Though there are possible exceptions, in general group activities don’t work “out of the box” — they require some careful thought and preparation to ensure that they run as intended.
Meet weekly with course Learning Assistants.
It is important for faculty in a course supported by Learning Assistants to meet weekly with Learning Assistants (together with any Learning Assistants that are involved with the course) in order to reflect on the previous week, prepare for the upcoming week, and to listen and get feedback from Learning Assistants about how students are interacting with the course material. These meetings are also useful for creating a sense of community and to support Learning Assistants in the challenges of working with students in group environments. You may find it useful to look at the the instructor notes for the first joint Learning Assistants/Teaching Assistant meeting in chemistry (Acrobat (PDF) 123kB Jul27 10)
Discuss common student ideas. Look through students’ answers to prior semesters’ assessments in order to get a sense of how the students might approach the various content of the course.
Run through the activity.
With most activities, it is a very good idea to run through the activity with the Learning Assistants in its entirety, with the Learning Assistants in the role of the students and the faculty modeling how the Learning Assistants should interact with students during the activity (such as proper Socratic questioning). This is very useful for helping students become familiar with the activity and to check in on their own understanding of the material.
Discuss the process involved in facilitating the activity.
It is difficult for Learning Assistants to both play the part of students as they work through the activity AND notice important (and often subtle) aspects of the implementation. Thus you may need to explicitly discuss decisions you made when playing the part of the Learning Assistant, or you might want to assign one or two Learning Assistants each week to observe and report on the process to the group. (How did the instructor get all the Learning Assistants/students to participate in a group? What kinds of questions did the instructor ask to guide student thinking? How long did the instructor listen in on a group discussion before interjecting?)
Make sure Learning Assistants understand the content.
Before they go into the activity, Learning Assistants need a chance to brush-up or deepen their understanding of the content by going through the activity and asking questions of the instructor and/or TAs.
Review in advance. Some instructors require Learning Assistants to review materials in advance of the weekly meetings, when available. One instructor required the Learning Assistants to prepare a short presentation on the material to each other, to ensure that they take responsibility for the content and the weekly meeting isn’t used solely to review the content.
Prepare for understanding, not for the answers.
Learning Assistants and TAs alike tend to view activity preparation as “getting the answers” rather than to understand the activity and common student ideas and approaches to solving various types of problems. Depending on the nature of the activity, it may be important to curb their desire to get the answer to each piece of the activity and then move on – as they would then encourage students in the class to take this less effective approach. For ideas on how to encourage Learning Assistants to probe student learning within activities, see the tips and strategies sheet for Learning Assistants and Teaching Assistants (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Jul27 10).