Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Professors Can Do About the Collaboration Problem

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the "collaboration problem" that sparked a significant amount of discussion among my colleagues in academic computer science, in large part because many people had observed the same problem, without ideas for great solutions. Here are some emails I've exchanged with Ben Zhao, a professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara, and my colleague Claire Le Goues in the School of Computer Science at CMU about how to address the problem in the courses we teach. (Ben recently posted this article on social media and had quite extensive discussion with many people in the field about how to address the problem.

I hope this will generate even more discussion that brings us closer to solutions.

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from:Ben Zhao
to:Justine Sherry,
Jean Yang
date:Tue, Dec 13, 2016 at 1:50 PM
subject:looking for advice

hey Justine, Jean.

Random email out of nowhere, hope you’re both doing great, and happy holidays!! :)

So I’ve been thinking and reading a fair bit on group dynamics in CS classes, esp. w.r.t. female students, with a fair bit coming from you guys. There aren’t that many in my classes (I teach undergrad networking and OS, so they’re almost all juniors/seniors by the time they make it to my class). So I’d like to make sure that I’m not contributing any more to the gender imbalance.

I need help. As strong women in CS, would love your take on a couple of key questions (but also would love any general advice you want to share, period).  And I know you’re busy super busy, but hopefully this is something that won’t take too much time. Either way, your advice would immediately impact 10s of female students in the coming quarter...

Key questions on my mind right now are:
- How should I do group assignments for larger classes with moderate to heavy projects? About half of my networking class homeworks are in groups of 2, and nearly all of my OS class homeworks/projects are in groups of 2-3.
- From what I have thought about and seen in past classes, I think my past practice of letting students choose their own groups doesn’t work. I recall something like 1/2 of all groups with at least 1 female student experiencing some type of malfunction, either due to the male student(s) flaking out or just failing out.

Right now, I’m considering something like the following:
  - Beginning of quarter, I reach out individually to all female students in the class (maybe 10-15, 20 if I’m lucky), and I ask them to attend an open discussion with me on campus.
  - I ask them for their experiences and concerns in the class, and esp. for group projects
  - I lay out what I think are challenges that they could face
  - I give them the option to find partners within the group, before the overall group formation process starts.

What do you think? Would this work? Would female students react negatively to being singled out? What happens if they don’t care and don’t show up?

Thanks in advance, and again, I’d love to hear any thoughts on this or on any other topic..

thank you thank you!
Ben

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from:Jean Yang
to:Ben Zhao
cc:Justine Sherry,
Claire Le Goues
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 12:16 PM

Hi Ben,

  Thanks for writing! These are great questions, I'm glad you're asking them. I'm looping in Claire Le Goues, another professor at CMU, because we've been talking about how we could address some of these collaboration issues with curricular changes, and about proposing an audit of the curriculum to make sure students are learning collaboration skills.

  Here are some things I learned from people after my blog post about the collaboration problem:
- It's important to keep in mind that all students have trouble with collaboration. It may disproportionately affect female and other minority students because 1) there are already so many factors that wear away at their desire to participate, and 2) students without strong social ties within Computer Science may not have access to as desirable of a partner pool. But an important take-away is that all students struggle with learning how to collaborate well, that we don't teach it in lower-level courses, and that in upper-level courses collaboration ability becomes important for academic success all of the sudden.
- There is strong evidence that self-selected groups are not as good as instructor-assigned groups.
- There are many resources out there for helping students work in teams more effectively. I was given this as a starting point:
- There are ways to get students to more actively work on their collaboration skills. Claire addresses this in the software engineering course she teaches. Some professors have reported having students assess how collaborations went, and docking points for students who didn't collaborate well.
- Several women, including myself, said that their best collaborations during undergraduate were with other women. I'm still not sure what to make of this in the context of other findings.

