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Have You Considered Putting Some Weight Into Your Buzz Groups?

Effective teaching in higher education is not a random occurrence. Successful educators invest their time and energy differently than others before walking into a classroom. In her book, Brilliance by Design, Dr. Vicki Halsey encourages educators to spend less time on what they will teach and more time on creating activities that promote deeper learning. She suggests that “the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.” So how do we get more of the students talking? One technique for encouraging student engagement is Buzz Groups, as described by Dr. Elizabeth Barkley, author of Collaborative Learning Techniques. The students are divided into small groups, and the small groups discuss a specific topic. While I have found this technique useful, I wanted more earnest participation from the entire class. What I developed is something called Weighted Buzz Groups.

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The Oxford Living Dictionary defines peer pressure as “influence from members of one’s peer group.” Weight is added to the Buzz Group by introducing peer pressure while still maintaining a safe classroom environment. Weighted Buzz Groups can be applied in a variety of classroom situations but I’ll describe them from the context of my typical Flipped Classroom experience. Students are told during the first synchronous class that they will be participating in group discussions in all subsequent synchronous classes. Afterward, several asynchronous activities occur such as pre-recorded lectures, podcasts, discussion boards, reading articles, etc. From that point forward, the assumption is that students are coming to synchronous classes prepared for discussion.

The Weighted Buzz Group format opens with a single topic. Students are informed that they have 3-minutes to discuss what they have learned with students near them. They are also informed that one of their names will then be randomly pulled from a stack of 3×5 cards to share their thoughts with the class. There is usually a fleeting moment of total silence, and then the classroom bursts into a dynamic stage of peer-to-peer teaching. A card is pulled and the student is asked to briefly discuss the topic. Whether they are correct or not, the student is validated for their effort and follow-up questions ensue with answers taken from student volunteers. The Weighted Buzz Group for that particular topic closes with a brief teacher summary and an opportunity for student questions. The cycle is then repeated for another subject. Here are examples from typical student course evaluations:

“I love how he called on us in class to answer questions with his flash cards. Everyone was always prepared and it made class challenging and exciting.”

“Lectures are turned into question/answer periods and peer-to-peer teaching opportunities.”

“His stash of index cards makes my heart rate go up, but is VERY beneficial for learning retention!”

As Christian educators, we are reminded about the importance of respect in Matthew 7:12. The art of educational science requires maintaining a safe classroom environment by showing students respect while also pushing towards deeper understanding. If you are looking for more “noise” in your classroom, consider putting some “weight” into your buzz groups.

Additional Resources

  1. Halsey V. Brilliance By Design: Creating Learning Experiences That Connect, Inspire, and Engage. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Oakland, CA. 2011.
  2. Barkley E. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. Jossey-Bass. Hoboken, NJ. 2009.
  3. Johnson EG. North American Seventh-day Adventist Educators: Have You Considered Flipping Your Classroom? April 12, 2017.

Eric Johnson

Eric G. Johnson, DSc, PT, MS-HPEd, NCS, is a Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions. He was the 2014 recipient of the Loma Linda University Kinzer-Rice Award for Excellence in University Teaching.

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