Group Teaching Introduction to Literature

Dr. Thomas Blake,  Instructor, Monroe Community College.   tblake@monroecc.edu

Background

Aware of the social, economic, and political impact a strong educational system can have on a culture, I have been increasingly troubled by the high fail/withdrawal rate in the college’s “gateway courses,” English Composition and Introduction to Literature, so I have been exploring ways different teaching practices might impact student performance in the classroom.   When a colleague approached me and asked if I would be interested in “group teaching” a section of Introduction to Literature (English 105), I was eager to give it a shot.  In my first three years here at MCC, 47% of my students, on average, drop or fail Introduction to Literature, and my colleagues have had similar results in their classrooms.   We hoped, therefore, that “group teaching” would produce better results than does the conventional single-instructor format.  When researching the effectiveness of our pedagogical “experiment,” I set out to determine: 1) whether or not a significant change in course structure will affect my pedagogy and/or teaching effectiveness, 2) whether or not group teaching English 105 will decrease the fail rate in my course, 3) whether or not different formats yield different levels of student engagement, and 4) which course I prefer to teach.

Inquiry Design

In the Fall of 2012, I taught two different sections of Introduction to Literature.  In one section (034), I approached the course “conventionally,” a themed course covering poetry, prose, and drama throughout the semester.  My other section was a composite of three sections (Leuzzi’s 001, Brandt’s 002, & my 003).  In this experimental, group teaching format, I taught the prose section of the course three separate times to three different sections.  Each section spent five weeks with each instructor, and each instructor was responsible for teaching a specific component of the course (fiction with Blake, drama with Brandt, poetry with Leuzzi).

While conducting my research, I was essentially searching for answers to the following questions:

  • To what extent will this significantly different course structure impact my teaching preparation and effectiveness?
  • Will group teaching via instructor rotation positively affect the learning experience of students in English 105?
  • Will the average grade/fail rate in the group taught class be different than the average grade/fail rate in the English 105 that I teach “conventionally”?
  • Will the students in the group taught class be more engaged in class discussion than are the students in the “conventionally” taught courses?
  • Will the group taught students be more engaged in the group taught 105 than are the students in my “traditional” 105?

To measure the effectiveness of the “group teaching,” I collected a range of data.  Starting from the onset of the course, I compared the amount of preparation required for the “group taught” class with that of my “traditional” course and took informal notes.  In addition, I compared the average grade in “group taught” course to average grades/fail rates in conventional course and then compared the average grade in “group taught” course to the composite average of student grades in every 105 I have taught since I’ve been at MCC.  Along those same lines, I compared the attrition rate of my “group taught” course to that of my conventional course and again to the composite average of drops/withdrawals in every 105 I have taught since I’ve been at MCC.

I supplemented this assessment of grades and attrition with two different sets of surveys.  The CCTE, in conjunction with the Center for Governmental Research, provided a survey that I conducted with students from an Introduction to Literature I taught in the Spring of 2012, a course I taught “conventionally” the semester before I conducted my action research.  I conducted the same survey with a different section of students from “group taught” Introduction to Literature course in the Fall of 2012.  Furthermore, I designed a survey which I conducted with both my “group taught” class and with my “conventional” course that served as a control group.

Results

1. Will a significant change in course structure affect my pedagogy and/or teaching effectiveness?

“Group teaching” Introduction to Literature made a significant difference in how I prepared for class and in how I interacted with students.

Preparation

Since I try to teach different works every semester, including at least one text I’ve never taught and one I’ve never read, my literature courses generally require short periods during which I have a good deal of preparation.  While “group teaching,” however, I am teaching the same works three different times throughout a semester.  As a result, my preparation time is limited to the first unit.  This makes a drastic difference.  In the conventional course I was teaching simultaneously, I had significantly more preparation hours throughout the semester.  At the same time, however, I realize that all teachers may not teach different works each semester.  Anyone who teaches the same works every semester would not experience this benefit of “group teaching.”

Interaction

While “group teaching,” I had the luxury of catering to the chemistry of each individual class.  In my conventional course, for example, I only have “one shot” at conveying the themes of a particular text.  In the “group teaching” model, I have three opportunities to effectively communicate the ideas of a given work.  This means that by the time I’m teaching the third unit, thus teaching the same text a third time in one semester, I have a better idea of what works, what doesn’t work, and why.  To be sure, though every class has, to some degree, its own character, priorities, and learning styles, identifying what approaches to a text are more effective than others has far-reaching consequences.  For example, in the first unit, the way I approached the swamp metaphor in Cather’s A Lost Lady did not get the results I would have liked, so I adjusted for unit two and again for unit three, and the students in units two and three clearly understood the material better.  While this type of “trial and error” is an obvious aspect of teaching, the “group teaching” model compresses the time frame during which one can experiment and therefore generates results faster.