  Given this, I have the following thoughts about your proposed plan:
- I like the idea of talking to students about collaboration issues, but there are two main reasons I wouldn't do it only with the women. First, collaboration is an everyone problem, and not just a women's problem. It also affects people along lines of race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, etc. Second, even if the problem were only one of gender, it's a problem to be addressed by people of both genders. I've long believed that in order to solve the gender problem, we need to address the stereotypes associated with both femininity and masculinity. Only involving one of the genders in the conversation places all of the burden on that gender, and when it's the women, we are burdening an already burdened group. For these reasons I'd encourage a discussion about collaboration with the entire class, and then support to ensure collaborations are going as smoothly as possible throughout the semester.
- It doesn't hurt to check in with women and minority students, but without making them feel like they are being singled out, or because you are interested in them primarily because of the women in CS problem. My undergraduate professors paid a lot of attention to me, and I always assumed it was because I was a woman, and in fact this made me feel like I was less deserving of attention.
- I do like the idea of making it easier for minority students to find each other, but I don't know that it's your place to do it as the instructor. I don't know if there's a non-awkward way to bring this up during the whole-group discussion. Also, based on what people say it actually seems better to assign the partners as the instructor, and then it would not seem appropriate to assign people to work together based on their minority status. I'm still really not sure how to think of partner choice vs. partner assignment, and welcome discussion about this!

  Curious to hear your thoughts after your Facebook post about this topic blew up. :)

Best,
Jean

P.S. This discussion is interesting. What do you think about me posting this to my blog, maybe after Claire/Justine chime in?

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from:Ben Zhao
to:Jean Yang
cc:Justine Sherry,
Claire Le Goues
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 1:27 PM
hey Jean.

Great thoughts.

I’ve been learning a lot from the various viewpoints on the FB post, but I’m slightly frustrated by the lack of consensus as to the right solution. First, I agree with all the viewpoints that the problem is broader (re: your point on everyone having collaboration issues and others’ points about male students sharing in the solution), and any effort to address it should be more inclusive. That I think is very doable: I can talk about the issue early on in the class with some of Sarita’s slides she shared on the FB post. Hopefully I can do it in a tactful way that doesn’t alienate any group.

By beyond that, I’m sort of torn. It’s clear that different personalities play into how different women reacted to my suggestions. Some, like my senior colleague Linda Petzold, reacted fairly negatively because (I think at least in part) she has a really strong personality, and perhaps had less of an issue handling those situations herself. Perhaps I’m generalizing too much based on a sample set of maybe 2-3, but I’m guessing there might be an inverse relationship between a student’s own ability to deal with these challenging situations and their sensitivity to being singled out. In other words, is it possible the women (or other minority groups) who are most vulnerable to the negative situations (because they’re less assertive or more introverted) would be less concerned about being singled out as a group?  I don’t want to downplay comments from you or Linda (and a couple others on the FB thread) about being singled out, but do you think that then sensitivity might be less of an issue for less assertive students? Given my slightly biased sample of strong female colleagues, I’m not quite sure how far off I am on this line of thinking.

My overarching concern is that a broader discussion, while very positive and definitely much better than nothing, is still not quite enough. I worry that individual students will find it difficult to reach out to me the professor to discuss group issues. This has been very much my experience in the past, that students don’t want to appear like they’re a hassle, and no matter how I try to make myself approachable and less intimidating, there’s always a high barrier to overcome (especially for those more shy/introverted students). So all those comments/suggestions that involve groups reaching out and giving me feedback about their own individual group dynamics, I think they’re somewhat naively optimistic.

So I will definitely do what I can for the broader class. But I worry that won’t be enough. Beyond that, I can do random group assignments. But there I foresee lots of complaints by students unable to work with their friends, and any personality conflicts will be blamed on me (which is ok). There I worry that the disruption to the class group formation as a whole will produce more issues, and I haven’t convinced myself that random assignment is a better solution in general.  The other option is more proactively reaching out to female students. There the question is do the ends justify the means: would the potential benefits of helping women students form self-selected groups outweigh the initial discomfort of being “singled out”?

