problem at the end. From a quick informal survey of the class I could see there was positive reaction amongst students, and they were encouraged that they could pause and rewind the video to make sure they understood the concept. I did not include a collaborative activity the following class because a lot of the material at this point in the semester was still considered review.

The next week I included a new Video-Homework assignment on solving linear equations and followed it up with a collaborative class on the same topic. There was a slight decline in the number of students who completed the Video-Homework, and I was worried this would hinder their ability to work in a group.

On the collaborative class day I allowed students to form their own groups of three to work together. I did not assign the students any roles as I wanted them to all participate on answering the questions and roles can be somewhat restricting. Students who did not watch the video were still able to participate since I developed a lot of the topic ahead of time in class, and just included more complex examples in the video. I asked students to work together to solve three specific problems on their worksheet. They were not allowed to move on to the next problem without being sure all group members understood the solution. I was particularly impressed with how eager students were to work together and show each other how to solve the problems. There was a lot of good discussion going on and students asked me questions only when their group was stuck. At the end of class when I surveyed the students on their experience; all but one student said that working collaboratively helped them have a better understanding of the class material for the week.

As I continued to implement collaborative classes throughout the semester, they became increasingly more successful, as students were participating more actively and learning from one another. Even though this went very well, there were some small hiccups along the way. On one occasion there were two students who had missed the previous class where we began our collaborative work and continued into the next class. I grouped these students together for the second class, but they were very confused having missed the material from the previous day and really didn’t get a lot out of the activity. This had been my concern prior to beginning my research, but I feel I can use it as a lesson learned as why not to miss class, as students realized not being in class hindered their learning. Another issue that came up is during one of the collaborative days one student refused to join a group and didn’t want to be in the group I later assigned her to. She refused to work with anyone, but complained about working alone. I left her to be on her own, but one student asked her to join their group later in the class and she accepted. It made me wonder what caused this unusual behavior.

By the 4th collaborative class, students were working extremely well together. During this class students were working on worksheets on factoring and rational expressions. I always give worksheets with more problems than they could possibly finish during one class period, as I want to give students plenty of practice and not have to worry about them running out of work. The students quickly formed their groups of 3-4 people, and got to work right away on the problems I had assigned for that class. I heard a lot of good discussion as I was observing the class, and they asked their group members questions, rather than asking me. In total, I was asked two questions this class and all groups were on task and working the entire time. The students actually cared about each other’s learning, and answered each other’s questions accurately, using appropriate mathematical terminology specifically referring to the difference between an expression and an equation. I was very impressed to see how well the students worked together.

What I Learned
As I worked on my action research project I collected data by journaling and field notes, surveying my students about collaborative learning, and comparing exam scores.

Journaling and field notes were helpful in my action research process. It allowed me to reflect on what was going on in the classroom each collaborative day, and how it helped the students as they were learning. In particular, it made me conscious of where students might be having trouble understanding, as I could overhear the questions they would ask each other and their explanations to one another. This helped give me some direction on reviewing specific topics in class that may have been unnoticed otherwise. The journaling also helped by giving me an opportunity to see where I should make changes between collaborative classes. From my first collaborative class to my last, I adopted new ways of proceeding with collaborative learning. Some of the things that changed were how I formed worksheets and picked out problems for students to work on together, what types of examples I used in the videos, and how much time I needed to give students to have a useful collaborative experience.

The student surveys were also a valuable method of collecting data. At the end of each collaborative class I asked students questions about their group participation, what they learned, what they taught someone else, and if the collaborative learning helped with their understanding of the material from that week. These surveys reinforced what I was observing in class each day- mainly that students were having a positive learning experience working collaboratively. The overwhelming majority (and usually all) of students responded that they have a better understanding of the material from the collaborative work. The survey also gave me some insight into exactly where students felt they increased understanding by their responses to the prompt: “State one thing you learned from someone else in your group.” This helps me not only this semester, but also gives me an idea of where to spend more time in future semesters.

In comparing final exam scores between the class where I used collaborative learning and the class where I did not, there was a difference in score. The class where I implemented the collaborative learning had a final exam average of 70% , and the other class with the traditional lecture approach had a final exam average of 66%. This difference could be due to the additional pieces of instruction from the action research having a positive influence on the student’s learning, where as the students in the other section did not have that additional practice and time to work together.

At the end of the semester I gave a survey to the students asking about their opinions on the Video-Homework assignments and Collaborative Learning this semester. I was surprised to learn that even though the students didn’t always complete the Video-Homework, almost all of the students said they liked the Video-Homework and would like to see it remain as part of the course. Some of the student comments included that they liked having my teaching style with them at home, the ability to rewind and re-watch certain parts was beneficial, and that by doing the Video-HW it gave them a refresher of what we learned in class that week.

The survey results for collaborative learning were also very positive, with all but one student responding that they liked collaborative learning. Some of the student comments included that they liked the ability to ask a classmate a question about understanding, it helped them realize where they were making mistakes, and that by working together it added more clarity to what we had worked on in class.

Conclusion
As a result of my action research project I have developed some changes to my instructional methods that will continue to my future Elementary Algebra sections. The main change will be using collaborative learning in all my Elementary Algebra classes. At the beginning of the semester I made a decision to only implement my changes in one of my two Elementary Algebra sections. I could see some noticeable developments throughout the semester that I didn’t necessarily see in the class I taught in my traditional approach.

In the section of the course with the action research being implemented I could see the students becoming more engaged throughout the semester. The students cared more about attending class and understanding the material- they never hesitated to stop me and ask a question. I feel this may be a result of the collaborative learning, as the students are more comfortable asking questions in front of one another. In addition to this, if a student is a little unsure of what is going on in class other students are quick to help them with explanation of their own. The most surprising thing I take from this is that the students actually care about each other’s learning, which was an unexpected development.

The action research also gave me an idea I can implement for online courses that I teach. In the past I would give students a set of weekly problems from the textbook to be hand-written and submitted electronically. In future online courses I will give a weekly Video-HW assignment (like the ones I used before collaborative days in this course) where there will be some instruction at the beginning and end with a homework problem that must be submitted at the end of the week.

Given the positive student reaction to the Video-Homework, I will continue to implement Video-Homework assignments in my Elementary Algebra courses in the upcoming semester. Upon surveying the students, they responded that it is helpful for them to have added resources available to them, and it gives them the ability to take their time and learn the material. Multiple students said they liked being able to have my teaching style at home as well.

In summary, I found my action research to be extremely valuable because it gave me the opportunity to test new methods in class. The students’ positive reaction to the collaborative learning and Video-Homework assignments, along with the additional understanding of the course material they experience, has given me the affirmation to use these methods in all of my future Elementary Algebra classes.

References:
Barkley, Elizabeth F., K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell. Major. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Print.
Dana, Nancy Fichtman, and Diane Yendol-Hoppey. The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Professional Development: Coaching Inquiry-oriented Learning Communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2008. Print.