2.  Will “group teaching” Introduction to Literature decrease the fail rate in my course?

The fail/attrition rate in the “group taught” course is notably less than both the control group and the composite average of failures/withdrawals in every section of Introduction to Literature I have taught in the past three years I’ve been at MCC.  As previously stated, over the past three years, 47% of students in my Introduction to Literature classes have dropped, been withdrawn for excessive absences, or failed the course.  In essence, therefore, an average of 53% of my English 105 students have successfully completed the course with a D or higher.

Control Group/Conventional Method

Initial Enrollment: 34

Drops/Withdrawals: 12/34 (35%)

Failing Grades: 5/22 (23%)

Average Grade: 72

Successful Completion: 17/34 (50%)

Group Taught Section 1 (003)

Initial Enrollment: 30

Drops/Withdrawals: 8/30 (27%)

Failing Grades: 0/22

Average Grade: 75

Successful Completion: 22/30 (73%)

Group Taught Section 2 (004)

Initial Enrollment: 36

Drops/Withdrawals: 9/36 (25%)

Failing Grades: 1/27 (4%)

Average Grade: 78

Successful Completion: 26/36 (72%)

Group Taught Section 3 (005)

Initial Enrollment: 20

Drops/Withdrawals: 4/20 (20%)

Failing Grades: 0/16 (23%)

Average Grade: 84

Successful Completion: 16/20 (80%)

Group Taught Combined Average

Initial Enrollment: 86

Drops/Withdrawals: 21/86 (24%)

Failing Grades: 1/65 (2%)

Average Grade: 79 Successful Completion: 64/86 (74%)  

As the above data illustrates, 74% of the students in the “group taught” sections of Introduction to Literature successfully completed the course compared to the 50% successful completion rate of a course I teach conventionally.  An improvement of 24% is a radical increase in successful completion.

3. Will different formats yield different levels of student engagement?

On the one hand, the “answer” to this question is obvious; the fact that 74% of students successfully completed the course with a D or higher (24% more students than in my conventionally taught course) indicates that students in the “group taught” scenario are more engaged and invested in success.  Survey responses further confirm that students find “teacher rotation” a more engaging learning environment.

My Survey:

The “teacher rotation” method kept me engaged in the class and the material.   

Section 1 (003):  Strongly Disagree: 0 Disagree: 0 “Sorta” Agree: 6 Agree: 12 Strongly Agree: 4 Section Average: 3.9

Section 2 (004):  Strongly Disagree: 0 Disagree: 3 “Sorta” Agree: 4 Agree: 13 Strongly Agree: 7 Section Average: 3.9

Section 3 (005):  Strongly Disagree: 0 Disagree: 0 “Sorta” Agree: 5 Agree: 3 Strongly Agree: 8 Section Average: 4.0

Group Taught Total:  Strongly Disagree: 0 Disagree: 3 “Sorta” Agree: 15 Agree: 28 Strongly Agree: 19 Section Average: 4.0  

 

CCTE/CGR Survey

How often do you come to this class with all your work prepared?

Pre-Project Control Group (Spring 2012): Almost every day: 79% At least once a week: 21% Once a month: 0 A few times per semester: 0 Almost never: 0

Group Taught Students: Almost every day: 87% At least once a week: 13% Once a month: 0 A few times per semester: 0 Almost never:  0

How often do you participate in class discussions in this class?

Pre-Project Control Group (Spring 2012): Almost every day: 58% At least once a week: 8% Once a month: 4% A few times per semester: 21% Almost never: 8%

Group Taught Students:  Almost every day: 60% At least once a week: 22% Once a month: 18% A few times per semester: 0 Almost never: 0

According to survey responses, 95% of students felt that the “teacher rotation” method kept them engaged in the class and the material.  In addition, the CCTE/CGR survey reports that the “group taught” participate in class discussion 49% more of the time than do the conventionally taught survey respondents.

Conclusion

When conducting this project, I was concerned about the extent to which the “teacher rotation” method would improve successful student completion.  Clearly, the method, at least during this particular semester, produced more promising results than my previous experience teaching Introduction to Literature.  At the same time, I was equally curious about whether or not “group teaching” would positively affect the learning experience of students taking English 105.  Overwhelmingly, the survey I conducted indicates that students enjoyed the structure of the course.

