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Groups with an Educational Purpose

Over the course of the next several weeks new groups will come into existence all around the world. These groups will be formed to achieve a specific purpose: the education (and possible enlightenment) of their members. School is back in session.

These classes, like all groups, will develop a set of norms that will become powerful determinants of the students’ actions. These group-level standards will emerge naturally over time, but those that grow organically might not be the most conducive for helping students reach their learning goals. In consequence, one of the primary responsibilities of the teachers and professor is the creation and maintenance of normative structures that facilitate change.  They can do so by:

  • Stating the norms clearly in the syllabus and reiterating them as needed.
  • Linking norms to a more general framework of social and moral principles that provides a rationale for the class’s procedures. Students can be reminded, for example, that the highest priority is learning, and that all other concerns must be set aside.
  • Stressing the need for cooperation and teamwork, particularly in larger classes where the actions of a minority can substantially disrupt the quality of the experience for the majority. Remind students of the importance of putting their personal, individual needs aside for the good of the collective.
  • Sharing responsibility for maintaining norms with the students. Remind students they are collectively responsible for maintaining norms, and so attentive students should feel free to tell talkative students to be quiet.
  • Comparing the class to other types of social aggregates, such as audiences, congregations, and mobs. Inform students that the classroom is not like a movie house, where patrons can step out for popcorn whenever they like. For online classes, tell students the class is not an anonymous chat room but an online community.
  • Using rituals to start and end each session. For example, begin class each day with the same stock opening phrase (e.g., “Good morning scholars!”) and end class crisply with a ritual closing phrase, such as “And so ends the lesson,” or “How time flies.”
  • Highlighting descriptive norms to make the amount of conformity to the preferred standards salient to students. For example, after a class discussion, explicitly state to the class if the level of participation met your standard for good engagement. When teaching online, let students know about base rates for engaging with class material, such as the number of questions and comments posted to a forum. Saying such things as “I’ve noticed very few people are streaming the online lectures” will reduce rather than encourage that behavior.
  • Nipping undesirable emergent norms in the bud. For example, never tolerate the “there are only 5 minutes left so I’m going to get ready to leave” habit. If students get noisy, stop class, remind them you are aware of the time remaining and that you will end class on time, but that you must have their attention during the class’s final minutes so you can complete the day’s teaching.

For other ideas about using principles derived from group dynamics in education, see Forsyth (2016).

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