Any/all thoughts welcome, and thanks for spending your time on this. I’m fine with whatever you want to post on your blog about the issue. I think more exposure can only help, as I’m pretty sure that most (if not all) of my male colleagues in the dept have no idea group dynamics is even an issue.

thanks,
Ben

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from:Claire Le Goues
to:Ben Zhao
cc:Jean Yang,
Justine Sherry
date:Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 5:46 PM
I don't think that the following response is by any means complete, but here are some offhand thoughts:

I also wouldn't single out female students. I do think you can signal that you are a supportive ally in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways, especially at the start of class.  For example, giving the students a survey wherein you ask for their names, preferred names/nicknames, and pronouns indicates that you are a person who understands that pronouns are a thing worth asking/caring about.  This can indicate to marginalized students that you are more likely to be educated/aware of gender dynamics overall and thus they may feel more comfortable approaching you with concerns.  

My take is: Many women or other members of underrepresented groups *know* that life can be challenging as a woman in homework groups.  Having someone tell me those challenges neither solves them, nor makes me feel much better.  On the other hand, having you publicly talk to everyone, men included, about challenges that groups face, covering elements like subconscious bias, diversity/groupthink, etc, and the ways those forces hinder effective teamwork, might frankly resonate more with the women than singling them out, and might actually get the guys to think about their lives/privilege/behavior a little bit.

What you might do, if you don't necessarily want to go the random route, is ask *all* the students at the beginning (as part of a start of semester survey) if they have someone they want to work with.  You can say something like "I haven't decided yet how to assign groups but I am willing to entertain suggestions, so let me know by filling out this form; I will not share your answers with anyone."  If all the women pick someone reasonable, and all pairs are matched (like I say Jean and Jean says me), then you let them pick their own.   That way you're neither saying "HEY WOMEN YOU ARE BEING SINGLED OUT" but you can still get at the information you want.

We do assign students to groups pseudo-randomly, which is honestly pretty consistent with the literature.  We ask for schedule availability (there's an online tool for this I can dig up) and use that to assign groups, looking to maximize times they can work together while honestly trying, when we can, to split up known cliques.

This is all made easier by the fact that I teach a class explicitly about software engineering, including teamwork and process, and so we can very easily and truthfully say: You will go work for a company and get assigned to work with a team of people you do not know, and so being able to do that effectively is one of the learning goals of this class.  The students are generally receptive to this argument, even though there are always a dysfunctional team or two.  Teaching a systems-y class lends itself to the same line of argumentation: either they're going to industry or academia, and regardless, they need to learn to work with people who are not their friends.

The literature is mixed on group composition.  There is some evidence that putting members of underrepresented groups together is good in early classes (100-200 level), and additional evidence that past that, it doesn't really matter (because if you haven't dropped out yet, group composition is unlikely to be the deciding factor?).

Other thoughts on what we do: 
(a) We provide opportunities for individual assignments/assessments, ideally with each group assignment or milestone (so the first part is group work, and a smaller component is to be done individually).  This lets us identify malfunction and ensures that we are actually assessing individual as well as group performance, 
(b) We do not do peer grading by default but reserve the right to start if teams report serious problems.   Peer grading skews incentives within groups in a way that interferes with our particular learning goals in an SE context. However, it might work in your context where the "learn to work in teams" is less explicitly a goal of the course. 
(c) (speaking to your concern about students being hesitant to surface or discuss issues with you) At various points in the semester we specifically survey the groups about how they think they're doing and aggregate the feedback from everyone to send it back to them (these are teams of 3--5, so it's easier to do anonymously than teams of 2).  The form we used is based on literature on assessing group performance; I can find it if you're interested.  We then reach out to students who are reporting problems.  We talk to them individually and then also reach out to the whole group as appropriate (if the individual student says they're OK with it).  We do encourage them to try to sort it out by talking about it amongst themselves, and regardless, we follow up with the individual students to see how they feel after a week or so.  We do not use those feedback forms for grading in any way (and we tell them so).  I have found that about half the time, the frustrated students just want to vent for a half hour and then say "yeah I feel better, no need to do anything else." ;-)  When we bring them in as groups, we try to make them do as much of the talking as possible.  Like "Hey everyone, how's it going?  What do you think you're doing that's working well?  What are you doing that's not working well?  How can you fix it?"
(d) We cover effective teamwork in class at the start of the semester; practices like "have specific roles that you rotate; document agreements and assignment of responsibilities" (also from the literature---I think the Oakley article Jean linked).  I'd emphasize both the explicit assignment as well as the "rotation" aspect of the roles---otherwise, the female students tend to get "scribe" duties all the time. We've debated ways to enforce those practices (like asking for documentation of who does what), but have never formally done so.  