  • I prefer the “teacher rotation” method to the traditional classroom environment. Yes: 91% No: 9%
  • I appreciate exposure to different teaching styles. Yes: 98% No: 2%
  • The “teacher rotation” method helped me learn more than I would have otherwise. Yes: 94% No: 6%
  • I have enjoyed “getting to know” different teachers for the same class. Yes: 97% No: 3%
  • I find the structure of this course helpful and conducive to learning. Yes: 97% No: 3%

It appears, therefore, that students enjoyed the structure of “teacher rotation,” were more engaged in the material, and were more successful in completing the course.  The final concern, and the one that is least important, is which format is “better” to teach.  As I anticipated before the semester started, students experienced a little anxiety as they transitioned from teacher to teacher.  That anxiety is the problem with this format, and students consistently reported this as a “weakness” of the structure (see student comments – page ).  What I did not anticipate, however, was the amount of anxiety that I experienced as the teacher.  Upon reflection, Brandt, Leuzzi, and I each forged a bond with our original section (first five week unit) that we did not reproduce with the subsequent two sections.  Quite frankly, though we all experienced this, the reasons for this are not clear to me.  Perhaps we are simply used to the first five weeks of school to be the relationship building time upon which the rest of the semester is built.  In any event, student responses do not reflect this same sentiment.  Students reported that each professor had a solid command of the material, had clear expectations, and was fair (see surveys).

Another positive aspect of this format is the extent that it permits/requires collaborative instruction.  I worked closely with two colleagues, each of whom are award winning teachers, and I was able to benefit from their experience.  Meeting several times in the summer before the semester, we decided that students would benefit from an overarching theme that would pull the material together.  Since the students would have three different instructors, a theme would provide a sense of continuity that may otherwise be provided by a single instructor.    We worked together to develop a theme for the course.  Leuzzi explained that he wanted his poetry section to revolve around a single author (Walt Whitman), so the theme evolved into perspectives on American Identity.  To this end, the three of us collaborated on book orders as we determined how to best shape the structure of the course.  In addition, Professor Leuzzi, Dr. Brandt, and I met in August to co-draft our course policy, and we determined types of assignments, and method of evaluation.  Before the class even started, the three of us met for several hours developing the foundation of the course.

This project also cultivated Cooperative Instruction.  The three of us had to report to one another about student progress/attendance, student performance/grades, and unexpected conflicts.  For example, one professor had a student who plagiarized and passed that information along to the other two professors.  Despite the fact that our policy clearly stated that any plagiarism results in failure of the course, the student elected to remain enrolled in the class.  Since faculty can only withdraw a student for non-attendance, the student had the right to remain in the course but it was essential that all professors were aware of the situation.

The results of this project were dramatic.  “Group taught” students stayed in the course, were more engaged, made higher grades, and were generally more successful at completing the course.  A viable critique of these results could easily be that different teachers grade differently, have different expectations, and require varying degrees of academic rigor.  With this in mind, averaging grades would result in higher grades.  While I don’t think this was at all the case for us, it is not implicitly problematic that different teachers with different expectations would yield higher grades.  Every department in every college has teachers with different expectations and teachers distribute different class averages, and the “teacher rotation” method is just a different means by which these averages are distributed.  That said, were Brandt, Leuzzi, and I to have significantly different expectations of students, we would not have assembled to work together on a project of this nature.  Moreover, I suspect that would generally be the case; professors would likely be “selective” insofar as they would identify colleagues who share – to some degree – pedagogical, philosophical, political, or ethical concerns.  I attribute the results, therefore, to the simple fact that the “teacher rotation” method kept students’ attention because they had to completely start over with a new professor, new material, and a new classroom dynamic every five weeks.  Those who did not like the environment dropped, but that number was smaller than the usual drop rate I have experienced while teaching the course at the college.

In final analysis, I consider the “group teaching” experiment to be a marvelous success, and I anticipate that Brandt, Leuzzi, and I will continue on with the project.  While seeing students succeed is deeply rewarding and teaching the same material in three different units allows me to modify my approach as needed, I think that the most satisfying aspect of this project has been the opportunity to work side-by-side with Dr. Maria Brandt and Professor Tony Leuzzi.  They have much to share, and I have much to learn, and it was an honor sharing this experience with them.

Appendix A:  Sample Student Survey

A five-point Likert Scale was used, with students asked to choose a response of :  Hell No, No, Sorta, Yes, or Damn Right to the following questions:

1.  I prefer the “teacher rotation” method to the traditional classroom environment.

2. I appreciate exposure to different teaching styles.

3. I feel like I learned a lot this semester.

4. My professors possess a clear command of material.

5. I am comfortable with the “teacher rotation” method.

6. The “teacher rotation” method helped me learn more than I would have otherwise.

7. The “teacher rotation” method kept me engaged in the class and the material.

8. I have enjoyed “getting to know” different teachers for the same class.

9. I find the structure of this course helpful and conducive to learning.

10. I prefer this classroom environment to the more traditional classroom setting.

 

Appendix B:  Survey Results Summary

Rotation TOTAL — 21 drops (24%) – Average Grade = 79 (65 students)

  • ROTATION 1  — 8 drops (27%) – Average Grade = 75 (22 students)
  • ROTATION 2 —- 9 drops (25%) – Average Grade = 78 (27 students)
  • ROTATION 3 — 4 drops (20%) – Average Grade = 84 (16 students)