As the students pour into the classroom, I ask each one to pick a card from a small deck on the front desk. When everyone is ready, I give them their instructions for the day.
“You’re going to be getting into randomly chosen groups today, and heading back to the lab tables to go over the homework together. Everyone with an ace will sit at this table, everyone with a king here, queens there, jacks there, and tens at this table. We’ll be doing this randomizing regularly for the next month to make sure you have a chance to work with every other student in the room.
“It’s important to pay close attention to the people you work with today. Towards the end of this quarter, you’ll have a say in who will be in your permanent study group, and you definitely want people you know you work well with. These may be your friends, but people you don’t even know at this moment may well turn out to be better workmates.
“When you get into groups, introduce yourself. Remember, by the end of next week, I want to see whether every person in this room knows every other person in this room. We will do more learning and enjoy it more if we all feel like we’re part of a community.
“I want to remind you that for this way of running a class to be successful, all of us have to share the wealth. Some of you are better at reading and taking notes, some are stronger mathematically, some are better test-takers. The point is that if every person shares what they are good at, everyone in the room will be successful. One thing I know for sure is that if I’m the only teacher in the room, we will get the usual bell curve grade distribution. I simply can’t give every one of you what you need to learn optimally all by myself.”
Some students have questions: “Won’t each group need to have a leader? Are you assigning one?”
“Actually, when we form permanent study groups in a few weeks, one person will be the leader, but it will be a volunteer, not someone that I choose. For today, if someone wants to lead, great. If not, see how well you do just talking to each other. Maybe you won’t even need a leader. If it’s too chaotic, I’ll help you figure something out.
“In any case, when you’re in your group, get out your homework for today, and I’ll walk around and stamp it. While I’m doing that, get out your books and go through each page together with your group. Look at the bold words, the diagrams and pictures, the captions, and see if there’s anything there that you struggled with last night. Check out anything you’ve written in the commentary section of your notes. If you put down any number other than a ‘5,’ you should have something written to remind you of why it isn’t a ‘5.’ What is it that you didn’t understand?
“When you’ve gone through every section -- and take your time; make sure that you really look at it -- then, as a group, look at the questions I’ve selected at the end of the chapter. They are going to be the springboard for your group to talk about what you just read. When you are done discussing each question, write down the answer to the question. It is critical that, even though you talked about it together, you write about it alone and in your own words. That increases the likelihood that you really understand it. If at any point you think there is something you can’t figure out as a group, call me over. I’ll be wandering around as you do this.
“When everyone is done reviewing the homework and answering the questions, I’m going to give you a check-up. This will be a single question that goes to the heart of what you’ve been discussing with your group. It is not for a grade, but rather to let you see whether you understood it as well as you thought, and whether your study group did its job well. It will also give me a sense of how the whole class is doing, and whether we are ready to move on to the next topic.”