Honestly, I've never heard anyone say that having the students pick their groups worked out particularly well, frankly.  There are profs who say "Oh, but they complain if we assign them randomly!" And perhaps I'm too cavalier, but my response is: so?  They also complain if the tests are hard and if we give them too much homework, and we do it anyway because it serves our pedagogical goals.  I feel the same way about assigned groups.

Assigned groups don't solve all sources of team dysfunction, of course, and so I think we should as a curricular point do more to mitigate the risks that groupwork poses particularly to marginalized students and to teach students how to work together.  They spend their childhoods being told they're not allowed to work with others, and then we throw them into teamwork situations with no training, and then are surprised when they're terrible at it.  I think covering those challenges and strategies to mitigate them and proactively paying attention to team dynamics over the course of the semester is important to help them learn, though I by no means think we have a complete answer on that.

-CLG

3 comments:

jms said...

I fail at reading my email in order. Here was my response :P

Hi,

I haven’t chimed in much because I haven’t taught yet.

I 100% agree with Claire and Jean’s assessment that singling out women and minorities would be SUPER AWKWARD and counterproductive.

My own route as an undergrad was to often do group assignments by myself. No stragglers, and no individual taking over, it was just me on my own. I mostly did the same for grad classes (with one exception when I worked with someone who was already a research collaborator I liked). An added benefit of working alone was that no one ever doubted if I did my own work or if I got my male partner to do it for me.

Some professors I’ve had explicitly allowed this, e.g. “If you work alone, you need to implement the base system + features X and Y, if you work in pairs you need to implement the base system + features X, Y, Z, and foo”. I’ll probably go with this if I assign partner projects at all — collaboration is great and really fun when it works, but sometimes as a student you just know that the pool only contains people who aren’t good partners and then it’s nice to have an easy path out.

I somewhat agree with Claire’s comment here:
>I think we should as a curricular point do more to mitigate the risks that groupwork poses particularly to marginalized students and to teach students how to work together. They spend their childhoods being told they're not allowed to work with others, and then we throw them into teamwork situations with no training, and then are surprised when they're terrible at it.

And so I feel a bit of guilt in allowing my students the “opt-out-of-collaboration” route. But I’d worry that aiming to teach (force) bad collaborators to play well with others would come at the cost of forcing many disadvantaged students in to further disadvantageous situations. (And then fail altogether at teaching any of them about networks, which is my primary goal.) If someone had a tried and true solution I’d be all for it, but I wouldn’t want my students to be the guinea pigs for my half-baked solutions.

Justine

Anonymous said...

As a typical male student who went through undergrad CS, I admit I had biases and stereotypes that affected my decision in choosing project partners, and beyond. I was not able to shed these biases (though I may still have unconscious ones that I am not aware of) until working for a few years having met and worked with talented individuals of both genders. In retrospect, if this were brought up in class, it could have had an effect on how I view others. Of course, this is me in the present looking back, I can't say with certainty how it would have affected me back then.

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