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Collaboration in the classroom

May 9, 2015

Last fall, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pam Stefanuca, Director of Academic Technology and Instruction at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and talk about how I encourage collaboration in class. She’s just published the interview on her website, and listening to it after all these months led me to reflect on some collaborative strategies I used this semester in Art Matters, a first year foundation course at MICA that emphasizes art historical methodologies and writing skills. I felt the two that I outline below were productive in-class assignments that engaged the students in active processing of the material, in addition to fostering collaboration.

The first was a writing workshop where my goals were to prepare students for their first formal writing assignment and to familiarize them with the rubric I’d use to evaluate their work. I set up a shared class folder on Google Drive, which we used throughout the semester for similar activities. During our workshop, the students worked in groups of 4 to write descriptions of a video game called Journey** (actually, they focused on describing the promotional trailer since not everyone was familiar with the game). Each group presented their descriptions to the entire class, and then evaluated the other groups’ work based on my rubric. We ended the class sharing the “grades” they had assigned one another and reviewing how they had evaluated each criteria on the rubric. After class, I added detailed comments and suggestions on each of the descriptions in our shared folder, and had the students use these as a resource when they started work on their upcoming assignment.

The second collaboration grew from the fact that many of my students are drawing and illustration majors. The goal of this session was to familiarize students with formalist methodologies in art history.  I had assigned the introduction to Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History as one of the required readings, and students were to bring to class a list of key points, which we discussed before breaking into groups of 4 students. Each group was then assigned the task of rewriting Wölfflin’s introduction as a graphic novel, and I was amazed by the results.  Aside from the quality of the images (everyone should be so lucky as to teach art students), they were talking with each other about the main ideas of the text and how to synthesize them into a visual format. Because of time constraints, the students chose to upload images of their work to share via our class folder on Google Drive, and I assigned a reflection assignment for them to review and critique each others’ versions of the text. This final step was important because it provided students the opportunity to recognize and correct conceptual misunderstandings in some of their peers’ work.

As I say in the MICA interview, collaboration requires a mindshift away from academic notions of proprietary contribution and individual achievement.  I’ve found in-class activities to be a good way to foster collaboration because they evolve from group discussion toward a clear collective effort to accomplish the learning goals for that day. Building collaboration skills through such low-stakes assignments can be a first step toward integrating collaborative learning throughout a course.

**The class had “chosen” this video game among other student submissions as an art object that most challenged traditional ideas about what art is (one of the first assignments in the class). We returned to the game several time as the focus of collaborative work that paralleled course assignments that students were required to do individually during the semester.

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