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Helena Osana

Education Professor Helena Osana

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Elysia Pitt

Education Professor Helena Osana is beginning to find out what makes working together such a tough task for graduate students.

Collaborative learning, also known as group learning, is an area that has received a lot of attention from educational researchers. Over a number of years, studies with school-age children and undergraduates have shown that working together is usually beneficial.

However, “group work hasn’t been studied much at the graduate level,” said Osana, who has worked in the Department of Education at Concordia for the past two years.

Along with her student, Toby Bennett, Osana looked at graduate students’ perceptions of cooperative learning. They conducted in-depth interviews with 14 students enrolled in the College of Education at the University of Missouri.

Their research indicated that contrary to the experience of other students, group work seems to foster conflict at the graduate level.

According to Osana, many factors contributed to this difference. In addition to having less time available to them than other students, a specific kind of leader emerged during group interactions that added to group conflict.

“There was a ‘conceptual leader’ who wanted to have control and ownership, but at the same time felt that everyone should have the opportunity to contribute.” This was the major point of conflict for graduate group projects.

Another frustrating point for most students was the actual structure of the task they were expected to perform. Without guidance from the instructor, most students chose to use a labour-saving strategy where the project was divided so that each student became an expert on a particular area.

“Students rarely had the time, and were rarely encouraged by the professor, to integrate what they’d learned,” Osana said. Little opportunity to make connections was another reason graduate students said they felt dissatisfied.

Proper guidance of graduate group activities is key to successful group work. Unfortunately, Osana found that few students felt the professor was actually a part of the group dynamic.

“In most cases, the professor saw himself or herself as the resource. But in terms of helping the students form their ideas and guide their interactions, that was absent.

“There is a perception that group work will magically happen among graduate students,” she continued. But while grad students tend to have more skills and knowledge than other students, the material they are expected to master becomes more involved. They need help structuring and facilitating group work for the activity to be effective.

Osana referred to a jigsaw approach as a possible alternative to a labour-saving strategy. Each student would learn his or her part well and would then be expected to teach it to the rest of the group. In this way, a jigsaw approach would allow group members to learn the whole project better. This could be extended to the entire class; small groups could take the responsibility for teaching the entire class about a specific topic.

In addition, Osana argued the professors should make themselves more a part of the group, and should allocate more class time to group activities.

“Students really wanted to learn from the professor, but they wanted more demonstration of expertise,” Osana said. She felt that if proper steps were taken, group study could work well even at the graduate level.

While the students interviewed by Osana and Bennett had varying negative experiences with collaborative learning, most said that they would use group work in their own teaching, either at the K-12 or undergraduate level. They felt that their experience with group dynamics would make them better facilitators in the future.

Osana’s and Bennett’s research on graduate students is being revised for publication, but Osana doesn’t plan to stop there. “I am going to go beyond this perception-based research into what kind of instruction will work at the graduate level.”

She hopes find out just what can be done to make learning more effective for graduate students.